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Westminster Hall

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2023

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 12 December 2023

[Dame Maria Miller in the Chair]

Auditory Verbal Therapy

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of auditory verbal therapy.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairwomanship, Dame Maria. There are about 50,000 deaf children in the UK, with over 7,000 under the age of five. They face the prospect of lower academic achievement and lower employment and are at a high risk of poor mental health, bullying and social exclusion. But it does not have to be this way: when deaf children and their families have access to early, effective support, opportunities are transformed.

Expanding opportunities for children with special educational needs, including deaf children, so that they can reach their full potential is really important to them, their families and us as legislators. Early support should be available to all deaf children, whether their parents choose to communicate with spoken language, sign language or both.

Auditory verbal therapy is an early-intervention strategy rather than a communication approach in itself. It is a family-centred coaching programme that equips parents and care-givers with the tools to support the development of their child’s listening and speaking. The robust, evidence-based specialist therapy supports deaf children to process the sound they get from their hearing technology, such as cochlear implants and hearing aids, and to develop language so that they can learn to talk like their hearing friends.

Deaf children in the UK currently face a lifetime of disadvantage without access to early and effective support. Less than 10% of deaf children who could benefit from auditory verbal therapy can currently access it. Auditory verbal therapy is delivered by speech and language therapists, audiologists and teachers of the deaf who have undertaken around three years of additional training and have qualified to become internationally accredited listening and spoken language specialists. It is usually delivered in a child’s first three and a half years, when the brain’s connections for processing sound are developing fastest. The National Deaf Children’s Society notes:

“Professionals who promote AVT believe that by working intensively with children in their early years they will require much less support as they get older.”

Specifically, it notes:

“Its aim is to ensure that deaf children develop age-appropriate language by the time they start school.”

Although the UK has one of the best newborn hearing screening programmes in the world and state-of-the-art hearing technology is available to babies and young people on the NHS, deaf children are not reaching their full potential, and we are not maximising the investment being made in screening and technology.

At present, more than 92% of deaf children under the age of five in the UK are unable to access an auditory verbal programme, because there is little to no provision through publicly funded services and there are only 30 auditory verbal therapists in the UK. There are just over 460 deaf children living in East Sussex. There are no auditory verbal therapists in Hastings and Rye or in East Sussex. Other developed countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Denmark, already provide state funding for auditory verbal therapy, and the UK should strive to match that investment.

About 80% of children who attend an auditory verbal programme for at least two years achieve the same level of spoken language as their hearing peers, rising to 97% of children without additional needs. Most of these children attend mainstream schools and attain educational outcomes on a par with those of hearing children. Auditory verbal therapy is part of the Early Intervention Foundation guidebook.

To increase access to specialist support, we need to train more specialist practitioners in the auditory verbal approach. For an investment of just over £2 million a year over the next decade, we can transform the landscape of auditory verbal provision. Economic analysis has shown that training a small proportion of the current public sector workforce in order to embed 300 auditory verbal therapists across the UK can deliver £150 million of economic benefit, rising to £11.7 billion in the next 50 years, through improved quality of life, employment prospects, the lower cost of schooling, and avoided injuries. Furthermore, analysis from the charity Auditory Verbal UK, based on His Majesty’s Treasury models, shows that within 50 years the NHS would save £30.5 million through the avoidance of injury alone.

I have met amazing deaf children and young people who are brimming with confidence and self-esteem, and we have some sitting here with us today. Quite by chance, I have Noli here with me, who is doing a day’s work experience with me. I met her at the auditory verbal therapy event in Parliament. She is studying at Durham University and has huge confidence and self-esteem. Many young deaf people far exceed the expectations associated with their disability—although, to them, being deaf is not a disability, because of the early intervention they have received. Every deaf child deserves that.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dame Maria. I will give the view from Scotland, which is probably what most people in the room expect me to do, because the NHS in Scotland is different. However, before I start, I thank the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for securing this important debate, and the charity AV UK for its briefing.

The Scottish Government want to make Scotland the best place to grow up for deaf children and those who have hearing loss, based on their “Getting it right for every child”—GIRFEC—approach. The Scottish Government fund the Scottish Sensory Centre and CALL Scotland to provide advice and training to school staff on support, including the use of assistive technology, for children and young people with specific communication and sensory needs. In fact, there is a unit attached to a primary school in my constituency.

As we know, auditory verbal therapy supports deaf children to learn how to make sense of the sound they receive through their hearing technology, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants, so that they can learn to talk like their hearing friends and family. It is an intensive programme of therapy that focuses on the development of active listening, or auditory, skills and speaking, or verbal, skills. This highly specialist early-intervention family-centred coaching programme equips parents and care-givers with the tools needed to support the development of a deaf child’s spoken language.

The charity Auditory Verbal UK has done good work in Shetland. There are only two AV specialists in Scotland, and I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye talked about the dearth of specialists across the UK and about how little it would cost to improve the numbers and the training in particular specialisms. One would hope that Scotland would get the Barnett consequentials for that.

On the point about the lack of individuals who are skilled up to deal with this issue, which the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) also made, does the hon. Lady agree that today’s debate might play a small part in ensuring that various Departments, wherever they are in the UK, will skill up the necessary personnel so that we do not face this problem in five or 10 years’ time?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, because the issue is really important. We are discovering new ways of helping deaf children. We need not just to have the technology but to train the people to help deaf children.

In general, concerns have been raised that young children’s language development has been affected by the public health measures implemented to prevent and control the spread of covid-19. Again, we have a backlog of things that need to be done.

Developing channels for better communication is vital for a child or young person’s development and wellbeing. Speech and language therapy generally supports children and young people with communication needs, as those needs may interfere with everyday life. Treatment approaches aim to enable children, young people and their carers to maximise their skills. In Scotland, NHS health boards and local authorities are responsible for the provision of, and funding for, services for deaf children. That includes the provision of specific therapeutic approaches.

The Scottish Government are, as ever, committed to improving the services, support and care available to people with any kind of sensory deprivation. Their long-term strategy, See Hear, commits to ensuring that children, young people and adults have the same access as everyone else to opportunities and public services, including health, social care, education and leisure.

In 2019, the first UK-wide allied health professions public health strategic framework, which went from 2019 to 2024, was published by all four nations. It was intended to help AHPs and partners further develop their role in public health. As the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye said, we need money to make things better, and we need more investment by all Governments, including the UK Government, to make this approach work.

In the Scottish Government’s Scottish allied health professions public health strategic framework implementation plan for 2022 to 2027, several examples show AHPs in action and provide examples of good practice in Scotland. One case study highlights the speech and language therapy at NHS Forth Valley as

“a transformational approach for children and young people”.

The Scottish Government’s shared vision is that children and young people in Forth Valley will demonstrate improved outcomes through access to a speech and language therapy service

“that is based on relationships”—

again, we are talking about people—and that

“is accessible, person centred, outcome focused, integrated and delivers quality universal, targeted and individualised support.”

Again, it is important that we up the number of specialists so that those with cochlear implants, for example, learn to hear and speak very early on.

There is also the Scottish Sensory Centre, which is for

“everyone who is involved in the education of deaf children, deafblind children and visually impaired children and young people, the young people themselves”

and importantly, their families. Its mission is

“to foster educational, research and development activities relating to children and young people with a sensory impairment in Scotland.”

It also aims to support the Scottish Government

“by embracing the values and principles of ‘Getting it Right for Every Child’ and by promoting a positive ethos that reflects the components of a Curriculum for Excellence.”

That is a different way of giving cross-subject education to young people, and it works extremely well in primary schools in Scotland.

CALL Scotland is a support service to help children and young people across Scotland

“to overcome disability and barriers to learning”,

and it is funded primarily by the Scottish Government. CALL Scotland’s service includes pupil assessment support, professional learning, specialist information and expert advice, assistive technology loans and technical support, and strategic leadership. It is intended for managers, teachers and everyone who works with, in this case, deaf children.

“Getting it right for every child” is the national approach in Scotland, and it is about supporting all children. However, it would be especially useful if we could encourage more auditory and verbal specialists to come to Scotland and promote the good work that society already does there.

It is important that there is additional support not only within but outwith education, so that there is a whole-child approach and not just action in schools. Education authorities can speak to other agencies, and they work closely with NHS boards and social work services in Scotland to help deaf children. That multi-agency support is an excellent model.

I fully support the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye in her appeal, and I hope that the debate focuses minds in Governments across the UK on this problem.

Thank you for stepping into the breach this morning, Dame Maria. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for securing the important debate, and I pay tribute to AV UK for its work on supporting deaf children, children with hearing loss, and some of the families here today, who have had such a positive experience of auditory verbal therapy.

As the hon. Member said, auditory verbal therapy is an evidence-based approach, and I am grateful to her for setting out the evidence base for its effectiveness. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for setting out some of the detail of how the system for supporting deaf children and children with hearing loss works in Scotland.

There are an estimated 50,000 deaf children in the UK, with around 7,200 under the age of five. Given the right support and intervention, many deaf children can participate fully and thrive in mainstream schools, whether they choose to use spoken language, sign language or both. There is a particular responsibility to get our special educational needs and disabilities system of support right, especially by designing interventions to support children who need not suffer any other disadvantage in the education system if the support they need is provided appropriately from the start.

Unfortunately, as today’s debate has shown, that is not the case in many parts of the country. Research by the Education Policy Institute found a staggering attainment gap between deaf children and their peers. That gap already equates to 8.8 months of learning by key stage 1, and it grows throughout school to 17.5 months at the age of 16—almost a year and half of education. That translates into an average grade for GCSE English and maths that is 1.3 grades below the average grade for deaf children’s peers. Deaf children are also more likely to experience poor mental health, bullying and social exclusion, all posing further barriers to their education and personal development. Alongside each child are the parents and carers who all too often have to fight constantly for the support their child needs.

Although the number of deaf children in education has risen by more than 10,000 since 2011, the number of qualified teachers of the deaf in employment has fallen by 19%, according to the Consortium for Research into Deaf Education. Specialist teachers for the deaf and specialist teaching assistants perform vital work to help their students access education. I witnessed that on a recent visit to Jubilee Primary School in Lambeth, just outside my constituency, which benefits from a full-time teacher of the deaf. However, teachers of the deaf are facing ever-growing case loads, reducing the time they can spend with each individual child.

Labour wants to see a properly inclusive system that meets the needs of all children and young people, including deaf children and children with hearing loss. We have been clear that we would put inclusion at the heart of our education system, with a focus on providing the interventions that are needed earlier and on ensuring that school staff have the specialist skills they need to meet every child’s needs. It is also vital that families get the support they need as early as possible, before their children start school, to help them communicate with their children and to develop their children’s language and communication skills.

Help that is provided early in a child’s life can be transformative, avoiding the need for much greater support later, and helping more children to thrive in mainstream education. Across the country, guidance and support for parents varies greatly between local authorities. We know that deaf children in more disadvantaged areas experience a greater attainment gap than their peers elsewhere in the country. There is a wealth of low-cost interventions already being delivered in some parts of the country to give parents and families the skills they need to support their child’s development and communicate with them. This needs to happen everywhere. These include courses in British Sign Language offered by the National Deaf Children’s Society, and Auditory Verbal UK’s approach to developing spoken language through listening.

I know there are families and young people in the Gallery today who have really benefited from auditory verbal support. Labour wants to see the right support for every child, and it is important that we learn from evidence and best practice, and understand what is working for families in areas of the country that manage to achieve the very best outcomes. We are looking carefully at this, and we are looking at the wider framework of SEND support from early years throughout education, involving early intervention, especially with communication, speech and language skills. We are also looking at the skills available to professionals working in mainstream education and at how the Ofsted assessment framework for schools can be used to drive improved inclusivity across our system. Within a transformed framework for SEND support, we will look to ensure that evidence-based interventions are available wherever they are needed.

I want to use this opportunity to press the Minister on the wider issue of how the Government plan to improve inclusion in mainstream schools, as set out in the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan. As I have set out, the Opposition share the ambition to improve inclusion in the mainstream, but the Government have not set out a clear plan to achieve it. There is no workforce plan or strategy to ensure that schools have the specialist staff needed, including teachers of the deaf, while much of the plan will not come into effect until 2026, leaving families waiting three years longer before they will see any reform. It will be helpful to know what the Minister is doing now to address the vacancy gap for teachers of the deaf.

The Labour party is clear that in government we would put children first and at the heart of our programme, and break down the barriers that hold far too many back from thriving in education and building strong relationships, including deaf children. We would be working with professionals, children and families to deliver a SEND system that works to support the needs of every child.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Maria. I start by congratulating my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing the debate on this important topic. I reassure her and all Members today that the Government are committed to improving outcomes and experiences for all children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, including children with hearing loss.

As I am sure colleagues are aware, figures from the National Deaf Children’s Society show that there are more than 50,000 deaf children and young people across the UK. Between one and two babies in every thousand are born with permanent hearing loss in one or both ears, and we know that early and effective support is crucial for these children and their families. My hon. Friend pointed out how important it is that help and support is there as soon as possible. She also pointed out that, without intervention, children with speech and language needs are at higher risk of facing longer-term challenges, including in education. It is vital that we intervene at birth, which is why we are investing in hearing screening for newborns to identify babies who have permanent hearing loss as early as possible, so that we can intervene as quickly as possible.

We know that language is linked to social, emotional and learning outcomes. From birth through to childhood, children and young people with hearing loss might need a range of therapy, such as speech, language and auditory verbal therapies. As we have heard today, however, those children are not always receiving the help they need. It is important that we start by pointing out that the commissioning of many of these services, including the provision of therapies for children with hearing loss, happens at the local level. This now sits with our 42 integrated care boards, which means that the responsibility for meeting the needs of a local community of non-hearing children lies with local NHS commissioners.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has issued guidance on the topic of cochlear implants for children and adults with severe to profound deafness. When it comes to commissioning and providing services for children with hearing loss, we have been crystal clear with those ICBs and NHS trusts that they must take those relevant guidelines into account. As yet, however, there are no NICE guidelines on hearing loss for children in general, and until now NICE had not made any specific recommendations on auditory verbal therapy.

I am pleased that NHS England has met with Auditory Verbal UK this year and discussed the need for more high-level research evidence, for the intervention and for evaluations of impact to be developed. NICE will not make recommendations without that evidence base, and getting that information absolutely must be the priority now, so that decisions and recommendations can be made. It is right that Auditory Verbal UK was invited to join the chief scientific officer’s audiology stakeholder group; I am sure it will have a lasting impact on the decisions being made. I am very happy to work with my hon. Friend and Auditory Verbal UK to ensure that progress is happening.

The Government will continue to prioritise investment into the NHS, and we have seen record levels in cash terms, rising to £165 billion in the coming year. We are using that money to support ICBs to make informed decision about the provision of hearing loss services, so that they can provide consistent high-quality integrated care to children with hearing loss. In 2016, NHS England published “Commissioning Services for People with Hearing Loss: A framework for clinical commissioning groups”, which also supports NHS commissioners to address inequalities in access and outcomes between hearing services.

With input from the National Deaf Children’s Society, NHS England produced a guide for commissioners and providers who support children and young people with hearing loss. That guide provides practical advice on ensuring that children with hearing loss receive the necessary support. More recently in May, the NHS service specification for cochlear implant services for adults and children recognised AVTs as part of multidisciplinary teams’ decision-making processes, enabling them to provide rehabilitation services alongside a range of healthcare professionals providing other services.

I fully recognise my hon. Friend’s point that we are not where we want to be in improving access to therapies for children with hearing loss. The limiting factor, as she pointed out, is the number of therapists working in the NHS—the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), also raised that issue in Scotland. We are increasing the numbers and have seen a 17% increase in speech and language therapists since 2018.

That is also why we are undertaking the biggest nursing, midwifery and allied health professional recruitment drive in decades with our long-term workforce plan, which includes the recruitment of speech and language therapists. AHP training places will increase by 13% to 17,000 in the next five years, with an 8% increase just next year, and by 25% to over 18,800 in the next 10 years. I am very happy to speak to the Minister responsible for the long-term workforce plan to particularly focus on the AVT element of that. Recruiting speech and language therapists is important, but I have clearly heard the point in this debate about the added training required to ensure that more therapists are available across England.

As committed to in the SEND implementation plan, we are exploring options to commission research to understand the health needs of children and young people through the National Institute for Health and Care Research. As I said previously, without NICE recommendations and the evidence base to inform those recommendations, we will not make progress as quickly as we would like. We are therefore working to improve access to speech and language therapy through service innovations.

We are including Early Language and Support for Every Child projects in our £70 million change programme, in partnership with NHS England. That programme is funding innovative workforce models to identify and support children and young people with speech, language and communication needs at an early stage. That will reduce exacerbation of need that might lead to a referral for specialist speech and language therapy or for an education, health and care plan. I welcome the work of Auditory Verbal UK on its plans to upskill health professionals to deliver AVT. Whether that is through speech and language therapists or upskilling other healthcare professionals, I am very keen to hear about its work and to see what more we can do to get those skills in place to help children and young people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye spoke powerfully about the importance of early identification and intervention for children with hearing loss. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), touched on schools in particular. She will know that teachers of deaf children have to hold the mandatory qualification in sensory impairment. There are currently six providers of that, and a seventh will come on stream next year. I am working closely with the Minister for children, and I will absolutely take her points to him to make sure there is a joined-up approach. This issue is not just about health, but about education—it is a cross-Government issue. We are committed to joining up the dots and working together to get children help and support wherever they need it, whether in healthcare or in school.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye and I share the same ICB. I recommend that all local MPs lobby their ICBs on the importance of commissioning these services. I recognise that we have to do more nationally to train practitioners who teach AVT, but we need local commissioners to commission those services and upskill their own local workforce. I have heard that message very powerfully and look forward to working with my hon. Friend and all Members across the House to deliver for children with hearing problems in the months ahead.

I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for her contribution from the Scottish perspective. She highlighted a whole-child approach both inside and outside education. We need to get it right for all children to help them thrive. Given the right support and intervention, we can do so. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for her positive comments on the need for early intervention for deaf children and their families and for a joined-up approach across Government. That is very helpful.

