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Commons Chamber

Volume 743: debated on Monday 8 January 2024

House of Commons

Monday 8 January 2024

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Recall of MPs Act 2015: Member for Wellingborough

I have received a notification from the petition officer for the constituency of Wellingborough in respect of the recall petition for Peter Bone. The recall petition closed on Tuesday 19 December. As more than 10% of those eligible to sign the petition did so, the petition was successful and the seat is accordingly vacant. I shall cause the text of the notification to be published in the Votes and Proceedings and in the Official Report.

[The notification will appear at the end of today’s proceedings.]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence Jobs

Mr Speaker, I hope that you and all your staff had an enjoyable Christmas and new year break. I confirm that the most recent estimate shows that Ministry of Defence investment supports 209,000 jobs in industries across the UK. We continue to support UK businesses through direct procurement of equipment and services, supply chains and exports, and—investing in the future—through research and development.

Blwyddyn newydd dda—happy new year, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister outline investment at RAF Valley to date as part of the recapitalisation of the MOD’s military flying training system and its local impact? Will he accept my invitation to visit RAF Valley, which is the largest skilled employer on Anglesey, where he will receive a warm Welsh croeso?

My hon. Friend was a constant champion of nuclear during my previous job, and I am glad she is carrying on that form in defence. I would be delighted to accept the invitation. In addition to RAF Valley being important for military flying training, it is important economically as the second-largest employer on the island. In the past 18 months, we have announced investments of £175 million in a new training facility for the Texan, and £600 million for Hawk T1 and T2 engineering maintenance, underscoring our ongoing commitment to investment in jobs and skills at RAF Valley for many years to come.

In May, the MOD admitted that just 4% of the steel used to construct Type 31 frigates was sourced from UK steelyards. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that British warships are built in British shipyards by British workers using British steel?

Is a very good and important question. As the hon. Lady knows, sourcing steel is primarily a decision for our prime contractors who lead on procuring those platforms. To take the example of Type 26, I believe that almost 50% of that is UK-sourced, so it varies according to needs and requirements, but we encourage our prime contractors to use UK steel where possible and practical.

One decision that my hon. Friend could make to support defence jobs is to retain HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. Will he reassure the House, the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy and the armed forces that these two vital ships will be kept in operation and not mothballed?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with great authority from all his time on the Defence Committee. No final decision has been made on those platforms. I know that there has been much coverage in the press—and, inevitably, chatter—and I know how important they are to our service personnel. I reassure him that we are looking at this in the round. We are absolutely committed to supporting defence jobs across the piece. Obviously, we have recruitment challenges, but we must also support British industry, and that is why the Secretary of State is leading on that in his role as shipbuilding tsar.

Mr Speaker, I wish you and all right hon. and hon. Members a happy new year.

Northern Ireland is an integral part of the defence company supply chain, and I am keen to ensure that we in Northern Ireland have all the opportunity that there is on the mainland. What discussions has the Minister had with defence companies in Northern Ireland such as Thales on securing further employment in the defence sector?

I can confirm that I held my first small and medium-sized enterprise roundtable in Larne in Northern Ireland, where I met a number of Northern Ireland SMEs, which are integral to our industry. Just before Christmas, I met Thales, which is responsible for the NLAW and a number of other important munitions that have been used in Ukraine. That underlines the importance of supporting our British armaments industry.

Protection of Shipping Routes

6. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Royal Navy in protecting merchant shipping routes in conflict zones. (900857)

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

The Royal Navy and the Government are committed to the protection of maritime trade, ensuring that both people and shipping remain safe to travel through international waters. That work is driven by the latest intelligence and analysis of that picture. As I said on 19 December in my written statement, HMS Diamond has joined our partners and allies as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect freedom of navigation and merchant shipping in the Red sea and the gulf of Aden.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, and those in our armed services for their work protecting these important routes. Can he update the House on his discussions and work with our international partners to de-escalate the tensions, so that we do not need all the protection work and can go back to the normal free flow of trade?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Houthis have been causing havoc in that part of the Red sea, in particular attacking ships. There was a 500% increase in attacks on maritime shipping from November to December, showing that there is no direct connection to the wider conflict in the region but a decision by Houthis to attack free trade. That is unacceptable. We are working with our partners, through Operation Prosperity Guardian and other measures, to tackle it.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right to point the finger at the Houthis, but we should not ignore the role of Iran in this enterprise. What are he and the Government doing with our international partners to ensure that the merchant marine have the confidence to keep using the Red sea, which is critical to the smooth operating of world trade?

We call on the Iranian-backed Houthis to immediately cease these attacks. The Houthis will bear the responsibility and, I have to say, the consequences should they ignore those warnings. The right hon. Gentleman asks what more we have been doing; I issued a statement along with 10 other countries during the break, in which we made clear that consequences will follow if they do not stop this action. To be clear, the UK will not tolerate the Houthis closing international waterways.