I thank the Minister for her understanding of the issue and of the need for early intervention. Will she meet with Auditory Verbal UK to help to support the organisation in ensuring that the right evidence is provided to the NHS, so that the NICE guidelines can reflect the need for early intervention at both national and ICB levels? Regarding auditory verbal therapists in the NHS for the long-term workforce plan, it is very clear that we have to think ahead. Getting things in place now is really important.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the provision of auditory verbal therapy.

Sitting suspended.

Middlewick Ranges

[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]

I will call Will Quince to move the motion, and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of Middlewick Ranges.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. This is my first debate since rejoining the Back Benches, which I hope demonstrates how serious this issue is to me personally and to my constituents. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for responding; I have a huge amount of time and respect for him, and I know he will take seriously the points I make.

I have been consistently outspoken about the future of Middlewick Ranges throughout my time as the Member of Parliament for Colchester. I have consistently raised the future of the site with ministerial colleagues in writing, orally in the House and in various meetings since the site was designated for disposal. The Minister will be aware that it was announced in April 2017 that the Ministry of Defence had earmarked the Middlewick Ranges site for sale, because it wanted, for operational reasons, to consolidate on one site in Colchester. Despite Colchester being home to a large garrison, I do understand the rationale and I do not challenge the validity of the argument to invest in one range in the area—Fingringhoe. That is arguably more suited, given the security and exclusion zone requirements for live firing.

As a former reservist addressing a serving reservist, I am conscious of the importance of having ranges available for reserve forces— the Territorial Army, for instance. Will the removal of this range restrict the ability of reserve forces to train and to gain the experience they need?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point, and it does concern me. However, I am not overly concerned, having looked into the detail with those at the garrison. The MOD intends to invest significantly in the Fingringhoe ranges site but, to the hon. Gentleman’s point, I gently suggest to the Minister that, given the size of the garrison and the relatively small capital receipt that could theoretically be achieved, based on a developer being willing to take the site on, it would be prudent at the very least to mothball the ranges or to use them as an alternative training area for reservists or regulars, in case they are needed in future.

After the site was earmarked for sale, Colchester Borough Council, now Colchester City Council, designated it for 1,000 homes and in 2022 it was included in Colchester’s local plan. That was rushed through, despite considerable opposition and the compelling scientific and ecological evidence presented. Last month, the site was released for sale on the open market, which is why I called the debate today. I have raised my significant concern in writing with the Secretary of State for Defence. Although the response from the Minister for Defence Procurement was helpful, in that it clarified the Department’s position on the ecology and the size of the parcel of land for sale, it was none the less disappointing.

By way of background, Middlewick farm was first purchased by the Government in 1857, to be used as a training area and rifle range. For centuries, the Wick has been enjoyed and used by residents of Colchester for walking and leisure. It is a vital green lung for suburban Colchester and it is adjacent to the Roman river valley site of special scientific interest. The site was designated as a wildlife site in the 1990s and was redesignated in 2015.

I hope the Minister knows me well enough, as a near constituency neighbour, to know that I am not a nimby. Colchester has been a high-growth urban centre for decades. I completely understand and get the need for housing, and particularly affordable homes and homes for social rent. It is important to note that Colchester City Council consistently and regularly exceeds its annual housing targets. However, the impact of such a large housing development has to be considered. The infrastructure of any area will inevitably be tested, and my constituents are understandably and rightly worried about the impact this development would have on their access to medical care and schooling and on the local road network.

Rapid growth in the northern part of Colchester has been supported by land set aside for future rapid transit routes, whereas the Middlewick development would almost certainly be car-dependent. Any active travel or rapid transit routes into the centre of Colchester would involve retrofit infrastructure, with its inevitable compromises. The site is, effectively, landlocked by well-established 1950s urban sprawl. Any movement to the centre of Colchester, or even west to the A12, will not be possible by rapid transit or active travel, by nature of the site being, effectively, infill.

The Minister will certainly be aware that Colchester is one of the largest garrisons in the country and is proudly home of 16 Air Assault Brigade, the UK’s rapid reaction force. Should Middlewick be retained, I have no doubt that it could and would be used as a training area. Although I understand the argument for rationalising the estate and consolidating on to one range to serve the garrison, it seems short-sighted for the Ministry of Defence to sell a prime parcel of land that has been a training area for almost 200 years and that serves an established garrison that is likely to grow further.

Important as all of the above is, I want to spend the rest of my speech focusing on one critical argument against the sale and development. Ecologists have told me that developing the site would go down as one of the worst cases of eco-vandalism that our country has ever seen. Middlewick is a site of huge ecological significance. It is one of the few remaining areas in England that contains rare acid grassland, which is a UK biodiversity action plan habitat. The Essex Wildlife Trust has previously stated:

“Middlewick Ranges is one of the most important and valuable Local Wildlife Sites in the Colchester borough. It is exceptionally valuable for its areas of acid grassland habitat and diverse invertebrate populations, which include a substantial number of rare and threatened species.”

I hear colleagues say various things when they oppose developments, but let me be absolutely clear: over 1,400 invertebrate species rely on the site, including 167 with conservation status. That includes red list species such as the necklace ground beetle, the fastest declining beetle in the UK. In terms of invertebrates, the site is one of the most valuable in the country. This rare acid grassland has up to 25 plant species per square metre, and the habitat has in part been developed because of the site’s use as ranges and because the public have not had access with dogs, vehicles and other things.

I want to quote Stephen Falk, an experienced entomologist and ecologist. He is one of Britain’s leading experts on pollinators and their identification, ecology conservation and management. It is a long quote, but a valuable one:

“I am astonished and disturbed by the claims that high quality acid grassland can be recreated on unsuitable soils elsewhere simply by adding Sulphur. I would suggest there is a basic misunderstanding of what acid grassland actually is! It is not ‘acidic’ grassland, or ‘acidified’ grassland (i.e. any grassland treated with acid to produce a lower pH). Acid grassland is a complex ecological ‘community’ of plants, insects and fungal communities, often of great antiquity. It is a grassland that often features a long historic continuity of key microhabitats (such as bare, sandy ground and boggy ground) and unusual plant assemblages. The invisible soil profiles of acid grassland (hidden from the eye but formed over many centuries if not millennia by rainwater leaching) cannot be recreated by simply adding Sulphur. But those rare and precious soil profiles (mostly now lost by modern farming practices or development) are the vital foundation for all that lives above. To suggest that simply adding Sulphur can recreate an ancient soil profile, an ancient seed bank, or ancient (and isolated) plant, invertebrate and fungal communities, is one of the most controversial claims I’ve encountered during my many years working in nature conservation. It should be treated with the utmost suspicion”.

I stress that rare acid grassland has never been recreated anywhere else. The idea that it can be is based on one study, based on arable sandy land. In the opinion of experts, it is practically impossible, and any theory that it can be done is based on bad science. I am told that the concept of replacing irreplaceable habitats that are hundreds of years old, such as this, is deeply flawed.

Let us be clear what the proposed sale and development actually means. It means replacing the rare acid grassland on adjacent or alternative land. That means taking the current rich, tall grassland, ploughing it up and adding sulphur in what will be one of the UK’s biggest ever science experiments—an experiment that, I need not remind the House and the Minister, is at the expense of a priority habitat and that is displacing 1,400-plus invertebrate species, 167 of which have conservation status. We are fooling ourselves if we think that, once this grassland is built on, it will ever be recreated. This will mean a huge loss to the ecology of not just my constituency but the entire country.

Hon. Members should not just take my word for it. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds carried out a study at its Minsmere reserve in Suffolk, which was a strict habitat creation project with a conservation objective to create suitable habitat from farmland of low biodiversity value for breeding. This is where it gets interesting. That single case study has been used in the ecological evidence base report by Stantec to justify the compensation or mitigation proposals for the Middlewick Ranges site, but the RSPB feels so strongly that this work is not theoretically possible that it recently wrote to Colchester City Council to advise that it does not wish its work at Minsmere to be used in any way to legitimise or justify the destruction of the rare acid grassland or heathland—both priority habitats—at Middlewick. The RSPB says that it is not comparable or analogous and that it does not consider that any mitigation or compensation could be suitably bespoke, deliverable or effective.

The Minister will know that the Government recognise the importance of biodiversity and have published guidance on how to comply with biodiversity duties. The guidance states that public authorities in England must consider what they can do to conserve and enhance biodiversity. The Minister’s Department has the opportunity to put a stop to this, and I hope I have gone some way to making that case.

I want to send a clear message to the following people, who I hope are also listening. To the leadership of Colchester City Council, I say this. The local plan is currently being reviewed, with a call for sites. That is an opportunity to correct the mistake that has been made and to remove Middlewick Ranges from the local plan. If that cannot be done now, the council can signal its intention to do it when the plan is reviewed, which I understand must be done no later than early 2026. The council has the power to stop this act of eco-vandalism.

To any developers that are considering making an offer for the site, I want to be absolutely clear that, should they obtain planning permission, my constituents and I will hold them to account, and indeed the Ministry of Defence, to ensure that they deliver against all—every single one—of the ecological and financial conditions placed on them, no ifs, no buts.

To come back to the Minister, I am not one to make an ask without positive, practical alternative suggestions. He can retain the land as an MOD training area or mothball the site for future use by an expanding garrison. He can explore the potential for biodiversity credits. He can look into partnerships with local authorities to deliver a country park with revenue-raising potential. Building on the Wick is not something that my constituents or I ever want to see, and it is not too late to save this beautiful Army training area and ecological system. I strongly urge my friend the Minister to listen and act.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. It is a particular pleasure to respond to my near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince). I congratulate him on not only calling this debate, but particularly, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, on commissioning out from Sandhurst as a captain in the Adjutant General’s Corps. That is a great achievement for a sitting, serving MP, and one who works so hard.

Let me also add a personal note, as my hon. Friend is standing down. No one knows what the future holds for any of us, but I was elected alongside him, and he has been the best of the best in this place. He was a brilliant Minister. I had the criminal Bar strikes as a Justice Minister, and I know how hard things were for him as a Health Minister. However, he has worked particularly hard as a constituency MP, and he has shown that again today. Above all, has always had compassion at the core of everything he has done. He is a credit to his constituents, and I wish him well, whatever happens.

Turning to the subject of today’s debate, my hon. Friend rightly said that Colchester has a long and proud military history. The town is the home of some of the most highly trained, high-readiness forces in the world. Our premier airborne forces have launched from Essex to respond to some of the most hostile environments in the world, all in the name of protecting our national security and upholding our commitments around the world.

We are here to discuss my hon. Friend’s valid concerns about the disposal of Middlewick Ranges, with a rebalancing of the defence estate to more modern and efficient facilities at Fingringhoe that will help to keep the forces in the east of England at their very best and most lethal and ready to defend our nation at a moment’s notice. We have proudly run ranges from the site for many years, but it no longer offers us the optimum environment for our training needs. We have, however, been committed to seeing the site released to support local need, and have therefore worked with the local authority since 2016, as my hon. Friend correctly pointed out.

First, it is important to stress that the Ministry of Defence’s reason for selling the site, in the simplest terms, is that it has become surplus to the requirements of a modern armed force. At a time when families across the nation are feeling the pinch, it is right that each Government Department looks at all its outgoings and ensures that, where we are spending large amounts of public money, we are delivering services in the most cost-efficient way. Bringing Middlewick Ranges up to a usable standard would require significant amounts of public money when we have similar and more efficient facilities literally down the road.

Value for money for the taxpayer and ordinary families across the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester is at the core of this decision. The enhanced facilities at Fingringhoe will offer modern, electronically operated targets that provide better training for our armed forces. They can also offer training for an additional 20,000 troops a year above what is currently available in the Colchester area. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just departed, but I was about to address the point about mothballing and the hon. Member’s concern about the use of the site by the reserves. To be clear, we believe that we are more than supporting effective training in the area by using this new site.

The key point is that the world is becoming increasingly volatile. If we are asking our armed forces to respond to global crises, it is right that we, as the MOD, invest in their skills and the facilities we use to train them. Our service personnel make huge sacrifices to serve King and country, and it is our duty to make sure they are adequately prepared to respond to the most demanding circumstances. That is why these new facilities are part of a £5.1 billion investment in a more modern, green and sustainable defence estate that can meet the demands of our ever-busier armed forces.

It is commendable that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester made positive alternative suggestions. From a practical perspective, we have found that the site is becoming difficult and increasingly impractical to use due to its proximity to residential properties and public footpaths. Incursions have been occurring and became a risk to those operating the ranges. There were simply too many people from the local community walking across live firing exercises—so much so that we were unable to conduct training safely. With no firing at the range since 2021, it would take a significant amount of public funds to make the perimeter safe for the people of Colchester and for our armed forces training there. My hon. Friend said the site should be mothballed and it is, in effect, currently mothballed.

That all being said, I recognise my hon. Friend’s concerns around any new development that could be proposed following the sale of this land. New housing causes great consternation to communities up and down the country, and particularly where it impacts on our beautiful habitat—I know that as an MP for a rural constituency near my hon. Friend’s. Equally, however, there will be people in my hon. Friend’s constituency who cannot afford to get on the housing ladder, and I am sure that is true in your constituency too, Sir Charles.

The release of this land can also be seen as a great opportunity for the local community, who can develop it to meet their needs and, at the same time, encourage the local authority to place suitable protections on any environmental considerations. My hon. Friend says that he is not a nimby, and I put on record that he absolutely is not. Colchester has seen huge growth, but the reality is that new housing has to be allocated somewhere.

I remind my hon. Friend that it is, of course, not the MOD that will decide the future use of the site. That decision is for the local authority, its planning department, the future owner, and the local community as part of any public consultation process that forms part of any ultimate planning process. Such a process will consider and balance the need for housing with the requirement to deliver biodiversity net gain measures that protect and enhance the fascinating ecology of the site.

Of course, in looking at those concerns, the local authority will also have to consider the transport issues my hon. Friend referred to, which are always a consideration with new developments. We have the same issues in my constituency of South Suffolk; where new developments are proposed, there are concerns about pressure on roads and so on. However, that is fundamentally for the local authority to consider.

My hon. Friend is rightly concerned and speaks passionately about the lowland acid grassland found at the site. That is precisely why the MOD has invested significant funds on ecology studies over a three-year period to inform our understanding before the disposal of the site and to inform the MOD concept plan on how the site could be developed sympathetically. The concept plan, or master plan—to give it the real name for those familiar with the matter—recommended that more than 63% of the allocated land for development is kept as green space, while the disposal area includes another 44 hectares of green open space for recreational use and ecological enrichment. The plan also suggested leaving the most ecologically valuable habitats untouched and advocated avoiding and protecting the woodland at Birch Brook. That is just one way any potential new development could be approached, and the future owner and the local authority will no doubt have other, equally exciting ideas that will bring new opportunities and enrichment to the area. However, there is one thing I know for certain: my hon. Friend, as a brilliant constituency MP, will hold them to account on that, as he clearly stated.

The Ministry of Defence is, and always has been, committed to seeing this land used in a way that benefits the local community and environment, and we make that clear to potential future bidders for the site as part of tours of the site and the marketing literature we have released. While we are, of course, not able to impose those conditions, we are doing our best to make them clear to the local authority and any interested bidders looking at the marketing materials for the site.

My hon. Friend’s commitment to the site, and indeed to his whole constituency, has been abundantly evident today, and I applaud him for raising this matter. I fully appreciate his need to ensure that the area is developed in a way that protects the site’s ecological value and, at the same time, benefits the community in a meaningful and sustainable way, such as in relation to transport and other matters. I hope that I have been able to set out the main drivers behind the MOD’s decision to sell the site, which are the public interest at a time of economic challenge, when public finances are under intense scrutiny, and the need to support our military requirements. It is vital that we can train our armed forces to the very best of our ability, so that they can protect and defend our national security. [Interruption.]

Sitting suspended.

Arms Export Licences: Israel

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered arms export licences for sales to Israel.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am pleased to have secured this timely debate and grateful to the House authorities for granting it. More than 18,000 Palestinians, including more than 7,000 children, have been killed. More than 80% of the population—1.8 million people—has been displaced. Almost 100 journalists have been killed—the highest number in any global conflict in more than 30 years. More than 100 UN aid workers have been killed— more than in any conflict in UN history. This weekend, the UN warned that half the population of Gaza is facing starvation. Behind those horrifying statistics are real people with names, hopes, dreams, families and friendships that are just as real as yours or mine, Sir Christopher.

I start this debate by talking about Nour, a 17-year-old student from a town just south of Gaza City who wanted to be a doctor when she left school. In a page recovered from her diary, Nour spoke of her hope to make her family proud. Nour was killed when an Israeli airstrike hit her home on 11 October. I will also talk about 26-year-old Safaa and her baby girl Elyana, who were killed in their sleep when an Israeli fighter jet bombed their house in the southern city of Rafah. Then, there is Reem, whose lifeless body was cradled by her grandfather after her family home in al-Nuseirat refugee camp was hit by a strike. Her grandfather Khaled stroked her hair and kissed her goodbye for the last time, pinning her earring to his jacket as a badge to remember her by. He said,

“She was the soul of my soul”.

The horror is so extreme that it would be impossible to talk about all the people who have been indiscriminately killed. Just listing the names of all those who have been killed, let alone telling their stories, would take nearly 20 hours. I say that because I want to remind colleagues and the whole House of the shared humanity of those being slaughtered in Gaza today. I say it because, whether we like it or not, this place is deeply complicit in the atrocities we see being inflicted on the Palestinian people. Not only do the British Government provide vital diplomatic support for Israel, most recently joining the US as the lone voices refusing to call for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council—a move the US shamefully vetoed—but we supply the Israeli military with hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of arms.

Actually, the true figure is shrouded in secrecy. Under open export licences, arms companies can export an unlimited quantity of specified equipment with no further monitoring and no tracking of their total value.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and she is absolutely right to ask why the UK abstained in the vote at the United Nations. She makes the point that we can never find out what arms exports have left this country and gone to Israel. Is it not time we had transparency in the arms trade?

Absolutely, and I will go on to talk about the Bill I have presented to the House. This is what the debate is about: getting the Government to commit to ending these arms licences so that we are not complicit in war crimes.

We do track closed export licences, through which we know that the Government have handed arms licences to the Israeli Government worth £474 million since 2015.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this powerful debate. She mentioned that the UK Government have closed export licences with Israel. The criteria outlining who can receive arms export licences from the Government include strong wording in relation to violence against women and girls. Does my hon. Friend agree we need to ensure that any arms exported from this country are not used to facilitate unlawful military action?

We have a licensing regime, but there are loopholes that are often exploited, which is what we are seeking to address.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and she rightly highlights the humanitarian nightmare people in Gaza face. Does she agree that it is an absolute duty on our Government, as it is on other Governments, that where arms or components used in arms are used in violation of international law and to commit war crimes, there must be an immediate suspension of exports and a review?

Absolutely—I completely agree with that intervention.

Just to go back a little, we know that we have issued arms licences to the Israeli military worth £474 million since 2015. Included in those licences are parts for F-35 fighter jets—stealth aircraft that are currently unleashing hell on Gaza.

According to US arms company Lockheed Martin, which is the lead contractor for these jets, they are:

“ the most lethal...fighter jets in the world.”

Some 15% of the parts for these aircraft are made in British factories, including the Brighton factory that makes the weapon-release system on the jet, allowing it to unleash deadly airstrikes on the people below. We must ask whether it was a British-made release system that sent death screaming on to Safaa and her baby girl in Rafah? Was Nour robbed of her dream of becoming a doctor because a British-made weapon launched an airstrike on her home? And were British-made arms involved in robbing Khaled of his beautiful grand-daughter? The answer is that we do not know, although there is no doubt that British-made arms have been used in the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza. Despite hollow protestations by Ministers, there is also no doubt that Israel has committed clear violations of international law, as the UN Secretary-General, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have said.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate and for allowing us the opportunity to call for a halt to arms sales to Israel. Like many of us in the House, she will be alarmed at the stance of the UK Government, who say they believe Israel should adhere to international law and yet take no action and make no statement when the evidence mounts that Israel is not doing so. Does she agree that halting arms sales until it can be proven that these arms are not being used as part of war crimes would be a practical step that the Government could take and would increase their credibility when they mouth pious words about international law?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. British credibility has been damaged, especially by the vote at the UN Security Council. If we are to show true leadership—moral leadership—that is an important step, which I hope the Government will take.

I thank the hon. Lady for her powerful and important speech. I also want to put on the record the name of Professor Refaat Alareer, who was a colleague of my constituent Professor Alison Phipps. He was her Gazan link in her work with refugees from Gaza. Sadly, he lost his life in an airstrike.

The problem is that the UK is continuing to supply weapons to Israel. We have talked about breaches of international law, and the UK becomes complicit in those breaches of international law, which puts us in a difficult position.

Absolutely. To be true partners calling for peace, we cannot be arming one side of the conflict; we need to secure a political settlement to the crisis.

We are often told by Ministers, and no doubt this Minister will make the point later, that we have one of the toughest arms export control regimes in the world, yet we hardly ever see evidence of how these tough rules are applied in practice. Does that leave the hon. Lady suspecting, as it leaves me suspecting, that this regime really is not what it is cracked up to be?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Later I will touch on how we halted arms sales to Israel when David Cameron led the Government. So it has happened in the past, and the fact that we are not seeing action now makes us question things.

Many hands are going up—I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy)

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this extremely important debate. She has touched on the arms sales, which have continued over a number of years, and on the fact that the UK has continued to supply arms to Israel, which I believe makes us complicit in the occupation of the west bank and the use of arms to suppress people there. She said she was going to talk about the precedents we have had for suspending arms sales where it is clear that there are concerns about their benefiting human rights violations. Does my hon. Friend agree that this could be very much like the time the UK had an embargo on the sale of arms to Israel from 1982 to 1984, following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Yes, I agree. In the past, we have shown that we can take leadership, and I mentioned the example of when David Cameron stopped arms sales, although we resumed them afterwards. On this occasion, we can see that clear violations of international law are taking place, and we cannot continue arms sales.

I will make a bit of progress. What makes the Government’s refusal to suspend arms sales even more horrifying is that Israeli officials have been quite open about their intent in Gaza. At the beginning of the assault, an Israeli military spokesperson said that “the emphasis” of bombing was on

“damage and not on accuracy”.

Another official promised to turn Gaza into a “city of tents”, while the former head of the Israeli National Security Council said that the aim was to make Gaza

“a place where no human being can exist.”

The National Security Minister said that the only thing that should enter Gaza is

“not a gram of humanitarian aid”


“hundreds of tons of explosives”.

More recently, an Israeli Minister said that the war would be “Gaza’s Nakba”, which is a reference to the 1948 catastrophe in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes and never allowed to return. Given that stated intent, and actions to match it, UN experts have warned of a “genocide in the making”. Let us be clear: if this is a genocide in the making, British-made weapons are almost certainly part of making that genocide happen.

None of that is to deny or downplay Hamas’s appalling attack on 7 October, when 1,200 people—the majority civilians—were killed. I condemn that attack once again, as I have done repeatedly in the Chamber, and call again for the release of all hostages. As I have also said before, echoing the words of the UN Secretary-General, those crimes do not excuse what we have witnessed since.

Unlike those awful crimes, Israel’s assault on Gaza has been carried out with the Government’s unequivocal support and with British-made weapons. Disgracefully, selling arms for war crimes is not new for British Governments. Following Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014, which human rights organisations said violated international law, the Conservative-led coalition Government undertook an investigation into arms sales to Israel, finding that those arms could have been used by the Israeli military in Gaza. That resulted in the Government committing to suspend sales if Israel resumed its military assault.

I thank the hon. Lady for her powerful speech, which is setting out the scale of this emergency. She is correct to say that, almost two years ago, a UK Minister said that UK export controls

“help ensure that controlled items are not used…in…serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

Does she agree that the consolidated list is meaningless if arms continue to be exported to Israel in this context?

Absolutely. Those are hollow words if there is no action.

Following the 2008 to 2009 Gaza war, the Labour Government admitted that British-made arms had been used by Israel, prompting the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, to apologise and to affirm that Israeli misuse of equipment would inform future licence applications.

The truth is that the current criteria for export licences should be enough to stop their sale. Under both UK and international law, the Government are required to prevent the transfer of military equipment to a state if there is a clear or overriding risk that it could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international law. That is what criteria 1 and 2 of the strategic export licensing criteria say. If those criteria were consistently applied, there would be a de facto arms embargo on Israel, since this military equipment is used to uphold Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories, including the infrastructure of the illegal west bank settlements—illegal, of course, under international law and according to UK policy—and in the transfer of prisoners from occupied territory into Israel, which the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has noted as being a violation of the Geneva convention.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing the debate. She said that we do not know about the arms sales, and indeed we do not, but somebody does. Should we not be able to expect more of companies in the UK, and that they will not be like immoral drug dealers on the corner, selling to whoever, whenever, regardless of the consequences? The executives of those companies know and the companies themselves know. Should they not show us all exactly what they are doing? We expect companies that live among us in the UK not to be funding or aiding and abetting death in Gaza, as is happening at the moment.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

Amnesty International says the

“arms licensing system is not fit for purpose in assessing risk, is riddled with loopholes and is in…need of root-and-branch reform.”

That is why I introduced a Bill this week that would allow us to launch an inquiry into the use of arms sold to foreign states and to suspend arms to any state that might use them in violation of international law.

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent speech and for all she is doing on this important issue. I associate my remarks with the personal approach she has taken, because I have a constituent whose partner is being bombed as he tries to evacuate from south Gaza. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to arm sales to Israel, we should think about arm sales to the US, Saudi Arabia and many other countries, and ensure that we tighten the licensing arrangements for arms manufacturers to those countries?

Thank you, Sir Christopher. Since being elected, I have raised the issue of arms licences for regimes such as Saudi Arabia, which used British-made weapons in Yemen, so I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Bill I presented would suspend sales to not just Israel but the likes of Saudi Arabia, whose war in Yemen led to the death of thousands of people with, again, clear and well-documented violations of international law. In another example of shameful disregard for human rights, that war was also facilitated by our Government and is therefore linked to this debate. Export licences to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the war have been worth a staggering £6.8 million, which is why I have repeatedly called for the House to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Is she aware that only two weeks ago in the House the Secretary of State for Defence claimed that arms sales to Israel in the past year were less than £50 million? The figures she has given suggest that he had misinformed himself before he made that statement. Does she have a credible figure for how much is sold to Israel, as well as for the value of Elbit Systems sales and how many of those sales are made internally within Elbit Systems back to Israel itself?

As I mentioned, a lot is shrouded in secrecy. We do have the figure of £474 million, but we believe that the figure is much higher. There needs to be true transparency, especially with the arms sales coming from the Government.

Ending this bloody exchange is one of the steps the Government must take to end their complicity in the massacre in Gaza. Even as countries across the globe, and figures from the Pope to the President of France, call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, the Government still refuse to heed that call, ignoring the 76% of the British public who back it. Beyond the immediate need to end the bloodshed, Britain has an historical responsibility to push for a just and lasting peace, having been the mandatory power in Palestine during the 1948 Nakba. As we witness a new and even more terrible Nakba, Britain must honour that duty by demanding an immediate ceasefire and ending arm sales today, and by insisting on ending the illegal occupation and on a free Palestine tomorrow.

Israel’s war on Gaza is not the first time British-made weapons have been used for war crimes, but it must be the last. I conclude with these questions to the Minister. Given the overwhelming evidence that Israel has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, what assessment have the Government made of Israel’s conformity with international law? Have they made any assessment of it? If they have not, will they commit to immediately making that assessment? Given the overwhelming evidence that Israel has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, what assessment have the Government made of Israel’s actions in the light of our export licensing criteria? Again, have they made any assessment of that? If they have not, will they assess whether Israel’s actions are consistent with our licensing criteria as they stand? Finally, will the Government uphold our export licensing rules, international law and basic principles of humanity by immediately suspending arms sales to Israel? I look forward to the Minister’s reply and thank everybody who has joined us for the debate.

It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for bringing the debate to this Chamber.

Hamas’s barbaric 7 October attack on Israel featured unspeakable acts of brutality and sexual violence. The attacks left 1,200 dead and thousands injured and the bodies of many victims remain unidentifiable due to the severity of the violence. Hamas chose to break an existing ceasefire the day it launched the heinous genocidal attack. Acts of terrorism have not ceased since and more than 12,000 rockets have been launched indiscriminately at Israel since 7 October.

Israel is fighting a war that it did not want or start against an enemy that shows complete and utter disdain for its own civilian population by embedding its terrorist infrastructure in schools, hospitals and mosques. Does my hon. Friend agree that Israel has a legal right to defend itself and to remove the grave threat posed by a terrorist organisation whose stated aim is to wipe it completely from the world map?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is, of course, absolutely right: Israel does have the right to defend itself. I would argue that the biggest threat to the Palestinian people is not Israel, but Hamas. We must bear that in mind.

It is very important when anybody takes any sort of action that civilians are protected. As with all wars, there are casualties. I wish Hamas had borne that in mind when they started this and broke the ceasefire in the first place. However, with any action that is taken, I would protect civilians and ensure that there are safe routes and humanitarian pauses so that we can ensure that we save as many lives as possible and prevent this from happening. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and it is important that we minimise casualties on both sides. We encourage that and we encourage a long-standing peace.

Of course, there will be casualties on both sides, and that is something that we want to avoid, but the intention to repeat the attack again and again has been boasted of very publicly. Some 137 hostages remain cruelly within Hamas control, and the group is using them as a sickening bargaining chip. No democratic state can be expected not to act in self-defence when faced with such an existential terror threat. I applaud the UK Government for resolutely supporting Israel’s duty to its citizens to remove the threat posed by Hamas but, like everyone in this place, I hope for a just and lasting peace in the region. That is why I believe that the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, was right last week when he said:

“If we leave Hamas in charge of even a part of Gaza, there will never be a two-state solution because you can’t expect Israel to live next to a group of people that want to do October 7 all over again.”

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas. My hon. Friend the Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) asked whether those 18,000 civilians were defence. I would add, are 6,000 children defence? We now have a situation where 800 experts say that this could possibly be a genocide against the Palestinian people. How can we continue to support it, because, if we do continue to support Israel in their bombardment of Gaza, we are complicit in this genocide?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I think it is wrong to imply, as the debate appears to, that Israel alone is responsible for the current situation in Gaza. Hamas have ruthlessly controlled Gaza now for almost two decades, and have inflicted a great amount of suffering on the civilian population. They have also deliberately prioritised this genocidal terrorism with direct support from the Iranian regime. Israel did not seek this war. It hoped, wrongly, that Hamas was moderating itself and more interested in governing the Gaza strip, but that does not appear to be the case.

Israel’s stated aim in this conflict is the destruction of Hamas, and the UK and US Governments have given it a blank cheque to achieve that aim. I have not met one serious expert who believes the destruction of Hamas is possible, so how many deaths will it take before the UK Government closes their cheque book to Israel?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman that a blank cheque has been provided. If we look at the comments of the Foreign Secretary and the former Foreign Secretary, we know we have spoken with our international partners and are very keen to see that two-state solution, and that means working with Palestinians as well. As I said, the biggest enemy of the Palestinian people is Hamas; we want to work together to finish this conflict as soon as possible and move on.

The hon. Gentleman says that Hamas is the biggest threat to Israel, but will he not acknowledge that Hezbollah, located to the north of Israel with up to 130,000 rockets, is probably more of a threat? Will he also acknowledge that we have to look at the bigger geopolitics? This is a proxy war being fought with Hamas as one combatant, and many civilians as the poor, unfortunate victims of this war.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point; he is absolutely correct on the Hezbollah situation. This conflict involves several different sides—I mentioned Iranian involvement—and there are a number of people who simply do not want peace in the region as it is not in their interests, whether that involves funding groups such as Hezbollah or such as Hamas. Israel was looking at a deal on relations with Saudi Arabia, so the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the geopolitics are also important; we must not look at Israel and Gaza purely in isolation. I thank him for making that excellent point. I agree with him and we need to continue to focus on that.

The approach to Hamas has proved misguided and so far it has shown the world the true brutal face of the organisation. I believe that calls for an arms embargo against our democratic ally are deeply wrong, and all the more so in the absence of clear calls for Hamas—the instigator and belligerent in this situation—to surrender unconditionally.

The Minister will be aware that the UK has long benefited from the Israeli military’s technology. Every day it protects the lives of many British soldiers. For example, we have Israeli-made battlefield medical technology, techniques for dealing with suicide bombers, and technology to counter remotely detonated terrorist bombs. Those assets have all been used by the British Army to save lives.

Israeli drone technology such as the Watchkeeper WK45 has also been used by British forces in Afghanistan for intelligence collection, and the Sky Sabre missile defence system now protects the Falkland Islands—this uses the technology behind Israel’s Iron Dome system. It is worth noting that the Iron Dome has saved the lives of countless Israelis in recent weeks and has also played a major role in preventing the conflict from spiralling further, which of course we also want to do.

The 2030 road map signed by the UK and Israel is very welcome. It highlights further bilateral defence co-operation that will save the lives of British servicepeople for many years to come. Put simply, an arms embargo would jeopardise that invaluable co-operation. It is also worth noting at the outset that the UK already operates—as has been mentioned—the world’s most robust export licence controls. That is underpinned through strategic export license criteria that uphold the UK’s obligations under international law. It is worth bearing in mind that the UK’s defence exports to Israel are relatively small—just £42 million last year I believe—and many of its component parts are not used by Israeli forces in Gaza.

Calls for an arms embargo on Israel are part of the wider boycott campaign that the UK Government have resolutely rejected. It is harmful and divisive, and must be given no truck. I call on the Minister to restate that commitment today.

Lots of people want to speak, so I will be as brief as possible. I want to ask a number of questions, but I will just say as a preface that when someone has been in this House long enough and sat through the discussions about the various wars taking place, they get an understanding of the nature of war and of war crimes legislation. Whatever Hamas did, whatever people think, it was a war crime, and we have condemned that absolutely, but we created legislation globally after the second world war to determine how states could legally react to war crimes like that. Article 8 of the Rome statute, which set up the International Criminal Court, specifically designated war crimes: first, the use of weapons that were indiscriminate in their impact—that is, that affected civilians—and, secondly, the denial of the basic resources to survive, for civilian populations in particular. That is food, water and heat. The third element of war crimes under article 8 was the forced displacement of people from their homelands. I am afraid that whatever people think about what is happening in Gaza at the moment, what we are seeing are war crimes, according to the Rome statute; that is the case by any definition, but certainly on those three points. That is how we guide our reaction to activities by any state, whether it is Israel, Saudi or whoever, and, in guiding our behaviour, we have to recognise that if we in any way aid or provide support to a state acting in that way, we become complicit in those war crimes. That is the reality of where we are at the moment. I feel for the reputation of our country in the future because of the current behaviour of our Government.

A letter was written from a number of key organisations, and I want to raise the questions in it. It was written by Asad Rehman, chief executive of War on Want; Katie Fallon, director of advocacy at the Campaign Against Arms Trade; Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International UK; and Yasmine Ahmed, UK director of Human Rights Watch. I want to raise some of the questions that they have asked. Has the Minister seen the letter? First, it calls for an immediate suspension of the extant licences and new export licences for Israel given the clear risk, in their view, that the component parts that are being transferred from the UK

“might be used to facilitate or commit…violations of international law”.

That includes actions that they believe are tantamount to war crimes. The question from those organisations is this: will the Government now suspend those licences?

Secondly, do the Government know whether British weapons or military equipment are being used in Gaza or not? We have heard from one Back Bencher that they are. The letter notes that in the past the UK admitted that it had supplied equipment and that that had been used by the Israel Defence Forces during hostilities in Gaza in 2009. Lord Cameron, as he now is, then introduced a procedure to suspend the operation, and there was a complete review of what was happening with the weapons that we had supplied. I think the minimum that we should be asking for now is for the Government to undertake a Lord Cameron-type review to see exactly how what we have supplied is being used and whether it is being used in Gaza, because if it is, I am afraid we become complicit in the war crime.