I welcome what the Defence Secretary has to say. These attacks on Red sea shipping must stop. They destabilise regional security, disrupt international trade and put civilian and military lives in danger. We back the UK action with allies in the new maritime protection force, and the joint statement condemning the Houthi attacks that the Secretary of State just mentioned. He announced today but has not mentioned to the House that HMS Richmond is sailing to the Gulf. In the light of these escalating tensions, what other Royal Navy ships has he put on stand-by for the region?

I did not mention that specifically because I have already made a written ministerial statement to the House. HMS Richmond is sailing to the region because both HMS Diamond and HMS Lancaster are already there, and eventually they will need to be swapped out. It is not escalation in terms. I want to repeat to the right hon. Gentleman, the House and the country that we will not tolerate trade being impacted globally in the manner in which the Houthis are impacting it. It will have ramifications on everybody’s bills and on the flow of free trade and goods, and it must come to a halt. We have made clear through that joint statement that we are prepared to take action if required. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s commitment to support us in that action.

When the UK took the important step of joining Operation Prosperity Guardian, the Secretary of State gave the House this update in a written statement. He has done the same today, alongside his comments at questions. If further action is required to deter Houthi attacks and to safeguard freedom of shipping in the Red sea, will he undertake to provide Parliament with an oral statement?

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and a very happy new year to you and to the House. The Secretary of State is right to highlight the geopolitical and economic threat from the Houthi-led attacks in the Red sea, as well as the need to participate in Operation Prosperity Guardian, but could he advise the House of how sustainable this and future joint operations will be when increasing numbers of sailors have left the service, and the intake to replace them in the 12 months to March 2023 plunged by 22.1%?

First, I am confident that we will be able to continue or increase our actions. We complete all our operational requirements at the moment. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is a very tight labour market, but I think that is a subject for celebration in this House: we are seeing such low sustained unemployment, even through some pretty turbulent times. We will redouble our efforts to ensure that all our military services can recruit the people they need.

Ukraine: Military Support

We continue to support Ukraine’s priorities, including air defence to protect national infrastructure, further artillery ammunition, and support to sustain capabilities, including 10,000 Ukrainians to be trained in the first half of 2024.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the new maritime capability coalition, which builds on the support the UK, Norway and others are providing to Ukraine? Will he also re-emphasise the need for us to continue to work very closely with our NATO partners and allies to continue to provide and strengthen support to Ukraine, and make sure those resources reach where they are needed?

I absolutely will. As my right hon. Friend says, the new maritime capability coalition, which I launched at Admiralty House in December, has now been joined by 10 further nations, together with Norway, who will help to ensure that Ukraine’s success in Crimea and the Black sea continues. Ukraine, a nation which has virtually no navy at all, is doing an incredible job, destroying up to 20% of Russia’s Black sea fleet.

In the United States, additional aid to Ukraine remains stuck in the Senate and there is the potential for a shift in its political leadership later this year. Considering we are still awaiting this Government’s promised action plan for Ukraine, how assured can we be that the Secretary of State is discussing with our NATO allies all future scenarios to ensure there will be no lapse in collective military support for Ukraine?

I really hope that there can be no doubt about this Government’s commitment to Ukraine. Not only were we first with the training, but with tanks, missiles and commissioning to enable Ukraine to continue this fight in all manner of different ways. On a personal level, having had a family of three Ukrainians live with us in my house for a year, I am personally committed to this cause as well. We are doing everything possible, including working throughout the Christmas and new year period during which I had numerous conversations with my Ukrainian opposite number and others throughout its Government, to make sure we are supporting their action. It is a Ukrainian plan that is needed to win this war, not a British or American one.

Labour fully supports providing military aid to Ukraine, but what steps is the Secretary of State taking to speed up the development of a stockpile strategy, in collaboration with NATO allies, to replenish supplies and ensure that Ministry of Defence procurement and parts of the defence industry are on an urgent operational footing both to support Ukraine for the long term and to rebuild UK stocks for any future conflict?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We already have a huge amount of military munitions and equipment on order both to replenish and to help continue to support Ukraine. When it comes to Ukraine itself, the United Kingdom set up the international fund for Ukraine, through which we have numerous different orders in place for equipment for Ukraine, which has raised nearly £800 million. I think up to £400 million is already committed through those contracts.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work he has done as Defence Secretary since taking on the Department. His long experience in government has shown to the fore and I am delighted at the work he has done so far. In June last year I wrote, at the request of No. 10 and the Cabinet Office, to request the 2024-25 funding for support to Ukraine. The funding requested was between £2.3 billion and £2.6 billion. Unfortunately, since that time we have heard nothing from the Government about what they plan to do for the next financial year. Planners in the Ministry of Defence need time, as do the Ukrainians, to get used to it. If we do not start making an announcement soon, we will fall behind many of our European colleagues who have already overtaken us with their support.

Mr Speaker, can I start by thanking my right hon. Friend on behalf of everybody in this House? He had the foresight to supply NLAWs to Ukraine ahead of time and the foresight to start training troops for Ukraine ahead of time. Today I can say that we have trained 54,000 troops, including those who have trained since 2014. He is absolutely right about the ongoing support for Ukraine. All I can say is that he will not be disappointed and he will not need to wait too long.

In just five days last week, Russia fired 500 drones and missiles at Ukraine. Putin is stepping up his attacks, so we must step up UK support, but current military aid funding runs out in a matter of weeks. The former Defence Secretary said—although not today—that without new money it is

“very hard to continue the leadership the UK has been taking on Ukraine”.

I asked the current Defence Secretary about the 2024 Ukraine funding in the House in November. The former Defence Secretary wrote about it eight months ago. Seven weeks from when I asked, I ask again: when will new military aid funding for Ukraine be announced, and will it be multi-year?

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman did not hear my previous answer: it will not be long. To correct the record for the House, the funding—£2.3 billion—continues through to April this year, so it is not in any way, shape or form in danger of running out. To reassure the right hon. Gentleman and the House, I am also in constant contact with Umerov—my opposite number—and many others throughout the Ukrainian system, so they understand where funding is up to and are able to plan accordingly.

Women in the Defence Sector

4. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the number of women employed in the defence sector. (900855)

A happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to all colleagues.

As at October 2023, 55.4% of civil servants are female—a rise of 0.7 percentage points compared with 1 October 2022—and 11.7% of the UK regular armed forces and 15.9% of Future Reserves 2020 are women, up by 1.2 percentage points and 1.4 percentage points respectively in the past five years. That means that the trend is in the right direction, but we can do better, and I am confident that we will do so across the defence enterprise.[Official Report, 9 January 2024, Vol. 743, c. 4MC.]

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House.

I thank the Minister for his response. Many of my constituents work in the defence sector, whether at RNAS Yeovilton, Leonardo in Yeovil or Thales in my constituency. I commend initiatives such as Leonardo’s AeroWomen programme, which aims to increase gender parity in the sector, but I am concerned by the barriers that women still face. The women in defence charter aims to have women make up 30% of the UK armed forces by 2030, yet the current number is a meagre 12%. Has the Minister made an assessment in the last quarter of 2023 of the success of the charter since its launch?

I would gladly answer such a debate. I know all the sites the hon. Lady referred to, and I do understand the issue. She will know that we are actively engaged with the defence suppliers forum to increase the number of women across the defence enterprise, and the target is 30%.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

Many women undertake critical roles in our defence industry, so the policies by which we procure the equipment they build are very important for them. Ministers have been telling the Defence Committee since before Christmas that we can expect a major announcement on procurement reform in the new year. As we are now in January, can we have a commitment that we will have that announcement by the end of this month, please?

My right hon. Friend has cunningly got that question in. My understanding is that it is imminent. However, the point on women and procurement is well made, and my right hon. Friend will have observed—I hope with pleasure—the work that has been done, for example, in procuring uniform that actually fits the female form, which was not previously the case.

Gaza: UK Aid

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

In support of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the first maritime delivery of UK aid arrived in Egypt at new year. RFA Lyme Bay and four RAF aircraft have positioned over 150 tonnes of humanitarian aid into Egypt. Distribution of the aid has been impeded by challenges around its movement into Gaza. FCDO colleagues continue to work with the UN, Israel and Egypt to allow greater volumes of aid to be delivered.

Blwyddyn newydd heddychlon i bawb.—[Translation: A peaceful new year to everyone.]

On 29 December an aid convoy belonging to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was hit by Israeli gunfire, despite the vehicles being identifiable with the agency’s markings and after the IDF had designated the route from Gaza City in earlier co-ordination. Given Israel’s targeting of aid convoys, can the Minister say whether the Ministry of Defence maintains a tracker database of alleged breaches or violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza, as it has previously said it does for Yemen?

I will have to write to the hon. Lady on her exact point about the tracker. I am not aware of one, but that does not necessarily mean there is not one. I will write to her.

Although humanitarian aid is a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office lead, we continue to work with partners and allies to advocate for other crossings to be opened and to increase the volume of aid delivered into Gaza.

I welcome the news that RFA Lyme Bay has delivered aid to Egypt, so it is very disappointing to know that aid is still being held up. Given Israel’s activity in Gaza, the only way we can make sure that humanitarian aid gets to the people who need it is by trying to secure another cessation in hostilities. What role is the MOD playing in trying to make that happen?