Another question that the organisations have asked is just what monitoring is taking place by the Government—what mechanism is in place that effectively to monitor what is going on? The further question that is asked is this: on what basis do the Government consider that there is no clear risk that arms licensed to Israel will be used in prohibited conduct as identified, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) said, in the strategic export licensing criteria. This goes back to the fact that the Government have warned in the past that if any of these weapons are used in this way, they will suspend the licence overall. Again, have the Government even taken that into consideration?

One question that we have asked consistently as the provision of £474 million of exports to Israel have gone on is whether the Government applied the restrictions that we had called for to prevent their use in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or against Palestinians. At least there are instances in which we could accept that we have been providing sufficient support to Israel to defend itself from external attack, but to allow these weapons to be used in the occupied territories means that they will be used against Palestinians or, indeed, some of the Palestinians who are Israeli citizens as well.

My final question is to ask the Government whether there have been any shipments of spare parts from the UK to Israel of UK-supplied components for Israeli F-16 and/or F-35 aircraft. As has been said, those are the aircraft that have been used in the indiscriminate bombing of Palestinians in Gaza and have caused such civilian loss of life.

Does my right hon. Friend think an additional question might be what is carried in the RAF planes that are leaving RAF Akrotiri and apparently flying directly to Israel?

That is why I am asking the question: the key components of those planes could be being used in the bombing of Gaza and the huge loss of life.

I reiterate what others have said: I find it difficult to participate in these debates without becoming extremely angry or emotional on all sides—both because I want the release of the hostages and because 7,000 children have now died. That cannot be right, and I believe it is a war crime. Anything that we are doing to give aid or comfort in this direction will ensure that we will be condemned in the future.

Finally, a number of us met Yachad today. We met with heroes and heroines from Palestine, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. They are trying to campaign for peace. As part of their heroic campaign, one of their clear demands is for a ceasefire, so that we can release the hostages and at least plan for the future in peace.

Before I call the next speaker, I must tell hon. Members that the wind-ups will start at 3.30 pm. That means that the demand exceeds the supply, and I will impose a three-minute time limit. I call Apsana Begum.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for securing the debate and for everything she does, and is doing, in the pursuit of justice and human rights.

As my hon. Friend laid out, not only is Israel a major recipient of UK weapons, but UK weapons manufacturers are seeing enormous increases in stock prices. For example, BAE Systems’ stock increased by 11.7% just between 7 and 24 October. In addition to the value of official UK arms exports to Israel, commentators have noted a number of other forms of less public UK military assistance, which include broader trade that exploits the incorporation guidelines loophole.

Why is that significant? As has been mentioned, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 18,825 Palestinians have been killed since the outbreak in October. In fact, we know that the real number is much higher. To put that into perspective, Ukraine and Sudan are both widely understood by the international community to have unacceptable levels of civilian deaths, and the levels of slaughter have rightly been condemned as horrendous and horrific. On 21 November this year, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said in a press release that, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022:

“At least 10,000 civilians, including more than 560 children, have been killed”.

The United Nations also reports that more than 10,400 people have been killed in Sudan since April 2023. I repeat that those are disgracefully high levels of civilian deaths and should be condemned outright. I also repeat that, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 18,825 Palestinians have been killed since the outbreak in October—around 20,000 in around two months, and the vast majority are not combatants.

Israel is increasingly using its acceptable collateral damage threshold in such a way that hundreds of civilian casualties are acceptable to eliminate a single target. That is one of the simplest ways to explain the fact that the death toll includes such frightening numbers of children. In the words of the United Nations Secretary-General, Gaza is “graveyard for children”—what a terrible, terrible thing. Within weeks of the outbreak, Save the Children highlighted that the number of children killed in Gaza has surpassed the annual number of children killed across the world’s conflict zones since 2019. As we know, there are widespread concerns that war crimes, crimes against humanity and breaches of international law are continuing to take place.

My hon. Friend is making an exceptional speech. Given the humanitarian catastrophe—as we have highlighted, over 18,000 people have died, including thousands of children—does she agree that if the UK is found to be arming Israel and not ceasing to do so, it would be complicit in this war crime?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are bearing witness to this unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. It is there before us, so we have a right to know how many Palestinians were slaughtered using UK-made weapons; how many children were dispatched using UK-traded armaments; how many women have been slain by ammunition from the UK; how many schools, hospitals and refugee camps have been annihilated with the help of UK engineering; and how much profit is being made from death, destruction and war crimes. What is the Government’s price tag for humanity?

We are told that the UK’s arms export system is based on the principle of avoiding a clear risk of British weapons being used to commit serious violations of international law—

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I want to talk about parliamentary scrutiny of these arms transfers to Israel because the current system is lacking. There is a good attendance today and it is excellent that lots of right hon. and hon. Members wanted to come to this debate but, frankly, we do not debate arms transfers very often. One reason for that is that we assume that Select Committees are all over this, but that is not the case.

My contribution is shaped by having worked at the University of Oxford, immediately before being elected last year, on export controls and preventing Oxford research from falling into the hands of adversaries. As well as being shaped by that and constituents’ opinions, my view is also shaped by having been bombarded by Iranian rockets. The difference between my personal experience and that of many Gazans at this time is that I had sufficient protection afforded to me by a counter-rocket system, not dissimilar to the iron dome. That is clearly not the case right now with the air and artillery attacks going on in Gaza today.

Liberal Democrat policy in this area is quite straightforward. We believe that arms exports should not take place to countries designated human rights priority countries by the FCDO. In 2021, the FCDO named Israel as one of those countries, but in the 2022 report on human rights and democracy, Israel slipped from the list and appeared instead under the Occupied Palestinian Territories entry in the register. None the less, I am of the opinion that, as a state named in that list in 2022, Israel should not be in receipt of UK arms.

Briefly, the Committees on Arms Export Controls are made up of members of four Select Committees—International Trade, Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Development—but they have not met since March. That is outrageous, and we need to do something about it.

I am pleased to say that Committee Chairs—three Conservative, one SNP and one Labour—wrote to the Leader of the House to say that the system cannot continue, and that we need a Standing Committee to examine arms transfers, including to places such as Israel. In her response, the Leader of the House said, essentially, that there is no requirement for that, but I am certain that it is required; otherwise, we will continue to find ourselves in situations where the Government are caught out for transferring arms to a country that is clearly in breach of human rights.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for securing this important debate.

A number of my constituents have written asking me to speak in this debate and to use my influence to stop UK arms and military equipment being exported to Israel, as they may be used to facilitate or commit serious violations of international law, including war crimes.

Although the temporary pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas was welcome, it is now over. Fighting and killing have resumed and innocent Palestinians have been targeted the most, with brutality, bloodshed and war crimes. That is utterly condemnable and in clear violation of international humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both reported on Israel’s breaches and war crimes. The International Criminal Court has echoed their concerns about the disregard for human life and the rule of law. More than 21,000 Palestinians have been killed—40% of them children. Some 1.9 million people have been forcibly displaced—more than half of the population. The conflict is having a disproportionate effect on children and babies, and there is now a threat of starvation. We have to call that out now.

I am very concerned about our complicity in these horrors. I have already joined the calls for the supply of arms to the Israeli Government to be suspended, given that serious violations amounting to crimes under international law are being committed. The suspension should come urgently because we do not want our weapons to be used against innocent Palestinians any more.

I also repeat my calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire by all parties to end this unprecedented civilian suffering, alongside the immediate release of all civilians and hostages.

This week we marked the 75th anniversary of the UN’s universal declaration of human rights. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that we are speaking about the need to champion human rights while sending the very arms that are violating the human rights of millions of Palestinians?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I agree with him. I will finish on this point. A ceasefire is the only way to prevent deepening the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in Gaza and give the space and time needed for us all to work towards a real, fair and enduring peace in the region.

I thank the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for raising this topic. It is right and proper that we scrutinise our licensing procedures in line with our international obligations. We have a strong product in arms sales. Thales, on the border of my constituency, with a strong Strangford workforce, is world renowned for its tremendous products. Its input into the local economy cannot be emphasised enough. With a 30-year heritage and world class engineering, Thales employs 500 people and contributes £77 million to Northern Ireland’s GDP. There is also an ecosystem of suppliers, and 91% of our local procurement in Northern Ireland is with small and medium-sized enterprises. That is the background for the arms sales and the importance of it, which the Minister understands.

Belfast has developed into a centre of excellence for Thales’s air defence and surface attack solutions. Thales has made a real difference in the war in Ukraine, and its product has been mentioned positively in this House as a tool for Ukraine to beat back the Russian invasion. The sale of the products has been essential to the war effort in Ukraine.

Israel was attacked on 7 October and its war against terror is ongoing. It is my belief that it is operating under international law and as such our arms sales can and should continue. The hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) asked a question and a Government Minister responded:

“The UK Government takes its defence export responsibilities extremely seriously and operates some of the most robust export controls in the world. All applications for export licences are assessed on a case-by-case basis against strict criteria…The UK Government continues to monitor closely the situation in Israel and the OPTs and if extant licences are found to be no longer consistent with the criteria, those licences will be revoked.”

On 30 November 2023, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade said:

“Since the barbaric terrorist acts by Hamas against Israel on 7 October and the subsequent conflict in the region, the Government have been monitoring the situation very closely. The UK supports Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and take action against terrorism, provided that that is within the bounds of international humanitarian law. Export licences are kept under careful and continual review as standard, and we are able to amend licences or refuse new licence applications if they are inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2023; Vol. 741, c. 1049.]

The Government clearly set the course.

I support the Government in that view. I know the benefit of arms deals to my local economy, I see the benefit of the product in the war in Ukraine, and I stand with Israel while they legally fight the war on terrorism within the realms of international law.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for securing this important debate and for her powerful opening speech.

I will start by paying tribute to my constituents who have been calling for a peaceful settlement in Gaza. More than 2,000 of them have contacted me since the war began, and many of them are families who have been out in support of those suffering in Palestine. Sadly, I believe that the UK Government are instead complicit in the mass slaughter in Gaza, as well as the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the west bank. The Government are aware that MPs have raised concerns about arms exports before and during the current conflict. Only on 30 November 2023, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade said in response:

“Export licences are kept under careful and continual review as standard, and we are able to amend licences or refuse new licence applications if they are inconsistent with the strategic export licensing criteria.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2023; Vol. 741, c. 1049.]

To my understanding, if there is a risk that arms exports may be used in internal repression or breaches of international law, or the arms may threaten regional peace and security, those licences can be revoked. It is quite clear that those benchmarks have been met.

The Secretary of State has it within her power to instruct the export control joint unit, which is responsible for processing licence applications. For clarity, that unit sits within the Department for Business and Trade, and it draws expertise from the FCDO and the Ministry of Defence to look at clear breaches. Why is that not being acted upon?

Only this week, Omer Bartov, an Israeli-born historian and professor of holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, warned that

“Israel now has been conducting a war for weeks and weeks in which it has killed thousands and thousands of Palestinians. It has moved them to a very small part of the Gaza Strip. It has destroyed their property and not even made a commitment to allow them to return.”

That has been done with the support of the US and UK supplies.

We need a peaceful solution. We need the Government to stop being complicit in the murder and the movement of people away from their homes into a space where there is no humanitarian hope, no space for them to live, and they are dying. The numbers have been quoted, and loads of children have died. We need to stand up and be critical of the UK Government’s friendship with Israel, and point out where they are clearly in breach of international law.

I endorse everything that the mover, the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), very eloquently said. Equally, in the limited time left, I want to comment on the issues raised by others around complicity. That can be direct or indirect, and the mover, as I say, very eloquently dealt with the direct. The indirect has obviously been touched upon by the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). If we are facilitating the supply of weaponry to Israel by the Americans flying out of RAF Akrotiri, that is simply unacceptable and we are complicit. Not only do the Republic of Cyprus Government have a right to know what is happening at a sovereign UK airbase—so do the citizens of the United Kingdom. We need to know that there is no complicity there.

Secondly—I am conscious of time and others coming in—we have, according to a parliamentary question, been giving military aid to Israel, but it has been restricted to medical supplies. Now, that on its own sounds very grand: we have only given medical supplies since 7 October. However, that does not mean vaccinations for children or hip replacements for the elderly. It can only be described as medical aid for combat trauma. The equipment that is itemised in parliamentary answer 5416 is not going into an Israeli sitcom-version of “M*A*S*H”. It is not for something funny. It is being used by Israeli soldiers who are killed or injured in the Gaza strip.

I wish no one ill—not an Israeli soldier, nor indeed a Palestinian civilian—but we should not be supplying equipment that can only be described as for combat. That, by the broadest sense of the imagination, cannot be described as humanitarian aid. It is aid to the Israeli military; it is aid to comfort their soldiers. They require comfort, but they should not be doing this and we should not be supplying it.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for securing this debate. The Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq, alongside the Global Legal Action Network, has recently applied for a judicial review of the Government’s export licences for the sale of British weapons to Israel. According to those organisations, since 2015 the value of British arms exports to Israel, as part of the standard licence grants, stands at around £474 million, with 58 open licences for the arms trade with Israel.

Existing criteria for assessing the suitability of arms exports states that where there is a clear risk that any weapon may be used in violation of international humanitarian law, no licence should be granted. It is abundantly clear to me and many others—hundreds of thousands of people across the UK—that there is more than a clear risk that Israel is using the weapons provided by the UK to commit atrocious crimes against the Palestinian people. Many people in this country and around the world suggest, and I agree, that it is both clear and certain that Israel is using weapons to commit war crimes against Palestinian civilians, and that the UK, in providing such weapons, is complicit.

It should bring shame on us all that our Government, in providing arms, have been complicit in such horrendous acts of violence and cruelty. Therefore I am here to echo the demands of my constituents that Israel should receive no weapons or arms of any kind from the UK Government, and that the Government should act to stop the conflict and work to restart the peace process now.

No, I will not—many other Members are still waiting to speak. Could the sale of arms be a condition from Israel for the UK Government abstaining at the Security Council? Could the sale of arms be a condition from Israel for this Government not recognising Palestine as a state? Could the sale of arms be a condition from Israel for not demanding a ceasefire? Can the Minister explain?

The Israeli Government’s assault on Gaza has endured for over two months, and there is no end in sight. The atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October were truly horrifying, and I know that I speak for every Member of this House when I say that such appalling acts cannot be justified, but they do not give the Israeli military licence to indiscriminately kill Palestinian civilians in retaliation. The IDF admits that civilians constitute two thirds of its victims, but the real proportion is likely to be much higher, given that around 70% of those killed are women and children.

Gaza has become a graveyard of children and parents, infants and elderly people, doctors, journalists and poets—thousands upon thousands of innocent people who simply wanted to get on with their lives in peace.

My hon. Friend has quite rightly focused on the horrific situation in Gaza, like many other Members. However, when I visited the west bank earlier this year, the rate of murders, violent attacks and intimidation by illegal settlers was already on the rise, with the IDF too often either refusing to intervene or even protecting the attackers. Since the heinous attack on 7 October by Hamas, the death toll has reached intolerable levels in Gaza and the west bank. Labour Members are very clear that arms export licences should be granted only where there is no risk that they could be used in contravention of international law. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that Ministers—

I completely agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. It is not only bombs causing death and despair in the strip: nine in 10 people in northern Gaza have gone a full day and night without eating; doctors are heroically battling to save lives with no anaesthetics, antiseptics or even clean water for their patients. The World Health Organisation has warned that untreated diseases caused by the siege and the resulting collapse of healthcare could claim even more lives than airstrikes.

This humanitarian catastrophe is not a result of some natural disaster, but the intended consequence of the actions of the Israeli authorities—actions that our Government still cannot bring themselves to condemn. Not only that: while Israeli Ministers call openly for a second Nakba, our Government continue to license arms sales to the Israeli Government.

Last night, I was honoured to host in Parliament representatives of Standing Together, a movement of Israeli Jews and Palestinians united for peace, justice and human rights. One of its organisers, Uri Weltmann, wanted to send this message to our Prime Minister: standing with the Israeli people is not the same as standing with this violent, hard-right Israeli Government. Bombing hospitals and starving children will not bring peace to Israel and Palestine. We must immediately suspend the sales of arms to the IDF and end the UK’s complicity with the Israeli Government’s war crimes. I called for that in 2021, when Gaza was once again under attack, and it is even more urgent now.

We must demand an immediate ceasefire, the unconditional release of hostages and for the siege to be lifted. We must push for a proper peace process, working towards a just, lasting solution that protects the safety, rights and self-determination of the people of both nations.

Order. I am afraid that we cannot take any more Back-Bench speeches, so I call Martin Docherty-Hughes, please, to wind up.

Thank you, Sir Christopher; it is good to see you.

Let me be clear: the barbarous attacks on 7 October have no justification whatsoever, and Hamas are a terrorist organisation and a death cult. They should release all the hostages immediately before being prosecuted as the war criminals they are. Furthermore, the Scottish National party agrees wholeheartedly with the right of Israel to defend itself. That is the very basis of sovereignty and of international relations. What should not have to be said, however, is that that right to self-defence should be in accordance with international law, or even with the most basic aspects of our common humanity.

Concepts around collective punishment and the treatment of prisoners in wartime are not what those on the Government Benches might speak about on GB News as the preserve of the Islington set; rather, they have been central to the very idea of human rights and the correct prosecution of a just war for as long as those concepts have existed. It will therefore be no surprise, I hope, to hear that those of us in the SNP have no compunction about supporting the aims of today’s debate, and we thank the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for securing it

Before going on to the substantive reasons for that, I would like to briefly touch on the most underexamined aspects of this conflict: its intersection with the tedious and self-defeating debate on immigration in this political state, on which the Government seem intent on taking up more time today. We have had months of confected rage from those on the Government Benches about desperate people trying to cross the channel in flimsy boats, without really interrogating the many reasons why those people find themselves in that position.

If we consider the numbers of global conflicts that have caused instability and forced large numbers of people to flee, be they those in Syria, Afghanistan or Ukraine, and how these flows of people present opportunities for people traffickers ready to profit from human misery or indeed, on a broader level, for our geopolitical opponents to gain potential leverage by destabilising our democracies, we might expect one factor in this Government’s thinking to be how to avoid facilitating the sort of actions that set those population movements in motion.