The MOD has put its shoulder to the wheel in support of the Government’s wider diplomatic effort but, obviously, the negotiation of a pause such as the one that the hon. Lady rightly says is necessary to deliver aid in greater volumes is a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office lead. Mr Speaker, I believe you have had the foresight to grant an urgent question in which such questions may well be answered shortly by a Minister from that Department.

We are witnessing horrific scenes in Gaza. The humanitarian catastrophe there needs greater focus from countries like our own and others around the world, to bring it to an end and to get that aid in. Given that the Prime Minister said in a statement before Prorogation that we would use British armed forces capability to make those shipments of aid in greater numbers, why are we not getting those greater numbers of aid in? What is he doing to get Israel to open the crossings and to get that aid in, in the quantities that are needed?

British armed forces are being used to deliver aid into Gaza, and they have done so to good effect. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has struck up an excellent operational relationship with his Israeli counterpart, which has allowed for the opening of the Kerem Shalom crossing. Again, I think that is a reflection of the success of the UK’s engagement with the Israeli Government on this matter.

The volumes of aid are limited not by the availability of military capacity—there is plenty of that—but by the availability of crossings and the ability to distribute the aid, on which Foreign Office colleagues are working closely with the UN, Israel, Egypt and others to increase.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

France and Jordan successfully delivered medical aid to Gaza by air last week. Has the Minister considered the viability of the UK air-dropping food and medical supplies to Gaza in the same way?

I think air dropping is a very imprecise way of doing business. Our preference is to seek maritime routes.

Is a feasibility study being undertaken to see whether aid could be delivered directly into Gaza from ship to shore, should the future security situation allow it?

The Defence Secretary has led internationally on exactly such an initiative, working with our friends in the Cypriot Ministry of Defence. There are ideas to do exactly that, but they obviously need to be agreed with all parties before they can happen.

I have urgently pressed the Minister and the Department to secure Red sea vessels, as well as facilitating aid into Gaza. People in Bolton are demanding assurances on both maritime safety and humanitarian support for Gaza. What assurances can he provide to people in Bolton?

Clearly, the delivery of aid into Gaza is principally a maritime and aviation effort in the eastern Mediterranean, but my hon. Friend is correct to say that the security of shipping in the Red sea also has an impact. That is why Royal Navy warships are part of the Red sea taskforce that is seeking to protect those sea lanes.


The MOD delivers a range of services to veterans and their families. This includes the administration and payment of armed forces pensions and compensation, the provision of tailored advice and assistance through the Veterans Welfare Service and Defence Transition Services, and integrated personal commissioning for veterans.

Veteran homelessness rose by 14% last year according to the Government’s own figures. Does the Minister agree that his colleague, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), is failing to deliver on his pledge to end veteran homelessness?

The hon. Lady will be aware that homelessness is not principally a function of the Ministry of Defence, but all of us want to make sure that veterans and their families are properly accommodated, and naturally reducing homelessness remains a Government priority.

Thirteen veterans advisory and pensions committees across the UK provide the Minister’s Department with an important platform for hearing and helping veterans. Last year, with his help and the help of Members on both sides of the House, my private Member’s Bill gave the Secretary of State greater flexibility to use the network to help more veterans in more ways. Can the Minister tell the House what progress he has made with the VAPCs since my Bill received royal assent on 18 September?

First, let me congratulate my hon. Friend on his work on the Bill, which should properly be called the Millar Bill. I recently met VAPC chairs to discuss next steps, and we will ensure that the MOD engages with representatives from VAPCs in a series of working groups to set the direction for secondary legislation that will clarify their future role.

Can the Minister give some more detail on how the Department intends to take forward the recommendation from the Veteran Welfare Service review, and can he outline any timescales to which he intends to work on that review?

Our response to the independent review of welfare services for veterans accepts the principle and intended outcome of all the recommendations, and we will shortly publish our response to the recommendations of the armed forces compensation scheme quinquennial review. The reviews will inform a programme of improvements in the way we deliver the compensation scheme and how we provide welfare support to ensure a consistently high level of service. The responses will set out our commitment and high-level plans, in particular how we will make our services less adversarial and more user-friendly.

As promised by the Prime Minister, medals are being issued to recognise those who participated in Britain’s nuclear testing programme during the 1950s and 1960s. Some families have expressed a wish for a presentation ceremony for their medal. How would the Minister recommend that those are organised, whether locally or nationally?

Nuclear test medals have been mailed to thousands of recipients to ensure that as many as possible had received them before Remembrance Sunday, and also with the advanced age of some of the recipients in mind. My sense is that that was the right thing to do and has been appreciated by recipients. Naturally, there are opportunities—my hon. Friend may have such opportunities himself—to thank veterans and mark their contribution. I think the lieutenantry in some counties has done so, but the imperative was to get the medals out before Remembrance Sunday.

I spent the recess studying the veterans strategy action plan with its 60-odd commitments and thinking about the views of the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs on what he calls the “lack of political horsepower”. Why is it, after 14 years and so many commitments, that 76.4% of veterans are so dissatisfied with the compensation scheme for illnesses and injuries, and why are 500 veteran households declared homeless every three months, as we have heard? Is there still a lack of political horsepower or is there a need for better co-ordination between the—

Order. I am not being funny, but I have a whole list of questions to get through. We have to have shorter questions—that was very long. I think the Minister got the gist of it.

I got the gist. The armed forces compensation scheme and the war pension scheme will be dramatically improved by the ongoing digitalisation of veterans’ services. That is a huge commitment that will bring us into the 21st century and improve the service that is provided to veterans who are seeking compensation. The hon. Gentleman will know that in the last financial year there were 61 complaints to Veterans UK and 2,000 expressions of thanks for the services people had received.


I am pleased to confirm that we have made significant progress in developing the AUKUS partnership. The AUKUS defence ministerial meeting last month announced a range of tri-national activities taking forward advanced capabilities, including our deep space advanced radar capability, DARC. Australian personnel are training in the UK and the US, and £4 billion-worth of contracts have been awarded to UK companies building SSN-AUKUS. Finally, Congress passed legislation to enable AUKUS to facilitate frictionless trade between partners, including the reform of the international traffic in arms regulations.

The Secretary of State, together with the Australian Prime Minister, was recently welcomed at Rolls-Royce Raynesway in my constituency as part of the AUKUS preparations. I am sure the Minister would also be welcomed, if he can find time in his schedule for a visit. Two years ago, Rolls-Royce opened its doors to the UK’s first nuclear skills academy, which takes on 200 apprentices annually and trains them to become nuclear engineers. Has the Minister considered how the Government can work with Rolls-Royce to further the UK’s nuclear skills capacity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her excellent question and I would be delighted to visit Raynesway. Last August, I was pleased to announce the launch of the nuclear skills taskforce, jointly with the Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie). The taskforce will drive activity through a coherent action plan, bringing together Government, academia and employers, crucially from across both civil and defence nuclear sectors, including from Rolls-Royce. It will build on existing work to address the skills challenge across the nuclear sector and will bolster our ability to deliver on our commitments made under the AUKUS defence partnership.

AUKUS has strong support from across the House, but although the time scales seem very long, in reality there is growing concern in the defence community that they may already be slipping, often because of bureaucratic inertia. What is being done to keep this vital project on track? How often is the Minister meeting his officials to monitor and chase progress?

I am not aware of any slippage. We meet frequently and discuss this incredibly important matter. I am pleased to hear his confidence that AUKUS has cross-party support. It is generating huge numbers of jobs for the future: an additional 1,700 jobs will be created in Raynesway to build the reactors for the UK and Australia. It is an incredibly exciting project and we are 100% committed to it.

Let me make clear that AUKUS pillar 1 and pillar 2 have Labour’s full backing. However, we are concerned about whether the Government’s current focus on implementing AUKUS is sufficient and we want more UK leadership for this national endeavour. The latest list of ministerial responsibilities, from October 2023, does not even mention AUKUS or Australia, although it does mention the USA. Ministers have agreed that pillar 1 should have only a part-time official responsible for its implementation. If AUKUS is not even in his job description and his officials are working on it part time, how can we take the Minister seriously when he says it is important?

The way we take it seriously is not by judging the number of officials or what we are doing in that regard, but by looking at what we are actually delivering in the real world in terms of military capability and for British industry. As I just said, the US has reformed ITAR and there are thousands of jobs across the UK, boosting our Indo-Pacific capabilities. This is an extremely important project. We are making huge progress and the Government are very proud of the partnership.

Cost of Living: Armed Forces Personnel

Defence has introduced a range of measures to support armed forces personnel, including capping subsidised accommodation charges to 1%; freezing daily food charges; increasing travelling allowances by 7%; providing wraparound childcare to families and increasing the continuity of education allowance rates from August 2023; and implementing the biggest uplift in service pay in 21 years, which includes 9.7% for the most junior ranks.

The Government claim that service personnel are not financially burdened by domestic assignments, but a constituent of mine—a serving officer of the armed forces—finds himself thousands of pounds out of pocket, while others report turning to food banks to survive. What discussions is the Minister having with Cabinet colleagues to expand measures and address the costs incurred as a result of serving this country during the cost of living crisis?

The cost of living crisis has affected all our constituents, has it not? Covid has made life difficult for everybody, but at the Ministry of Defence we have recognised as far as we can the pressures that bear, particularly on the lowest paid. That is why we have accepted the 9.7% uplift in pay, which I think is unique across the public sector for the last year, having accepted in full the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body.