As far as the people of Gaza actually having somewhere to go to escape the bombing, it is to Egypt and, within Egypt, to a part of the Sinai peninsula that has only recently come back under the full control of the Egyptian Government after Islamist insurrection. This is the first potential domino to fall, in a series that could see the return of the sort of instability that we saw in that country just over a decade ago. If this Government—and others, I must say, across Europe—found the prospect of 20 million Syrians on the move across the Med problematic, just wait until we see that happening with 100 million Egyptians.

Furthermore, these events do not take place in a vacuum. I would beseech both the Government and the Opposition spokespeople who follow me to take proper cognisance of the fact that our inability to ensure that our allies abide by international law in this instance will have a direct effect on how other states choose to approach their own obligations to international law in the future. We may not like the results, because we know that, while history may not always repeat itself, it certainly does rhyme.

I had not realised myself, until recently, the juxtaposition of the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The Soviet tanks poured into Budapest to—

Order. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman patiently, and I was hoping that he was going to start talking about arms exports to Israel. We have had to cut the Back-Bench speeches short because more people wanted to talk about that subject, so I would be grateful if he now concentrated on the subject at hand.

It is part of the narrative, Sir Christopher, and, as an Opposition spokesperson, I do believe that I have 10 minutes.

I am not challenging you, Sir Christopher; I am only trying to explore my own thinking on the very matter that you have asked me to come to, because I think it is critically important for the debate, which the hon. Member for Coventry South has brought today.

The reason that I mention that in relation to the Government’s decisions, in terms of the debate, is because the then Government were desperate to accrue international support for their invasion of the canal zone—which we have all seen the repercussions of—as opposed to actually supporting the people of Hungary. The difference between then and now, and this is what is important Sir Christopher, is that, I am afraid to say, unlike in 1956, there is no serious difference of opinion between the Government and the leadership of the Opposition—although that does not include some of the Opposition Members I see here today, I have to say.

Order. I will order the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat if he carries on about the Hungarian revolution. I was at school with somebody whose father served in the diplomatic service in 1956 in Budapest, and I would love to talk about that, but it is not the subject of today’s debate. I will give the hon. Gentleman one more chance.

Well, Chair, let me—sadly—move on, because clearly I am not being allowed to make the point that I wanted to make. However, I am sure that many Members can see the problems in which the Government and the leadership of the official Opposition find themselves.

Let me, sadly, bring my points to a close by reiterating my and my party’s position on these arms licences—I will be delighted to send my full speech on to any of my constituents, many hundreds of whom have emailed me about this issue, if they want to see it. Most of it will be of no surprise to anyone here today. The United Kingdom Government must do more than merely call on Israel to abide by international humanitarian law; they must be proactive in ensuring that no more innocent civilian lives are lost. The Israeli Government’s use of force has surpassed being legal and proportionate. There is a serious and pressing concern among the international community that states contributing to Israel’s military front may be complicit in the breach of international law and the death of over 15,000 innocent Palestinian civilians.

As such, Sir Christopher, we are asking the UK Government to cease extending arms licences to the state of Israel and to immediately halt the export of weapons or components, as has been mentioned, to the state of Israel, alongside our calls for an immediate ceasefire, the recognition of the Palestinian state and the support of the International Criminal Court’s investigation into potential war crimes.

But let us be clear: the United Kingdom will pay dearly for the moral equivalence that its current policy entails. While even the Labour leadership might not want to say it, we in the SNP are more than happy to remind the Government of this fact: violating international law may be a great wheeze to try and impress Daily Mail readers, but it has a habit of eating away at the state’s international reputation like acid. In this case, it is a great tragedy that the people of Gaza and others now involved in this conflict have to suffer so.

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir Christopher.

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for securing this undoubtedly important debate. Like many other Members, I have received many emails from concerned constituents about this issue. As we all recognise, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire in the extreme. Following the horrific attacks of 7 October, more than 18,000 people have been killed in Israel’s operation and nearly 2 million people have been displaced. The scale of death and destruction seen over the last two months has been intolerable and truly appalling. Like so many Members in all parts of the House, I am particularly heartbroken by the death of so many children.

I have said many times that Israel has a right to defend itself from Hamas’s attacks, but the right to defence is not an unqualified right; it is not a blank cheque. At all times, Labour has demanded that Israel act in accordance with international law. That requires acting in line with the principles of necessity, distinction, proportionality and precaution. Labour also supports the independence of the International Criminal Court and recognises the court’s jurisdiction over the conduct of all parties in Gaza. The international community can and must push for a renewed cessation of violence, and use that to make political progress towards what we all want to reach: an end to this conflict and a permanent ceasefire.

Let me turn to the specific issue of defence exports. It is important to state clearly what an incredibly important role the UK defence industry plays in our economy. Our defence industry is rightly a source of pride across many communities in Britain. It helps to grow the economy, it creates jobs and it helps to keep our country safe. Let us remember that the UK defence industry supports 133,000 jobs in the UK. Many of those jobs are well paid and highly skilled. In my view, it is vital that we retain and develop a domestic defence capability, a sovereign capability, rather than become over-reliant on others. The defence industry is vital to our national security and to equipping our armed forces and those of many of our NATO allies. It is only because of that defence that we can contribute weapons to Ukraine so that it is able to defend itself against aggression.

At the same time, however, it is essential that the defence industry is subject to a robust set of export controls, and Labour is equally clear on this point. That is the reasonable thing to do. Export controls help the UK to ensure compliance with our international obligations under the arms trade treaty, for example. They also help to retain confidence in the UK’s world-leading industry. Indeed, we believe that the arms export regime should be strengthened, with the aim of ensuring that it is transparent and fully committed to upholding international law, and I agree that the role of Parliament should be much stronger in that function.

Does the hon. Member recognise that the UK has licensed over £470 million in arms sales to Israel since 2015, and that the real number could be far higher because much of the sales volume is hidden behind open licences that allow unlimited exports that are not included in reported numbers? Indeed, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the value of defined-value arms licences since 2015 is £560 million. When he talks about transparency, does he agree that the Government need to be more transparent and clear about the extent of arms licensing?

The hon. Lady makes her point extremely well. That is why we need transparency. I cannot honestly respond to her question because I do not know; I do not think anybody knows, apart from the Government. Transparency is vital, and it is imperative that we have the scrutiny of Parliament in the future.

These rules should apply consistently and equally to all countries. Specifically with regard to Israel, I note that the Government have said that no offensive military equipment has been delivered to Israel since 7 October. They previously said that they keep relevant licences under review and will not grant an export licence because to do so would be inconsistent with strategic export licensing criteria.

As the criteria state, UK arms exports should not be allowed if there is a serious risk that those arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression. Not only is this a moral issue, but it reflects the legal requirements that the Government are obliged to follow. The criteria include—as they should—stringent requirements in relation to international law. Under the export criteria, a licence should not be granted if

“there is a clear risk that the items might be used to commit or facilitate internal repression…or… a serious violation of international humanitarian law”.

It is there in black and white. The Government have also stated that they will take account of the risk that weapons might be used to commit or facilitate serious acts of violence against women or children.

We have all seen our television screens. The concerns about Israel’s conduct in this military operation are widespread across all parts of this House. Israel has faced serious allegations from bodies including the United Nations and is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court. I believe that this raises serious questions about Israel’s compliance with the license criteria, which the Government have a duty to assess and address as part of any export process, should that be sought.

I therefore ask the Government for a guarantee that the export criteria will be applied vigorously and robustly to Israel in the light of the conduct of the conflict in Gaza. Labour supports our defence industry, but we also want it to be subject to vigorous export controls. Those should apply to Israel as they do to any other country. Those export controls must be vigorously applied, particularly in the light of the conflict in Gaza, about which all of us have such grave and profound concerns.

It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) for bringing the debate to this Chamber. I also thank other Members for their contributions. I will respond to as many of their points as I can in the time available.

It may be helpful first to outline the Government’s approach to this issue. I think we have all been deeply moved by the scenes we have seen from Israel and Gaza over the past nine weeks or so. At the same time, we must not forget how this conflict started. To do so would be a great injustice to the 1,200 victims of the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October. It was a massacre that rightly appalled the world. Barbarism, brutality and inhumanity are not words that we should use lightly but, as more detail and witness accounts of the events of that day emerge, it is increasingly clear that they are apt descriptors of Hamas’s wicked acts.

Terrorism of this magnitude must be defeated. Israel has a clear right to defend itself, while of course complying with international law. None the less, it is only right that we continue to engage with Israel to ensure that its campaign is targeted against Hamas combatants and military infrastructure. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary stand alongside the international community in calling on Israel to ensure that its actions in defence are necessary and proportionate.

The Minister will have heard hon. Members detail the horrors rained down upon Gaza in the past few weeks, but can he answer this: how many of the people who have been killed in Gaza were killed by arms supplied by Britain and how many of the tens of thousands of bombs that have rained down on Gaza were supplied by Britain or dropped from planes with parts provided by Britain? If the Minister says that he cannot answer those questions, that itself surely reveals why we need to suspend arms sales to Israel.

It is not for me as a Minister in the Department for Business and Trade to give a commentary on deaths or destruction, up-to-date figures on Gaza or those kind of things. That is rightly a matter for the Foreign Office. I think that Foreign Office questions was today, which is when the hon. Member could have availed himself of the opportunity to ask exactly those questions.

We urge all parties to ensure that aid continues to enter Gaza, to end settler violence and to work with international bodies such as the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) has asked about the number of deaths that can be linked to UK arms sales. Does the fact that there is not a Minister who can talk to this subject, which concerns four Departments, point to the fact that the Committees on Arms Export Controls are not functioning as they should?

I thank the hon. Member for that; I heard his point earlier about the Committees. Of course, the Government strongly supports good parliamentary scrutiny of our defence export systems. However, my understanding is that, since the machinery of government change back in February, it has not been possible for the Committees to meet since, I think, March. That, and the organisation of the scrutiny of the Government, is most principally a matter for Parliament. The Government stand strongly in support of the scrutiny of defence exports. We have always been supportive of there being such a regime.

I am going to make a little progress.

We heard points about the situation on the ground from the hon. Members for Coventry South, for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), and many others. The Foreign Secretary has been clear that Israel’s actions must comply with international humanitarian law and that it must take every step possible to minimise harm towards civilians.

The Minister referenced the Government repeatedly saying that Israel must conform to international law. What assessment have the Government made of Israel’s compliance and conformity with international law? Has any assessment been made? In light of Israel’s actions, which consist of crimes against humanity, and which are not consistent with our arms export criteria, what will the Government do? These things are not matching up.

Obviously we are monitoring the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories very closely and we will take any action that the Government consider appropriate as the situation develops. The hon. Lady mentioned the Export Control Joint Unit. The ECJU has in place an established process for responding, at pace, to changing conditions in a country where the UK has previously granted export licences and where those licences remain extant. That situation is under constant review. The fact remains, however, that Hamas could end this conflict today, stopping the suffering of everybody, including the Palestinian people whom it continues to endanger.

I will now explore some of the points raised in this debate in greater depth. First, it is correct that the UK’s defence businesses have a trading relationship with Israel. I welcome the official Opposition’s support for that, for our defence contractors and for our defence exports industry—the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) rightly pointed that out, and I think that was a helpful development from the current generation of Labour Front Benchers. We should, however, put that trading relationship in perspective. In fact, our military exports to Israel are relatively small, representing just 0.02% of Israel’s military imports overall. The £42 million figure, quoted by the hon. Member for Coventry South and the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), was released by the Secretary of State for Defence. We stand by that figure; it is from 114 standard individual licences, and the total, accumulated from those licences, is indeed £42 million.

As Members may be aware, a company wanting to export military or dual-use goods must apply for a licence from the Government. The applications for those licences are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the strategic export licensing criteria—a system that is among the most rigorous and transparent in the world, and which provides a thorough risk assessment—

I am going to make a bit more progress. I have a lot of points to respond to.

The right hon. Member for East Ham (Sir Stephen Timms) is no longer in his seat, but you can see that work in practice. It is a searchable database, with data being released every quarter. The UK is actually at the forefront of providing transparency in our defence export and dual-use licences. These reflect—

I am going to make some more progress.

Those reflect, among other things, the UK’s obligations under international law and the potential for the goods to be used to commit violations of international humanitarian law. The final decision on a licence lies with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, who takes advice from officials in the ECJU. The ECJU is a combined unit—it has already been referred to. It is made up of subject matter experts and officials from the Department for Business and Trade, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence. It examines every application in great detail. The process requires the examination of a range of factors, including the political and security conditions in the destination country and the nature of the equipment to be exported. The ECJU comes to its conclusion by consulting both its UK experts and those in overseas posts.

I am going to make a bit more progress to respond to some of the points that have been made.

The ECJU also takes into account reports from non-governmental organisations, the media and others.

I must point out that the Government take the principles of responsible export control, which are set out in the strategic export licensing criteria, incredibly seriously. We can, and do, respond quickly and flexibly to change our fluid international circumstances, with all licences kept under careful and continual review as a standard.

I thank the Minister for giving way. The Government set their own precedent for pausing export licences in response to reports that the criteria might have been breached. In 2019, the Foreign Secretary did that; they suspended arms exports to NATO-allied Turkey following its invasion of Syria. Why can this Government not do the same now?

The hon. Lady raises the exact point I am coming on to, which is that the system is designed so that a change in circumstances, with a proper assessment, can lead to a change in policy. She mentioned Turkey, but it has also happened in relation to Russia, Burma, Afghanistan and other countries. That is exactly why the policy is in place. We must be able to respond quickly and flexibly to changing circumstances.

My right hon. Friend makes a good point that Hamas could solve this by removing themselves from their disastrous control of Gaza. However, does he agree that if there are war crimes on any scale, arms sales should cease immediately and there should be a full and immediate ceasefire?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Of course, we have set out in the criteria for the licences what the UK Government policy and approach would be. If he has information in that regard, I am sure he will share that with the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence and us at DBT, and we would be happy to have a look at it. We take our obligations in this space exceptionally seriously. As I have shown before, we have acted to change policy in relation to changing circumstances on the ground.

I will move forward to deal with some of the points raised in the debate. I should add that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advises DBT on the situation in-country and the risks posed with respect to the UK’s export control responsibility.

No; I will respond to the points already raised.

DBT then decides whether to amend, suspend or revoke any relevant licence, or to refuse new applications for licences. The private Member’s Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Coventry South, if I have understood it correctly, seeks to do exactly that, but it can already happen. I would also say in response to the point raised by the hon. Lady that the Foreign Secretary announced the doubling of aid from £30 million to £60 million, which is a tripling overall. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) made a strong defence of Israel’s right to self-defence and our wider co-operation with Israel. He and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) asked me to restate our commitment to Israel, which I do.

The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) had some praise for Lord Cameron. We have all performed some gymnastics over the years, but it was good to hear that praise from him. I have not personally seen the letter that he referred to, but our officials in the ECJU and the relevant Ministers engage with those groups all the time. In answer to the suggestion made by him and the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin), we continue to monitor the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories very closely, and will take any action that we consider appropriate.

This is a simple request. There are specific questions in that letter from War on Want and the other agencies. Could the Minister write to us on the detail of the Government’s responses?

I am happy to find that letter and see whether there has been a response. As a matter of course, we at DBT respond to letters from non-governmental organisations. I will find out whether a response has already been sent. [Interruption.] If it is appropriate; I am not sure whether it was private correspondence. I might have to find the original letter, but I will make sure that it is responded to.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) rightly highlighted the suffering of the civilian populations in Gaza, which is of course under Hamas control. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) raised a point about re-establishing the Committees; I think I have already answered that. He claimed that there were some tough Liberal Democrat policies in this space, but when the Liberal Democrats ran this Department for five years in the coalition, I do not recall those tough policies actually being implemented.

No; I am going to finish. I have already taken an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for East Lothian asked a question about medical supplies. As I understand it, those are defibrillators and boxes for blood supplies—pure medical supplies—to Israel, but he is welcome to ask further questions if he needs more detail on that. To respond to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, our position is to be supportive of Israel, not due to defence exports—which, as I have pointed out, are a small quantity from this country—but due to our support for Israel’s right to self-defend.

Finally, in the position of the hon. Member for Caerphilly, I did not detect any real difference from mine, so I welcome the official Opposition’s support for the UK defence industry. He said it is world leading, and I agree; he asked that we apply export criteria vigorously and robustly, and that is exactly what we do.

Finally, let me end by saying that our hearts go out to everybody affected by the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Welsh Devolution

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Welsh devolution.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Sir Christopher. This is a vital topic that impacts the lives of not only my constituents in Delyn, but all the 1.3 million or so people of Wales.

In May 1999, the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, explained:

“Devolution is a process. It is not an event and neither is it a journey with a fixed end-point. The devolution process is enabling us to make our own decisions and set our own priorities, that is the important point. We test our constitution with experience and we do that in a pragmatic and not an ideologically driven way.”

There are several elements to that remark, and I want to break them down individually. Mr Davies said that devolution is a process and not an event, which seems like a reasonable point of view. It would be beneficial to take an iterative approach to such constitutional change—to test what works and what does not. The wording seems to be similar to saying that devolution is a bit of an experiment—several smaller processes that go together to produce an outcome. The difference, though, is that with an experiment, someone bothers to look at the results. With devolution, there has not been any examination of whether it is working well or badly, and nobody seems to care either way—“devolve and forget” at its worst.

The Westminster Government have a good story to tell: “If you think it is bad here, just look at how much worse it is in Wales.” The Welsh Government have their pantomime villain to blame: “It is all Westminster’s fault, because they continually underfund Wales.” Like, I am sure, all my constituents, I regularly tune into First Minister’s questions in the Senedd—I never miss it. It is a much more serene and courteous affair than Prime Minister’s questions here, but I fail to recall a single time that the First Minister has said that they got anything wrong or made any mistakes. If there is any hint of anything not going well in Wales, it is immediately the fault of Westminster. Both sides have their pre-prepared scapegoats to help them win political arguments, and it is always the people of Wales who suffer.

Mr Davies said that devolution

“is enabling us to make our own decisions and set our own priorities, that is the important point.”

I could not possibly have any more contempt for that statement than I do. It is not the important point. The only important point is the outcome of decisions: how do decisions that are made impact and affect the lives of the people of Wales? Where they are made and who makes them is absolutely irrelevant, as long as they are the right ones.

For the Secretary of State for Wales to say something like

“enabling us to make our own decisions”

immediately separates us and encourages division in British society. Who is this “us” who will be able to “make our own decisions”? It is surely not the people of Wales, because only 25% of us voted to have a Welsh Assembly in the first place. Here we are, almost 25 years on from its establishment, and there is no evidence to suggest that the Westminster or Cardiff Governments have done any reflective analysis whatsoever as to whether devolution has been positive or negative.

Finally, the part of Mr Davies’s comment that I completely agree with:

“We test our constitution with experience and we do that in a pragmatic and not an ideologically driven way.”

I agree 100%, so where is that test? Why is nobody doing it? What does “pragmatic” and “not… ideologically driven” mean? The common-sense reading of that statement is that it means exactly the opposite of its previous comment about the geographical location of the decision maker being the important point. The statement is a complete lesson in political contradiction—to please both sides. On one hand, he invokes the idealism of having decisions made closer to home regardless of the outcome, and on the other he promotes a pragmatic examination of the process, which must not be steered by ideology.

Wales is a small but proud country with a unique identity. It has an unusual degree of political continuity. It ought to have been able to develop and introduce unique policies in Wales that were just not possible prior to devolution, but the record shows that it has failed to have an impact on the lives of our constituents. It is not good enough to keep blaming Whitehall after 25 years. In the time that we have had devolution, Wales has fallen behind the rest of the Union in nearly all its devolved policy areas and has continuously fallen short on UK-wide priorities.

Devolution in Wales has not resulted, as proponents had hoped, in a new form of politics. Far from reinvigorating democracy, voters are just underwhelmed by it. Well, that is not quite right: it has brought about a new form of politics, but sadly it has been the politics of division, blame and mockery. The Welsh Government blame everything on Westminster so they have a ready excuse for never having to fix anything; the Westminster Government say, “Well, it could be worse: look at Labour in Wales,” making us the laughing stock of these British Isles. The new politics we were promised 25 years ago has sadly morphed into a horrific parody of itself.

We were promised increased democratic representation. The Assembly was established on a 50.2% turnout of the people of Wales, with an outcome of 50.3% in favour. From a situation where 25.3% of the people of Wales voted in favour of establishing it, Wales was then thrust into a project of seismic proportions that would change the constitutional make-up of the UK irrevocably. Since 1998, the election turnout of the Welsh Assembly, which was subsequently renamed the Senedd at great yet pointless expense, has continuously declined, reaching as low as 38.2% and never exceeding 46%. Those woeful figures only go to prove that voters have become apathetic and disengaged with the Welsh Government. Turnout in Wales at general elections exceeds 70% every time.

The cost of the Senedd in 2021-22 was £63 million, with proposals to increase Senedd Members from 60 to 96, taking an already over-inflated cost up by another third—another £13 million—giving even less value for money for the people of Wales time and again. Earlier this year, a report said that the buildings of the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in north Wales were only 62% operationally safe, with some £350 million needed just to bring the existing structures up to scratch, without talking about any new ones. Unsurprisingly, the health board has once again been placed in special measures, which are special in name only as that has been the case for the past eight years, with no noticeable improvement for the long-suffering people of north Wales. Had we not been paying money for the devolved Administration for the past 25 years, we could have ensured that every hospital across the whole of Wales was properly maintained and not falling down around the ears of our dedicated staff.

Routinely, in this Parliament, Labour MPs attack the Government on a range of perceived issues—rightly so; that is their duty as the Opposition. However, as we know, Labour has been front and centre in Wales since 1999 and failing since 1999. Since the advent of devolution, Welsh Labour has been virtually unopposed in government. Never winning an outright majority, it relies heavily on the support of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats, who are both seemingly as reluctant as Labour to accept their part in this mismanagement on a colossal scale. On a visit to Llandudno last year, the Leader of His Majesty’s Opposition in this place, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), said,

“a Welsh Labour government is the living proof of what Labour in power looks like. How things can be done differently and better… a blueprint for what Labour could do across the UK”—

Lord help the UK.

What does Labour have to show for almost a quarter of a century in power as a blueprint for the rest of the country? Let me examine some of the areas of life in Wales that have been devolved and how they have developed and progressed over the period of devolution. First, let us look at health, at the NHS. As we know, the Labour party in this Parliament relies heavily on scaremongering and unfounded soundbites—“Only Labour can save the NHS” and “The Tories are going to privatise everything”—while going out of its way to ignore the scale of the crisis in Wales. It points out everything that is wrong in England but never does anything to fix even the worst issues in Wales. I wish that the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), the Labour shadow Health Secretary, who says that his party would fix everything that is broken in NHS England, would pop down the M4 and tell his secrets to the Welsh Government’s Minister for Health, who makes blunder after blunder and seems powerless to make any positive, lasting change.

In Wales, health boards are all in special measures. As I mentioned, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, which serves my Delyn constituency in north Wales, has been in that state for eight years, except for a conveniently short period just before the last Senedd election. It was brought out of special measures in the run-up to that campaigning period, despite there having been no actual changes. Interestingly, it was put back into special measures just after the election. That is just a coincidence, I am sure—an administrative mix-up.

The Labour rhetoric about poor funding of the NHS hits closer to home than Labour would ever care to admit. Despite no modern-day Conservative Government ever having cut NHS funding, Welsh Labour cut it in 2015. The King’s Fund expertly demonstrated that by reporting that under the Conservatives, the NHS has had a budget increase of 39% in real terms since 2010, with planned spending for the Department of Health and Social Care in England at more than £180 billion.

The NHS in Wales is failing. Wales had a higher covid death rate per head of population than England. Once again, there is a public inquiry in London to look for lessons learned, or, as it turns out, for the media to be able to allocate blame and denounce politicians. Either way, there is no scrutiny at all in Wales: no inquiry and no accountability, despite a worse outcome.

Moving on from health, Wales has the lowest-achieving education system in the entire UK and is among the worst in Europe. Just last week, we had the PISA—programme for international student assessment—testing results for science, maths and literacy. In science, England scored 503 and Wales scored 473, against an OECD average of 485. In maths, England scored 492 and Wales scored 466, against an average of 472. In literacy, England was at 496 and Wales was at 466, against the average of 476.

One pupil who gave comments to BBC Wales said:

“Some parts of it were tricky, but some of it was interesting…It’s like numeracy. So just using that information we know and using it in real life scenarios, which we don’t normally do in lessons that much.”

Another pupil said:

“I think it helps a lot when we get into the real world and actually have to use the skills that we did in the Pisa test to see where we’ll be at when we have to do that in real life”.

Those quotes from students interviewed by the BBC confirm their resounding opinion that their education is giving them knowledge, but never putting them in any real-life situations where they need to apply it. If we are not teaching them usable skills, what is the point of teaching them at all? We need to teach students the relevance of the knowledge and how it fits in with their lives. The pupils have confirmed that we are not doing that in Wales, so it is no wonder that our children are left behind compared with the rest of the UK.

In every single area of the curriculum, England was above average and had the highest scores in the UK. Wales was below average and had the lowest scores in the UK. The First Minister failing to do his sums properly when questioned about those numbers in the Senedd chamber last week was the height of irony. We are letting down the children of Wales. It is not just the Welsh Government any more, but the UK Government who say, “It’s nothing to do with us—it’s devolved.” That is just not good enough. We are all part of the United Kingdom.

Housing is an issue that is immensely important to my constituents and across Wales. As recently as the 2019 general election, the then leader of the Labour party and the official Opposition to the Government pledged 100,000 new council houses every year in England. That sounds great, but we must remember that the Welsh Government, under Labour management, released data detailing a meagre 57 builds by local authorities in that same year. Where are all the houses that the Leader of the Opposition pledged would happen under Labour? This is a devolved area and it has every opportunity to build them in Wales, but they never seem to materialise.

As discussions are being had by a noisy minority in support of more devolution and the ludicrous notion of independence for Wales, we must all be bold enough to look at these failures and ensure, above all else, that Wales is not just handed powers by the UK Parliament without proper scrutiny from this House. That is not to talk down Wales, as I will now doubtless be accused of doing. It is a harsh reality of the situation. Wales is subsidised by England to the tune of approximately £18 billion a year.

The total tax revenue in Wales is exceeded by far by the amount of spending. The difference comes from the UK Government, quite rightly, as we are firmly and comfortably part of the UK. Where do those shouters for independence think they are going to get the money to pay for everything? None of the public services in Wales work already. Where will the funds come from for Wales to have its own courts, police, emergency services, welfare system, state pension and defence infrastructure—everything that an independent state would need? It is completely pie in the sky.

This is the focal point of what I want to say. I have been told a number of things in the past couple of years to try to persuade me of why I am wrong, and I will touch on them briefly. First, I am told by colleagues, who may or may not be in the room, that devolution is not the problem; it is Labour. My response is, yes, but all it does is compound the problem with its incompetence. It has not necessarily created the problem in the first place. The situation would not be any better with the Welsh Conservatives in charge, not because they are also incompetent—although I have seen nothing to make me think that would be a false conclusion—but because the powers that the Senedd has mean that it will never be able to do what needs to be done. For example, the UK Government announced 40 new hospitals. Whether those 40 hospitals will ever exist or come into being is by the by, but the point is that, even in optimal circumstances, Wales would never be able to embark on such a significant capital project because it will never have the funds to do that.

The UK Government have significantly more ability to borrow than the Welsh Government do. Despite the funding being distributed by the Barnett formula—a very poor way to calculate funding allocations—Wales will simply never have sufficient capital to engage in such a wide-ranging project. It does not even have the funds to repair the existing buildings, as I mentioned.

Some people use that as a good reason to devolve more powers so that Wales has those options, but we would get to a point where there are more devolved powers than reserved. At that point, we might just as well have full independence for Wales. I will say controversially on the record that I believe that full independence would be preferable to the current situation. More importantly, full independence is impossible due to the £18 billion a year that would be missing from the Welsh coffers. Bearing in mind that UK national debt is currently £2.5 trillion, presumably Wales would immediately start with 5% of that. So it would be £125 billion in the red on day one, with an extra £18 billion to find every year, just to stand still, from a faltering economy with low average earnings, and a population that cannot be squeezed any tighter. Independence is a fiscal impossibility.

Given that full movement one way or the other is preferable to the current situation, and independence is impossible, the only logical solution is to remove devolution altogether and get back to a single Government for England and Wales. Wherever participants in this debate sit on the political spectrum, outcomes should be their priority. What makes the lives of the people in Wales better? The people of Delyn could not care less about idealism, political nonsense and the shenanigans in this place. They do care about being able to put food on the table, jobs and opportunities, providing their children with a better start in life and relying on a health service to help them in their most difficult times.

Any time I talk about this on the record I get lambasted by the press, including certain journalists in Wales. One in particular said that I was doing it in a desperate and hopefully vain attempt to revive my career—God forbid. He wrote a long article attacking me personally. As the great woman once said:

“I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”

People say I am anti-Welsh. Nothing of the sort: dim byd o’r fath o gwbl. I am proud to be Welsh and to speak the language. It is because of that pride that I make these points, not from an anti-Wales point of view, but because the outcomes of devolution have led me unequivocally to conclude that it does not work, has not worked and cannot work.

My Welsh pride is such that I am brave enough to stand up in the face of the people who attack me and my patriotism and say, “No”. I stand here and say these things with the knowledge that there are many colleagues in this House of Commons who agree with every word I say on the matter privately, but who are hesitant to speak out against the stated policy of their party. That is not to say that I am any more courageous than they are—just that I have a bit less to lose than they do at the current time.

For a journalist who I have never spoken a word to in my life to draw judgments on my intent and my reasons for making the statements that I make is a sad indictment of a news media who have decided that it is not their job any longer to report the news, but somehow to interpret and speculate as to a rationale behind it, without even bothering to ask. It was notable that in his 1,100-word rant about me, there was not a single counter to any of the points that I made. There was not a single reference to the beneficial outcome of devolution and the intrinsic value that it has brought to the people of Wales, and not a single reference to the litany of successes that devolution has inspired, or the wonderful outcomes that the people of Wales have been able to enjoy that would not otherwise have been possible. There was nothing positive to say about devolution at all—just attacks on me.

That is all right. I am immensely proud of my Welshness, but I would be infinitely more proud if I could say “I’m from Wales”, and other people said “You’ve got great educational results”, or “Gosh, you’ve really transformed your NHS”, or “Your incomes are skyrocketing across Wales.” None of those things have happened in the last 25 years; what has happened has been the clear degeneration to rack and ruin in my fantastic country.

It does not need to be this way; we do not have to be the poor relation any more. We should roll back on devolution. Tomorrow, just after Prime Minister’s questions, I shall present a Bill to the House to allow for a referendum to do just that. I hope that in her response, the Minister will not just confirm that devolution is the policy of the Government. We all know that, and we all know that Wales has to put up with it only because it was brought in to satisfy our cousins north of the border. I would like the Minister to tell me why the Government support devolution in Wales. What are the positive outcomes? What benefits have there been that otherwise would not have been possible? What has come out of Cardiff Bay to benefit the people of Wales and offset the hundreds of millions of pounds that it has cost us over the years?

In 2014, the people of Scotland got to have their say once again to confirm the outcome of the 1997 referendum. In 2016, the people of the UK got to have their say once again on membership of the EU following the previous vote 40 years earlier. Why, then, can the people of Wales not have their say on whether to retain the institution that it never wanted in the first place?

Some people say, “There was another referendum in Wales in 2011”, and yes, there was. That question was:

“Do you want the Assembly now to be able to make laws”

on the matters it has jurisdiction for? Of course people did—what a silly question that was. There was a 35% turnout for a 63% yes vote—another win for 22% of the population of Wales. But the question was fundamentally different and was not one that meant a great deal to the people of Wales, who reasonably assumed that the Assembly already had the powers to make laws in devolved areas. I am proposing a simple and straightforward yes or no—keep it or do not keep it.

I hope the Minister will confirm that there are plans to let the people of Wales have their say, not on whether there should be enhanced powers or more devolution, but on whether devolution should be allowed to carry on at all, so that we can redirect the money wasted on a failed institution into providing better services and better outcomes for the people of Wales.

Ron Davies said:

“Devolution is a process…not an event”.

The process has failed to produce any measurable benefit; the process should be discontinued. The people of Wales should be allowed to choose.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Roberts) on securing this debate on a cause that he has discussed many times in the House. It is a pleasure to speak in my first Westminster Hall debate in my role as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales. I am very privileged to work alongside the Secretary of State for Wales and the Prime Minister in championing economic growth and creating high-quality jobs across Wales. In the limited time available, I will try to draw Members’ attention to the progress that the UK Conservative Government have made so far in securing the investment, opportunity and growth that Wales needs. That progress demonstrates the many benefits of the Union to the people of Wales.

I will start with four towns funds, in Merthyr Tydfil, Cwmbran, Wrexham and Barry. We have city and regional growth deals across the length and breadth of the country, £1 billion for the electrification of the north Wales main line, and specific Government investment in all 22 local authorities in Wales. The Government are backing Welsh business and the economy and delivering a better, brighter future for our communities.

The hon. Gentleman’s speech focused instead on constitutional issues and demonstrated his firmly held belief about the future of Welsh devolution. It will not surprise him—I know he will disagree with this—that I am bound to say that his argument is not with the Welsh Parliament, or with devolution, but with Welsh Labour. I am sorry that not one of the 22 Welsh Labour Members felt able to come to this Chamber this afternoon to defend Labour’s record in Wales—unless the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) would like to have a go.

I know that this will disappoint the hon. Member for Delyn, but let me be clear that this Government are firmly committed to devolution. I am proud that successive Conservative Governments have strengthened devolution in Wales, from delivering a referendum on full lawmaking powers to delivering two Wales Acts, devolving tax and borrowing powers and placing Welsh devolution on a firm footing with the reserved powers model. We have seen the National Assembly for Wales transform into the Welsh Parliament.

I believe that now is the time to move on from constitutional debates and that we should instead focus on growing and levelling up our economy, creating jobs and supporting people with the cost of living, because these are the priorities of the people of Wales—not extra devolution to the Senedd and certainly not creating more Senedd Members, which would cost an extortionate amount of money. It is imperative that the UK Government makes the most of devolution, and close collaboration between the UK Government and the Welsh Government is absolutely vital.

Our joint work to deliver two investment zones and two freeports in Wales will help to grow the Welsh economy and therefore the UK economy by attracting new businesses, jobs and investment.

I have very limited time and the hon. Gentleman treated us to a 23-minute speech, so if he will forgive me, I will press on.

Collaboration with local authorities in Wales is also key, as has been proven through the growing success of the Welsh city and growth deals, which are delivering real results for regional economies. But in recognising the positives of devolution for Wales and the opportunities that arise from having two Governments, it would be remiss of me not to recognise, as we heard the hon. Gentleman so eloquently explain, that there are legitimate and significant concerns in Wales about the performance of public services and the decisions being made by the Welsh Labour Government.

As the hon. Gentleman outlined, the most recent PISA results show that Welsh scores in maths, reading and science tests continue to be the lowest of the United—

I agree with the Minister that our UK Government have done fantastic things for Wales in recent times, and I agree with her and the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Roberts) in relation to the devastating takedown of the Welsh Labour Administration, who have failed the people of Wales over such a long period. Can I ask the Minister for at least an assurance that we will not give further powers to a Welsh Administration until there is proven public support for that and until the Administration has perhaps proven themselves worthy of the powers that they already have?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance: now is not the time to talk about providing more powers. Now is the time to talk about generating economic growth and opportunity in Wales—something that the Welsh Labour Government seem allergic to.