I congratulate the Minister on the excellent work that he has done to support our armed forces with their cost of living. May I ask him to be especially aware of the burden that falls on members of our special forces—the additional burdens that they bear within families as well as in the field? Will he consider that when he thinks further about ways to ameliorate and support their living circumstances?

I understand my right hon. Friend’s interest in this matter. He can be sure that the special forces—although we never talk about them—are always at the forefront of our minds.

Ukraine: Military Aid

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Secretary of State’s earlier answers to the former Secretary of State and shadow Secretary of State.

In 2022, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced what military aid the UK would make available to Ukraine through to April 2023; in September 2022, the subsequent Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), announced—a full 15 months ago—what military aid she would make available to Ukraine through to April 2024. Why has there not yet been an announcement on funding for Ukraine for the rest of 2024 and beyond?

In the interests of brevity, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answers given to the former Secretary of State and shadow Secretary of State earlier.

I welcome the successful conclusion of the RAF’s training of the first cohort of Ukrainian pilots. As they move to learn to fly F-16s, can my right hon. Friend commit that in the next financial year we will continue working with our allies to give Ukraine the pilots and planes they need to defend themselves?

Absolutely. Any pilot training pipeline has a foundational level of flying training that we are able to deliver. Similarly, given that English is the international language of aviation, we are able to do language training as well. Very obviously, the more aircraft-specific training has to be delivered by F-16 nations, but we are proudly part of that F-16 coalition.

Israel: Terrorist Attacks

We have provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to help anticipate any further attacks and to assist with hostage recovery.

Some 100,000 people have been displaced from their homes in northern Israel because of the fear that if Hezbollah adopt the same tactics as Hamas, the carnage could be even worse than on 7 October. What are the UK Government doing to try to prevent more weapons from getting to Hezbollah, to de-escalate the situation and to see, at the very least, Hezbollah retreat further north from the border?

I thank my right hon. Friend. We are working alongside our P3 partners to de-escalate tensions on the blue line and reduce that risk of escalation. We are continuing our efforts to support the resilience of the Lebanese armed forces, who we have helped elsewhere, with the eventual aim of getting them to the Lebanese southern border and ensuring implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701.

Armed Forces Recruitment

We continue to apply an array of measures to support recruitment and retention and refine the armed forces offer. Those include financial incentives, flexible service and an improved accommodation offer. The Haythornthwaite review has a key part to play, and teams have been stood up across the Ministry of Defence to implement all 67 recommendations, working to establish a reward and incentive architecture that will attract and retain skills.

Colchester is the proud home of 16 Air Assault Brigade, the Army’s rapid reaction force. My right hon. Friend knows Colchester well. What steps is he taking to promote recruitment into the parachute regiment based at Merville barracks in Colchester, one of the UK’s newest and most vibrant cities, where recruits will be embraced by our local community?

My hon. Friend and I both have an affection for the city of Colchester. The regiment continues to meet its operational requirements. There is currently an internal transfer bounty scheme that offers a Haythornthwaite-compliant £7,500 to infantry private soldiers on successful transfer to the parachute regiment. That supports the Army in moving towards its future soldier structure, and will certainly be of assistance to the regiment.

Despite the answer the Minister gave to the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the fact remains that this year retention and recruitment into the armed forces is becoming a serious crisis. What is the current difference between intake and outflow for the three services?

I am more than happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the detailed breakdown per service, broken down into regulars and reserves. He is right to point out that right across the western world there is a crisis in retention and recruitment into the armed forces, but I hope that the measures that I described in answer to earlier questions indicate how we are trying to address that, not least by increasing the pay to members of our armed forces, especially the most junior.

ARAP Ineligibility: Wellbeing of Personnel

19. If he will make an assessment of the potential impact of the ineligibility of certain Afghan armed forces personnel for the Afghan relocations and assistance policy on the wellbeing of serving and retired military personnel. (900871)

It is undoubtedly the case that many of those who served in Afghanistan are deeply disappointed that those they served with, either in the Afghan national army or the Afghan special forces, or in the wider apparatus of the state, have not been able to come.

I thank the Minister for his answer. A constituent who served in Afghanistan told me recently that current and retired members of our armed forces face considerable torment when they see their former Afghan colleagues left high and dry by the British Government. What active steps is the Minister taking to provide support to our service personnel in that situation, and to reunite the small but fortunate band of Afghan veterans that make it to the UK with their British service colleagues?

Within the serving cohort, such is the turnover of staffing within the armed forces that very few will have had direct operational experience alongside either the Afghan armed forces or even the patrol interpreters and others who are eligible for ARAP, but the hon. and learned Lady is right that some element of the serving force will be deeply invested in this matter. Obviously the chain of command is there to support them and answer their questions. Within the veterans community, the sentiment is very strongly held. The reality is that there have to be limits to the UK scheme, as there are to those of other countries. No country has made an open offer to those who served in the Afghan security forces; all countries’ offers are focused on those who worked directly with that country. Clearly what direct service looks like is a matter for debate. I suspect that a question on that is coming.

Surely special consideration must be given to those members of the Afghan special forces who, even if they did not work directly for us, worked extremely closely with us. Can the Minister tell the House how many, or how few, members specifically of the Triples and the special forces face a constant threat to their lives and ought to be rescued?

The number that is circulated is around 400 to 500, but that is not a number that the UK Government can necessarily verify because we do not have the employment records of those units.

Topical Questions

As we enter 2024, I pay tribute to and thank our armed forces for all their extraordinary work during 2023. I know that the whole House will join me in that. Sadly, 2024 is likely to be just as busy. We have already discussed the intolerable situation of the Houthis closing international waterways. We call for the Iranian-backed Houthis to immediately cease those attacks. The Houthis will bear responsibility for the consequences should they ignore those warnings.

Happy new year to you and the whole House, Mr Speaker. Two west Lancashire men, Robert Hanson and Arthur Pim, served in the RAF’s photographic reconnaissance unit during world war two, taking millions of photos over enemy lines. Their efforts helped the allies to defeat the Nazis. There remains no national monument to the PRU. I am backing one; are the Government?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the subject, and I will certainly be happy to arrange for her to meet with a Minister to discuss it further.

T2. Innocent Ukrainians have just seen in a second new year under some of the heaviest aerial bombardments since Russia’s illegal war began. Will my right hon. Friend please update the House on what steps he is taking to ensure Ukraine has modern aerial defence systems to protect innocent Ukrainians from these murderous, appalling airstrikes? (900879)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this ongoing illegal war run by Putin. We immediately responded to the attacks over the new year by bringing forward the gifting of 200 further air defence missiles. I have mentioned already the international fund for Ukraine, which is helping to provide, among other things, air defence.

The Minister for Defence Procurement has today confirmed that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark, based in Devonport, which I am proud to represent, are still at risk of being mothballed. He said that no final decisions have been made, so the risk to these ships is real. When will a decision be made? Will the ships be cut, or will they be tied up alongside, flying the white ensign but never really putting to sea?

Of course anyone who is serious about the defence budget has to make the decision about whether to put into maintenance ships that have already served twice their intended lives—18 years and more, times two—and that would come out of that maintenance after brand-new ships were at sea. There is obviously a decision for the Royal Navy to make on that, but I remind the House that there are eight Type 26s and five Type 31s under construction or under contract.

T5. We face a complex range of security threats and challenges in our rapidly changing world. Cyber-attacks are increasingly common and nations across the world are preparing to become combat ready for space warfare. What assessment has the Minister’s Department made of supporting defence jobs to assist the UK’s efforts against cyber and space warfare? (900882)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who asks a second excellent question, given the growing importance of the cyber and space domains. On cyber, I can confirm that the 2022 national cyber strategy highlights the Government’s commitment to growing the UK cyber-ecosystem and that new cyber-career structures are being developed across Defence, with new ways of training, upskilling and rewarding our people. On space, we have created a space academy for Government, industry and academia and are supporting cross-Government work to develop a space workforce action plan for 2024.

Does the Minister recognise any semblance of truth in this statement by Dominic Cummings,

“the scandal of nuclear weapons infrastructure which is a dangerous disaster and a budget nightmare of hard-to-believe and highly classified proportions”,

regarding the Coulport naval facility and the nuclear deterrent black hole?

As with our previous exchange, while I respect the hon. Gentleman’s position, we do not comment on speculation. What I can say is that nuclear infrastructure is incredibly important to the future of our deterrent. His Majesty’s naval base Clyde has developed an established management plan with a 40-year horizon that provides a strategic vision for the future that is clear and simple and that endures, and we have a £1.4 billion programme for Faslane and Coulport nuclear facilities and nuclear infrastructure.

T8. Last month’s treaty with Japan and Italy brought the global air combat programme’s Team Tempest a step closer to reality. It followed news that BAE Systems is to hire 2,700 graduates and apprentices this year, including more than 500 Lancashire-based roles across the air division. What estimate does my hon. Friend make of the defence sector’s impact on the economy, job prospects and opportunities for young people in places like Fylde—and, indeed, Chorley? (900885)

It is brilliant news, and we are delighted to have signed the treaty with Japan and Italy last month. My hon. Friend asks about the impact; it is fair to say that it will have a particular impact on his constituency, which houses the Warton site, where we have our factory of the future for the global combat air programme. I can confirm that a 2021 report by PwC estimated that the programme would contribute £26 billion to the UK economy between 2021 and 2050 and support on average 21,000 jobs per year, many of which will be in Lancashire, Mr Speaker, and particularly in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