Rather than improving failing devolved public services, the Welsh Government’s firm focus is on issues that do not reflect the priorities of people in Wales, whether it is spending vast amounts of money to pay for more politicians in Cardiff Bay, implementing highly unpopular policies, such as the disastrous tourism tax or the 20 mph speed limit that cost £33 million, or refusing to build new roads—not forgetting that they wasted £157 million on the M4 relief road, which they then scrapped, before wasting a further £4 million on buying Gilestone Farm, which is in my constituency. As I can see that the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries is here this afternoon, I just point out the enormous disparity between the fortunes of farmers in England and those of farmers in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire.

I understand and share many of the frustrations that people in Wales have about the Welsh Government’s direction of travel. However, people in Wales support devolution, as they have made clear in two referenda, and I do not believe that the answer to their concerns is to reverse devolution. Instead, if people are unhappy with the performance of the Welsh Government, I encourage them to make their voices heard through the ballot box at the next Senedd election.

The hon. Member for Delyn remarked that, over the years, the Senedd has become a political football between the two Governments, and he is right to point that out. However, the way to test that is to let someone else take responsibility. If a car is heading in the wrong direction, we do not scrap the vehicle and revert to walking, although I believe that is what the First Minister would rather people did. We find a better driver, we find someone with a map, we find somebody who knows what they are doing, and I submit that that is the Welsh Conservative party.

Question put and agreed to.

Public Sector Food Procurement

I beg to move,

That this House has considered public sector food procurement and healthy eating.

Before I get under way, I thank the Backbench Business Committee both for its allocation of this debate and indeed its reallocation of this debate when we were put off track the other day due to votes.

We are locked into a seemingly never-ending debate when it comes to food and health. Since 1992, there have been 14 obesity strategies piled high with hundreds of policies. All of them have identified various aspects of cause and concern, while offering up positions that attempt to address the stark reality that we are now the third fattest country in the G7. Of course, a common thread runs throughout all these strategies: the simple fact that the food we eat matters.

Good, high-quality, well-produced food is unsurprisingly better for us than cheap, ultra-processed, quickly produced food. Do not take my word for it; look at the countless studies that have shown students’ concentration and behaviour improving when served better-quality food in their cafeterias. Look at the improvement to patient health and recovery times when served with from-scratch, cooked food using high-quality ingredients. In fact, look at every study conducted by the NHS, local authority or think-tank. Pick out any one of the 14 obesity studies since 1992, and we will find direct evidence linking good-quality food to improved health and outcomes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this debate. It is a massive issue in my constituency, as it is indeed across the whole of the United Kingdom. In 2012, 31% of children were overweight or obese. Research demonstrates that obese children are more at risk of being overweight as adults and of developing a range of related health conditions. Does he agree that there must be a happy medium to ensure not only that meals made in schools are nutritious and healthy, but that students will eat and enjoy the food that is in front of them?

The hon. Gentleman always makes salient points in Westminster Hall debates. He is absolutely right to talk about schools, education and how we can start talking about food, where it comes from and its nutritional value, and also starting a relationship in places of education to ensure that we do not lose that link with our food. That is one of the sure-fire ways of addressing obesity and ensuring that we have better health as a result of the food we eat. It also allows us to inject some of the points around localism and supporting local producers, which I will come on to later.

The purpose of this debate is not for me to stand here and tell people what they can and cannot eat—after all, I do implicitly believe in the freedom of choice. However, it is for me to say that when taxpayers’ money is spent on food procurement, we can and should be improving what we buy, how we produce it, as well as how we serve it. Change is rarely as simple as one might want. However, my proposal for change is a simple one: the UK Government, working with local authorities, need to set targets to improve the public procurement process to ensure that local, sustainable, higher-quality, healthier food that comes from organic, regenerative or family-run farms and fisheries is served in our schools, hospitals, care homes, military, prisons and Government offices. I think that covers nearly every farming organisation in the country and should not leave anyone out.

I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests as chairman of the Country Food Trust. My hon. Friend has made some extremely good points. Is it not the case, given that the Government are embarking on one of the most expensive deer-feeding programmes ever invented—in other words, planting trees to be eaten by 2.5 million deer a year—in order to get the culling effort up to the level of 750,000 where it needs to be, that that high-protein, low-fat meat should be used in public sector kitchens, as it is one of the healthiest meats available in the United Kingdom?

I did not expect the debate to be going in that direction, but I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. How can we get game meat into our schools and places of education? How can we find a better link to that and a better understanding of the food that is in abundance across this country? I think that is a perfectly reasonable and sensible point.

My proposal, as I said, is a simple concept but a complex challenge. We spend £2.4 billion annually on public sector food procurement and catering, and there is the opportunity to support local producers, improve food quality and diets, and safeguard the environment, all of which can be achieved by setting national standards. As I have found over the last four years, half the battle in this place is persuading others, including the Government, that a point of view or argument is the right one—and even when we are proven right, it may not count for much.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Food security and the production of high-standard, locally produced food are vital. In 2021, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produced a report on public sector food procurement. It highlighted the loophole in Government buying standards for food and catering that allows public sector bodies to purchase food that does not meet our UK legal standards in food production or animal welfare on the basis of cost.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we should close that inconsistent loophole as soon as we can, so that we can become a beacon to the rest of the world on food production and animal welfare standards? In so doing, we would be backing our fantastic British farmers and food producers, who produce food to the highest animal welfare and environmental standards.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all his work as a member of the EFRA Committee, in which he brings his expertise both as a veterinarian and as a representative of a rural constituency with many farmers. He is absolutely right that we must close those loopholes. We must take the recommendations in the EFRA Committee report, to which I will refer later. I will be happy to follow through with anything he needs to strengthen his arm on that point.

The Government already accept the premise of what I am calling for. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation on possible changes to the public sector food and catering policy stated:

“Government is adopting an ambitious and transformational approach to public sector food and catering. We are determined to use public sector purchasing power to ensure positive change in the food system. Our vision is that public sector food and catering is an exemplar to wider society in delivering positive health, animal welfare, environmental and socio-economic impacts.”

That is exactly the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson). The consultation ran from June 2022 to September 2022, and there were hundreds of submissions from worthwhile national organisations. Unfortunately, the Government have yet to respond to their consultation. Will the Minister say when we are likely to see the findings of the consultation and any recommendations, so that we can recognise the opportunity to see those targets and ambitions met?

To make those changes and recognise the ambitions stated in the consultation, the procurement process has to be widened to encourage and incentivise small businesses to engage with the system. Whether it be a national or a local authority contract, it is time consuming, risky and costly for small farms, fisheries or local food producers to submit a bid. That clearly needs to change. The Procurement Act 2023 reforms the procurement process to make it simpler, faster, more transparent and less bureaucratic. It is perhaps one of the most boring pieces of legislation that has ever been passed by Parliament, but it is an important one that will make a huge difference to small businesses. With the measures coming into force in October 2024, the Government have rightly made it their ambition to open the market for public contracts to new entrants, especially small and local businesses. The Act is the catalyst for reforming our food procurement system, to ensure healthier, higher-quality food is at the heart of our publicly funded organisations.

When the Act was debated in the Lords, a number of amendments aimed to set national targets, such as ensuring that 50% of purchases must be from the UK or that “locally” would mean within 30 miles of a contracting authority. I understand that those proposals would have contravened many of our World Trade Organisation legal obligations, but there are steps that we can take to develop and improve local purchasing strategies while continuing to adhere to WTO standards. Will the Minister say when the Government will use section 107 of the Procurement Act to introduce secondary legislation to disapply section 17 of the Local Government Act 1988, which

“currently precludes local authorities from awarding public supply or work contracts by supplier location”?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 November 2022; Vol. 825, c. 1641.]

That was stated at the Dispatch Box in the House of Lords by a Minister. Introducing secondary legislation would be welcomed, I presume, by both sides of this House—I see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), nodding—so there is an opportunity to quickly see that reform brought to reality.

The more sceptical might think that this is all wishful thinking, but international comparisons should be made, and some of the successes are remarkable. For instance, in 2001 Denmark introduced an organic action plan aimed at 60% organic procurement in all public kitchens by 2020. Evidence showed an increase in public kitchen procurement of organic food of 24% by 2016. The policy proved so popular that the city of Copenhagen increased the target and achieved it, at 90%, earlier this year. The policy improved not only the health of those using public kitchens, but the understanding of food and nutrition, as well as cooking skills. The Danish agricultural community also found themselves boosted when able to bid for local tenders, with small and medium-sized businesses actively engaging and benefiting from the policy.

Brazil passed a law that requires 30% of the national budget for food served in school meal programmes to be spent on food from family farms, with priority given to those using agroecological methods. Perhaps the most interesting point about that policy is that it has also restricted the purchasing of processed and ultra-processed food with taxpayers’ money. That has had a positive impact on the farming and fishing communities, as well as benefiting schools, hospitals and other publicly funded organisations. In the United States, which we are often quick to deride, states such as California and Massachusetts have put in place frameworks that steer public purchasing towards local sources, with the express purpose of improving the diet, health and nutrition of their citizens. Austria and the Nordic countries also have fantastic examples.

Even in my area of south Devon, in the south-west, we have piloted interesting and innovative schemes such as the dynamic purchasing system to help to facilitate greater buy-in from small and medium-sized enterprises to allow them to take advantage of public tenders—all with the express hope of streamlining the consolidation and delivery of orders from multiple suppliers with an online food store, a local delivery hub and knowledge of local suppliers. Both at home and abroad, there are examples of how the proposals that I have put forward could and should work.

The Government buying standard for food and catering services sets out what public sector organisations should apply when procuring food and catering services. The standards relate to food production, processing, distribution and nutrition. Some of the standards are mandatory; some are best practices. DEFRA is responsible for updating public sector procurement standards, and the Department of Health and Social Care is responsible for the nutrition standards in the GBSF, as it is known.

The “National Food Strategy” report and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report that has already been mentioned on public sector procurement of food rightly consider what needs to be done to update the GBSF: the buying standards should be updated to ensure procurement of healthy and sustainable food; standards should be mandatory across the entire public sector; the monitoring of compliance with the standards should be improved; and supply chains should be opened up to a wider range of businesses. Some of those measures are already under way.

However, it is frequently remarked on that the lack of joined-up thinking between Departments when it comes to food has been the predominant block to action in this space. Reshaping the GBSF to take on board the food strategy recommendations plus improved oversight and strategy, coupled with mandatory targets and enforcement mechanisms, will be the only way in which we can speed along the change that we wish to see in our public sector. Mandatory standards across all sectors of public sector food procurement would not only be a huge vote of support for our food, farming and fishing communities, but necessitate an oversight body to ensure that targets were met and promises delivered.

I have sought to demonstrate that my proposal is not out of kilter with the Government’s ambitions. I have referenced the fact that the Government’s consultation on this topic asked for submissions on the very points and ambitions that I have raised. We wait in hope for its findings. I have provided the international comparisons that show that we can not only be compliant with WTO rules, but ensure that we have strong and robust legislation that meets our own domestic interests. We can do that while adhering to our international commitments.

I will end on the work of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, whose excellent work on this topic and so many others has demonstrated the overwhelming positive public appetite—no pun intended —to change the public food procurement system. Specifically, citizens across this country want the Government to improve public sector food procurement and nutrition standards, with 84% of people believing in stronger standards for the food provided in our hospitals and schools.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on his passionate and extremely persuasive speech, but could we go back one step and underline how important it is that our schools get this sort of local, fresh produce? It is during those early years that one gets the tastes and the habits of a lifetime.

My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. I will take a moment to mention a national organisation called Chefs in Schools, which was started and supported by Henry Dimbleby, who wrote the food strategy report. It is a brilliant organisation that goes to schools across the country, starts that early relationship between students and food and encourages cooking skills to be commonplace in every school. We should be encouraging that, and I know that Chefs in Schools will welcome any MP who wants to hear more about its programmes and whether they could be launched in their schools. I have not spent enough time speaking about schools, but I have made the point that we need to do better on that relationship, in terms of quality and standards. My hon Friend is right to raise the point, and I thank him for doing so.

If this is done correctly, the Government need not commit more money. None of the schemes I mentioned earlier required an uplift in funding; they required a change of approach and attitude to how we were purchasing food, and the schemes, initiatives and platforms in place to allow them to do so. We can boost our support for UK domestic producers across our rural and coastal communities and provide an enormous vote of confidence in our farmers and fishermen. As the Minister is a farmer, I have the utmost confidence in him to deliver in response to my speech. It would benefit farmers right across the country, and we should not lose sight of that. We can uphold food integrity and standards by creating a transparent, competitive, easy marketplace, and we can provide high-quality food that will make all the difference to our places of education, our hospitals, our prisons and our military organisations.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing the debate. I thought I had missed it last week, so I was pleasantly surprised to see it on the Order Paper again.

The hon. Member mentioned the Government consultation on public sector food and catering that closed on 4 September 2022. Almost ever since then, it has become something of an obsession of mine to chase the Government for a response. The last time I asked, in September, I was told it would be out this year—which means by next Tuesday—so I hope the Minister has good news for us today. I gather that the 126 responses were the reason given for it taking so long. That is not that many, so I hope the Minister can tell us how many people are working on looking at those responses. It should not have taken 15 months to come to a conclusion.

One thing that was consulted on was the idea that 50% of food procured should be locally sourced and/or sustainable. When I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, we were very keen to look at what France was doing. It showed that it can be done, and in a country full of farmers, they very much welcomed it. I support that. The leader of my party, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), committed us to it when he spoke at the NFU a while ago, so I am keen to hear from the Minister whether that is still in active consideration.

As I said, I used to chair the APPG on agroecology. In that role, I had the pleasure—it was quite a pleasure—of interviewing the then DEFRA Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), on stage at the Oxford Real Farming conference. He went down very well with the audience—this was before the Agriculture Act 2020 came in—because it was the first time, I think, that a serving Conservative Secretary of State had been to the conference. This was more the agroecological end of things than traditional farming. One thing on which he got a good response was committing to more support for county farms, peri-urban farming and local farming in general.

As a Bristol MP, I think there is so much potential. We have gold status as a sustainable food city, but we also have food deserts where people cannot access affordable and healthy food, so the idea that through public sector procurement we could become the customers of things that are being grown in Somerset, in Gloucestershire and nearby—we are surrounded by countryside—to an extent to which we are not at the moment seems so much something that should be at the heart of what we are trying to do. That was followed up when I was on the Bill Committee for the Agriculture Act 2020, when the then Minister confirmed that it was very much something the Government were going to do. Unfortunately, I then had a meeting over Zoom—this was during covid—with his successor, and it just seemed like it had dropped off the table all together.

Will the Minister tell us whether he sees county farms and peri-urban farming playing an important role, and what has happened to the land use framework? There is quite a long list of DEFRA things that seem to have disappeared into the ether, but maybe the Minister has just got a very big in-tray and it is somewhere in there. I hope that part of that land use framework will include earmarking what land could be used for development to support this kind of peri-urban farming approach.

I also want to ask the Minister about the horticultural strategy. We do know that it, at least, has been definitely dropped. The strategy would have promoted the growing and consumption of more fresh fruit and vegetables, which the sector was very much pushing for. It was only after I attended a Food Foundation event and was asked if I knew what had happened to it that I tabled a question and found out that the strategy had actually been dropped. The sector had not even been told. In fact, it had been announced via a written question in the Lords, but the sector had then gone on to have meetings with DEFRA officials—there was at least one roundtable —about the proposal after it had been dropped. We know the pressures that fruit and vegetable growers are under; we know the importance of the strategy. Can the Minister explain why that was dropped? I have read the written answers, but they did not do justice to the question.

Finally, I want to briefly talk about school food standards and food poverty. One in four teachers reported that they have been bringing in food themselves for hungry pupils over the last term, while seven in 10 schools have said they are supplying basic food and hygiene items to children. There is the basic issue of not having access to enough food, but we know there is even more of a problem when we get on to healthy food. I congratulate Henry Dimbleby on his excellent work on this issue. I went to his book launch—I think Chefs in Schools, which does excellent work, provided the catering. We know that school food is not up to the nutritional and sustainability standards that we would like to see. In addition, according to The BMJ, in 2020, just 1.6% of packed lunches met school food standards, so there is also an issue with that.

The Government did say at one point that they were going to review the national school food standards. They told me that in response to questions, but later confirmed in response to other questions that they did not feel the need to do so. I absolutely feel, as we have heard, that the Government need to review those standards. We have a lot more information now on the nutritional impact of certain diets, and something that has been mentioned is the impact on behaviour. There was a very interesting study—going back quite a long time now—in young offenders institutions, which showed that once those teenage boys were taken off junk food, their behaviour changed radically. It seems to me, again, to be a bit of a no-brainer: why would we not seek to change their diets if we know we could basically save them from a lifetime spent in the criminal justice system by just doing something as important as feeding them properly?

This will be the last intervention I make. The hon. Lady and I may come from different sides of the argument around eating meat and this, that and the other, but I take her point entirely. The fact of the matter is that there are more than 2 million deer in England. To sustain the number at that level, we need to cull 750,000. We are talking of putting this low-fat, high-protein meat into dog food while people are going hungry. Diets make such a difference. We really do need to be imaginative in how we work with schools and public sector organisations to improve people’s diets.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point entirely, but he has intervened on me just as I was about to say something about plant-based diets in schools, so it was perhaps not the best timing. I would argue, and I think most people would agree, that plant-based diets are healthy and sustainable, and it would be a good thing if people—children, in particular—ate more vegetables, regardless of whether or not they eat them as a side helping on a plate of meat. They do need to eat more fruit and veg—can we all agree on that?

Right. According to the national school food standards, one or more portions of veg or salad has to be served as an accompaniment to each meal, and there has to be one or more portions of fruit every day and at least three different fruit and three different veg every week. We can do better than that. There are also requirements for meat and for dairy to be served. We should explore doing what Mayor Eric Adams has done in New York, where plant-based meals are the default option in schools and hospitals. They are not the only option; people can choose to eat meat and fish, but it is just the fall-back option. Uptake of those diets has gone up radically as a result. People have not wilted away and fallen out of their hospital beds due to lack of energy just because they have been eating a few more vegetables. That is worth exploring.

ProVeg UK’s school plates programme works with 55 local authorities and catering companies and is responsible for catering in 6,500 schools. It provides free advice on menus and recipes, and it trains chefs. It says that nearly 12 million meals have been switched to plant-based options since the programme began in 2018. It was actually 4.5 million until 2021, so the uptake has been massive. I am not saying this with an ethical vegan hat on or anything like that; I am just saying that it would be a good way of getting young people to eat more fruit and veg, which would be a good way of supporting fruit and veg growers in this country.

More plant-based meals would help with sustainability, too. I have just returned from the climate change talks at COP, where there were some very interesting discussions. Land use and food systems were meant to be on the agenda at COP for the first time, and I hope that the Minister would support that. At the moment, only 5% of public procurement contracts—across the board, not for just food—require a carbon reduction plan, so I will finish with this question: does the Minister see public sector procurement of food as helping to reduce our carbon footprint?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this important debate.

Food must form an important part of any credible long-term health proposal, as well as any long-term environmental and geopolitical planning. The hon. Member for Totnes has already mentioned the role the south-west played during the local food hub trials, but many of my constituents feel led up the garden path by this Government’s food and farming strategy.

Somerset had 8,500 people working on farms or in food production in 2021—the highest of any county in the UK. It brought in around £500 million to Somerset’s rural economy. The farms of the south-west are some of the smallest in the UK, and we must recognise that nuance when talking about food supply. Indeed, I live in the Blackmore vale, where my family farm is. It is known as “the vale of the little dairies”, made famous by Thomas Hardy, as some hon. Members may know. We have so many different types of farms, and a supply strategy that may work for a large arable farm is not necessarily applicable to small dairy farms, like the one that I grew up on. I am in Westminster to ensure that farmers’ voices are heard loud and clear—something farmers have recently had to look to a motoring journalist for.

A recent 2022 report from the Food for Life project, which is run by the Soil Association along with other partners, showed that although regional supply companies win about 78% of public food contracts, the food itself is often not local. One in three organisations surveyed did not even know where the food it supplied came from. If the public sector is set up to favour local food and understand the nuances and complications of the industry, our population will be not only food secure, but job secure and health secure. Food for Life and its partners are calling for reforms to the way that food producers and public sector procurers link up. We should make use of ugly fruit and vegetables, and encourage and fund rural hubs like Frome Community Fridge, which gathers and distributes food that would otherwise go to waste. We need to educate public food procurers and consumers on seasonality, and promote fruit and vegetables that grow better here than highly popular but non-native recipe mainstays. We need seasonally produced nutritious food in our public sector institutions. By cutting out food miles, the impact on the environment is lessened, and we all need food in our public sector to be affordable.

The recent programme for international student assessment report reveals that 11% of pupils in the UK miss out on a meal at least once a week; that is above the OECD average. As we have heard today, hungry pupils are less likely to learn. I frequently receive emails from teachers and parents calling for free school meals to be extended. The appetite is clearly there and I hope the Minister will listen. The Liberal Democrats will provide free school meals for every primary school child and every secondary school child living in a universal credit household. Children who eat well learn well, and children who learn how to eat well will eat well for life. We want children growing into educated and informed consumers who champion seasonality, safeguard our precious environment, eat locally and, above all, eat healthily.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this debate on public sector food procurement and nutritional standards.

According to Government estimates, the UK public sector spends approximately £2.4 billion a year procuring food and catering services, representing approximately 5.5% of UK food service sector sales. Of the total spend, 29% is in schools. We have just heard about the advocation for nutritional meals in schools. Of course, in Scotland every child between primary 1 and primary 5 can avail themselves of free school meals. Twenty-nine per cent of the total spend is in further and higher educational settings; 25% in hospitals and care homes; 11% in the armed forces; 5% in prisons and 1% in Government offices. The sheer amount of food being purchased by central Government and Government bodies and agencies, and the spend itself, highlight just how important policies that work are for those seeking to procure, but also for taxpayers, workers and, indeed, our planet. UK Government procurement rules are, of course, subject to change, with the Procurement Act 2023 having passed through this place and received Royal Assent late this year. That will replace the current EU law-based regimes that we are working against.

What must be considered in all this, of course, are the decisions made on the cost of food through the procurement process. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on infant feeding and inequalities. The APPG has found that the cost of infant formula has increased by over 25% in the past two years alone. Just two companies hold 85% of the market share and are thus making high profit margins within that one item alone. The choice to procure a more expensive formula over a cheaper one not only costs our NHS unnecessarily more, but burdens families even further in what is already a relentless cost of living crisis, because people are likely to stay on one brand throughout the course of their child’s feeding. That is why procurement choices are so vital and why I am pleased that the SNP Scottish Government have their own procurement policies; of course, procurement is devolved and we will continue with the strategy that we have implemented. As ever, dialogue between Scottish Ministers and the UK Government will be ongoing—and, I am sure, will be as cordial as ever.

It is vital that food procurement policy represents the need for healthy, nutritional and sustainably sourced food. The Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022 was introduced in Holyrood exactly to ensure that the Scottish Government can deliver on their aims of sustainable and healthy food procurement in Scotland. The core aims of the policy include work to ensure that it is the norm for Scots to have a keen interest in their food, knowing where it comes from and what constitutes good food, and valuing it and seeking it out wherever they possibly can; and work to ensure that those who serve and sell food—from schools to hospitals, retailers, restaurants and cafés—are committed to serving and selling good, nutritious, healthy food.

Enormous strides have been made when it comes to Scotland’s relationship with food and its dietary requirement knowledge. As a result of ensuring that everyone in Scotland has ready access to the healthy and nutritious food they need, diseases are in decline, as is the environmental impact of our food consumption. All that is hugely encouraging. World-class Scottish producers, when they produce, strive to be increasingly healthy and environmentally sound, which we know is so important. The 2022 Act underpins a lot of work that is already being done across the Scottish Government to make Scotland a good food nation. That is the foundation on which we will build a healthier country.

I just wonder, since he is speaking about the high standards that Scotland might have, whether the hon. Member has any comment on the WildFish report about the damage that the Scottish salmon farming sector is doing to the habitats in which the fish are farmed and to the quality of the food that comes out of it.

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Of course, we will always look for sustainability wherever we can. Salmon is worth so much to the UK economy—far less to the Scottish economy. We have had some discussions about highly protected marine areas, so there is some ongoing work there, but I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point.

The Scottish Government is also improving the quality of food purchased on their behalf, with 12% more eggs, 14% more pork and 69% more beef, although there is no more venison, yet—it is too dear, probably—and 7% more milk and cream of UK or Red Tractor standard now, compared with before the pandemic. We have been making really good inroads in Scotland, and we in the SNP would welcome and encourage the UK and the other devolved Governments to follow our example in working to make all the UK’s nations good food nations.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on his characteristic vigour and energy in introducing such an important topic and launching a volley of questions that I am confident the Minister will evade. Let me also thank several people for their assistance in preparing for this debate: James Bielby of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors; Vicki Hird, formerly of Sustain and now of the Wildlife Trusts; and Joss MacDonald from the Food Foundation whose excellent report, “The Broken Plate”, is invaluable.

Given the time constraints, my comments will inevitably be brief, but we know from masses of research, including Henry Dimbleby’s excellent “National Food Strategy”, that the food consumed by the majority of adults and children in the UK does not currently meet the requirements of a nutritious diet. Most adults and children consume in excess of the maximum recommended intakes for sugar, saturated fat and salt, and do not meet the recommendations for fruit and vegetable, fibre or oily fish consumption. Is that an issue for just those individuals? Frankly, I do not think so. It has got to be about system change, and Government procurement is an important lever.

Sadly, I see no evidence that the current Government have a strategic approach to the food system. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for Totnes mentioned a whole series of pieces of work that we are waiting for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to respond to by the end of the year. I remember that the food security strategy was sneaked out on the last possible day a couple of years ago, so maybe we will have lots of Christmas presents in the offing in a couple of weeks’ time. Those pieces of work include not just the public sector food and catering policy consultation but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, the demise of the long-awaited horticultural strategy. There is a widely held consensus that the Government’s national food strategy is inadequate and fails to build on the strengths of the Dimbleby report.

A future Labour Government will take these issues far more seriously. They are much too important to be left to chance, and they deserve a considered and strategic approach. For Labour, food security is national security. For the benefit of the consumer, the producer and society as a whole, we need more seasonal, sustainable and nutritious British-grown food. Instead of encouraging more low-quality imports, a Labour Government will back British farmers to produce more locally grown, healthy food in this country. One of the ways that we will do that is through public procurement. We will ensure that 50% of all food purchased by the public sector is locally produced and sustainable. That will be £1.2 billion of public money spent on quality food that is genuinely better for people’s health—a clear target for every year we are in government.

The hon. Gentleman has done a dangerous thing: it sounds like he has produced a Labour party policy, which must be the first we have heard in many months. Perhaps he might answer this. He has suggested that Labour will produce food locally and set a national target, but how will it make that compliant with WTO standards? I would also make the point that, although I am happy to have a prod at the Government for what they have and have not done, the landmark piece of legislation that has passed is the Procurement Act 2023, which does all the things we want and which people on both sides of the House have been asking for.

I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s interventions. He is a touch prickly, and I think he will find that there are hundreds of worthy Labour party policies out there. I am happy to engage in full consultation and dialogue with him on what the future holds. I also have to say that it is not beyond the wit of people to find ways through this; others have done it, and we will do it.

As I said, we are talking about £1.2 billion of public money being spent on quality food that is genuinely better for people’s health—a clear target for every year in government. Fifty per cent is just the minimum—just the start—and we will do everything to go beyond that, so that we can maximise the power of public procurement to drive up standards and fortify food security.

As part of our aim to improve children’s nutritional intake, in particular, and to build a future where children come first, we will introduce fully funded breakfast clubs for every primary school in England—another excellent Labour policy that I commend to the hon. Member for Totnes. Our free breakfast clubs will put money back in parents’ pockets, give every primary child a healthy meal at the start of the day, and be an important first step on the road to building a modern childcare system, enabling parents to work and providing an important spur to economic growth. We will improve children’s diets by finally implementing the 9 pm watershed for junk food advertising. The Government’s own impact assessment found that that policy would lead to children eating nearly 12.5 million fewer calories across the UK.

But that is for the future. Sadly, the situation at the moment is getting worse. The wholesale sector supplying the public sector has been hard hit by rising costs and inflexible budgets. Many in the sector are struggling to fulfil their public sector food contracts, with some servicing them at a loss. The Government response has been frankly woeful. Their announcement to increase the funding rate for universal infant free school meals by 12p per pupil was a belated token acknowledgment of the problem. That increase remains well behind the current rise in food inflation, which for wholesalers is running at 20%, and fails to consider the range of external factors the food and drink industry currently faces.

Soaring costs are putting the public sector food industry under considerable strain, forcing conversations to be had about the realities of fulfilling public sector food contracts. Inevitably, the quality and quantity of the food being served to young and vulnerable people are being adversely impacted. Public sector caterers are struggling to meet food standards and being forced to reduce portion sizes and to use less UK-grown produce, directly contrary to the Government’s stated aims. The quality of the food used to service public sector contracts will continue to decline in order to mitigate rising costs if the Government do not take action. The impact of food inflation has already resulted in pupils being forced to accept smaller lunches with a lower nutritional value. In some cases, schools have opted to offer only cold packed lunches because of the cost of energy. I am sure we will remember the scenes during the covid crisis when some of the meals on offer were shameful. Several wholesalers that supply school contracts have mentioned to me that they are reducing portion sizes by, for example, offering less protein less frequently.

In conclusion, we need a new way. Labour’s mission-based strategic approach will help us to see the food system as a whole and will ensure that we all have access to more nutritious, sustainable, local, British-grown food.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher, and not in the Chamber asking me difficult questions. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for calling this debate.

The debate provides a great opportunity to put a spotlight on the important role the public sector has in leading positive change in our food system. Our public sector spends close to £5 billion a year on food and catering services in its supply chain, and it very much has an influential role in the transition to a healthier, more sustainable food system. DEFRA’s Government buying standards for food—GBSF for short—set out the requirements for public sector organisations to do that and to champion healthier, higher-quality, sustainable food in their supply chains. We want the public sector to lead by example and to demonstrate best practice, playing a vital role in helping local food culture and economies flourish by providing those standards. We are unleashing the purchasing power of the public sector.

Can I just highlight again the loophole in the Government buying standards the Minister mentioned? The public sector can deviate from buying high-quality food on the basis of cost; it can deviate from animal welfare standards if it is cheaper to do that. The Minister’s predecessor gave us very encouraging answers on the EFRA Committee on our recommendations for closing that loophole. It is a simple thing to do. I really urge the Government to look at that and to close the loophole, so that we can give the best example with our local public sector food procurement.

Of course, we want those consuming food purchased in the public sector to have access to the healthiest, best-quality food possible. We need to balance that with a desire to get good value for taxpayers’ money at the same time. Where foods are of the same quality and standard, we would of course expect people to purchase locally wherever possible. We want to use our influence to encourage people in the public sector to make the most of locally produced, high-quality British food. That is done through a blend of mandated standards that apply to central Government Departments —His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, NHS hospitals and the armed forces in England—and best practice standards, which exist to encourage all public sector organisations to work towards having healthier and more sustainable food in their supply chains.

Public sector food should champion healthier, sustainable food that is provided by a diverse range of suppliers. To underpin that approach, we held a consultation last year on public sector food and catering policy, including on updating the Government buying standards for food and catering services, which were last updated in 2014. Leaving aside the nutritional standards, which were updated in 2021, there was broad support for some of the proposals we included in the consultation, including pursuing greater environmental sustainability gains and increasing the opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses in the sector.

I am pleased to say that we have worked hard with colleagues across Government to take our response through to the final stages of drafting. I am confident that the revised standards will deliver positive change, as well as making life easier for those implementing them. The team has been working across Government with those Departments that have a vested interest, such as the Ministry of Defence, which has specific operational challenges in feeding its workforce, and with the Crown Commercial Services to oversee the consideration of SMEs in its new Buying Better Food and Drink agreement. That agreement will help SME food producers to access public sector food opportunities, provided that they meet the GBSF.

The GBSF already supports and strengthens cross-Government policies linked to environmental sustainability, animal welfare, food safety and nutrition. With regards to the environment, for example, the standards encourage the championing of seasonal produce and mandate that a proportion of food in the supply chain meets higher environmental production standards. That can currently be demonstrated through membership of organic and LEAF—linking environment and farming—assurance schemes, and we will continue to work to link them to world-class environmental land management schemes.

As well as bringing the standards up to date, the refresh will make the GBSF simpler and more engaging for those in the sector to interpret, whether returning to the standards or coming to them for the first time. Accompanying guidance will clarify how any changes can be applied, as well as improve the transparency of the supply chain, so that a greater range of potential suppliers are able to understand the opportunities the sector has to offer. To continue driving improvement and ambition in the sector, we will continue to develop and refine guidance following publication by engaging with the sector to improve uptake and retain Government focus on the priorities I have mentioned.

We have had a very interesting debate. I hope I have reassured Members that we are on the right track.

The Minister has been teasing us here. I think we all want to celebrate the hard work of the brilliant officials in his Department, so can he give us the date when these things will be published? We will then champion them in this place and recognise the brilliant work that has been done in refreshing all the things he has just mentioned.

I think “soon” is the answer that I can give my hon. Friend. We will soon publish the consultation findings, alongside the updated standards and guidance I talked about. We want to showcase the sustainable, high-welfare, quality produce that the public sector can procure. I will probably have to let the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) down and say that we will not deliver before Christmas, but I do not think she will have long to wait after that, because we want to get on with this—we want to procure the best food for our local schools.

I hear the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) assuring us that he is going to procure only local food. If I am being honest, I do not believe him. I hope that the model used by Labour-controlled Exeter City Council, which has denied people the right to have meat in their diet, will not be followed nationally.

It is not meant to all be locally produced; it is 50%. They do it in France. In the Government’s consultation, which closed on 4 September last year, that was one of the things they asked people for a view on. If the Minister thinks it is such nonsense, why did he bother consulting on it?

My point is that it cannot all be done locally. There has to be a balance. We are committed to improving the amount of food that we produce and procure locally. We want UK producers to be engaged in the system. We are making great progress on that, but we have to do it within the WTO standards, which are internationally recognised within the law. We will do it within those rules, and we will drive the amount of UK produce that is procured in the right direction.

I thank all the people who have taken part in the discussion today.

We accept that protein is an important part of a balanced diet, particularly for children. I make this as a serious point: venison is sustainable. There is universal agreement—George Monbiot included—that we need to cull those animals. We must ensure that that healthy protein, with no hormones and no antibiotics, goes to those most in need, and our schools would be a good place to start.

I wholly accept my hon. Friend’s argument, and it is something we are taking very seriously. DEFRA is working on a deer strategy. I want to see that meat enter the food chain; we want to ensure that those animals are culled safely and that the meat is processed in the right way to make it available. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is low-fat, high-quality, sustainable, high-welfare meat, which we should make the most of. I commit to helping him with his campaign with DEFRA officials, to ensure that we can make it happen.

When we publish the revised GBSF, I encourage Members on both sides of the House to support their implementation across the public sector. They will not only help to demonstrate best practice in improving the healthiness and sustainability of the food we eat, but encourage small businesses, producers and social enterprises to make the most of the opportunities that the sector provides.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes for bringing forward this debate. I hope that Members will conclude that we are on the right track and heading in the right direction.

I will not take up much time, other than to thank you, Sir Christopher, for chairing this debate, and to thank hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions. I set out to create a specific definition that would allow us to comply with our international obligations and learn from international examples—from Denmark and the Nordic countries, Brazil, Austria and states in America—so that we can get this right.

We should also look at introducing the secondary legislation that was promised at the Dispatch Box. It offers us a real opportunity; it would have no difficulty passing through the House extremely quickly and would be welcomed in the House of Lords. As we approach the end of the year, I hope we can look at introducing and delivering that next year, as the Minister suggested.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered public sector food procurement and healthy eating.

Sitting adjourned.