T3. I do not know whether the Minister has seen the article by the Daily Mail defence editor, Mark Nicol, about the lack of transparency on pinch points in the armed forces personnel workforce. Figures on that used to be produced regularly. When was the decision taken to no longer produce them, and will the Minister commit today to producing them in the interest of transparency? (900880)

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a straight answer to that because I cannot remember when the figures were withdrawn, but I can certainly look into it and write to him. On pinch points, he will be aware that, through Haythornthwaite-type processes, we are incentivising people to join parts of defence that are underpopulated at the moment, such as chefs and—

My hon. Friend has already acknowledged the importance of women in the armed forces. Will he join me in expressing belated thanks to retired Air Marshal Sir Baz North, who, in a difficult constituency case, helped me to get someone into the Royal Air Force, and will he join me in praising that person, Lowri Simner, who has just been promoted to squadron leader?

T4. The service family accommodation at Clive barracks in my constituency is concerning. A family who have severe health problems are living in a mouldy house. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation does not want to spend the money on fixing those problems; it wants to move them into a different house for the second time in two years. What are the Minister’s commitments on upgrading and maintaining the housing stock, particularly on sites that are earmarked for closure, such as Clive barracks? (900881)

The hon. Lady is welcome to write to me about that specific case. I pay tribute to her because she consistently raises such accommodation issues—we had an exchange about them in Westminster Hall. She mentions DIO money and, as I said in that exchange, the key is investment. We have doubled the budget for maintenance and upgrades this year as part of the extra £400 million that we are putting in. That is why we can address the damp and mould in so many properties. I am happy to look at the specifics of the case she mentions.

As the media report the retirement of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, there are obvious questions about Britain’s future amphibious capability, which was used so admirably during the Falklands war, along with the unrivalled skills of our specialist troops. Does the Minister agree that our Royal Marine commandos are an asset that we cannot afford to lose?

I absolutely agree. I just want to correct a point that I made earlier: I was talking about frigates, but I think the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) was talking about the landing platform docks, on which no decision has been made.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton) mentions, the Royal Marines are absolutely essential. I have asked the First Sea Lord to provide a plan for how their excellent work will be taken forward.

T6. The long-running industrial dispute at Defence Equipment and Support in Beith in my constituency started in July last year and looks set to continue as workers fight for free and equal treatment. Given the important work that is undertaken at that facility—not least to ensure that vital equipment is dispatched to Ukraine—will the Secretary of State personally intervene to break the stalemate, end the dispute once and for all, and provide equality for all workers at the Beith site? (900883)

I know how important this issue is to the hon. Lady. Differing rates are paid for workers with different skills and qualifications, which is normal practice in both the public and private sectors. I understand that a generous pay offer remains on the table. It would significantly improve the pay of the workers in dispute beyond the recent 2023 pay award, which has already significantly uplifted base pay for those specific workers, alongside over £4,000 in bonuses. It is disappointing that GMB members have voted to continue industrial action, but DE&S officials continue to be open to talks with the GMB on a constructive basis.

The pursuit of exquisite exclusivity in defence procurement is to be lauded, but can the Minister confirm that his Department is also focused on procuring the logistic platforms that we need to sustain it? Is it perhaps time for a defence operational capability audit to look into that key capability gap?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point—of course, he speaks with great experience. As we have been stressing, the whole point of acquisition reform is, instead of seeking exquisite platforms, to go for 80% to get them into service faster and then to have spiral development. We think that that is the future of procurement.

T9. Our nuclear veterans waited 70 years for recognition and are waiting even longer for justice. In a debate last year, the Minister promised “in the days ahead” to examine 150 documents relating to blood and urine tests held by the Atomic Weapons Establishment. What did his examination find? (900886)

That is certainly my intention—I have not seen them yet but I intend to. The hon. Lady will have seen the list of 150; I think she will be disappointed about the content of those documents when she sees them, because very few of them will give us any information that will take us any further forward. But I committed to reading them and will certainly do so in the very near future.

Ministers know that Sir John Moore barracks in my constituency is due for disposal in 2026 as part of the future soldier programme, which will bring phase 1 capability to the Pirbright site and put 900 houses in its place. Will a Minister meet me to ensure that the current ministerial team is right behind the move and, if it is, that we have an intelligent masterplan that does not just help Winchester City Council to meet its housing targets?

The 2023 armed forces satisfaction survey confirmed that half of personnel do not believe that their family benefit from being a service family. The impact of service life on family and personal life remains a top factor behind the intention to leave, so what does the Secretary of State propose to do to listen to forces families and implement policies to make a difference?

It is very important that our service personnel feel that they are not only honoured when they go to war but comfortable at home. One of the big things I am doing is pressing forward with the review of armed service accommodation, including by providing £400 million to improve that accommodation, which will make the lives of service personnel better at home.


“short-sighted, militarily illiterate manoeuvre totally at odds with strategic reality”

was how the Defence Committee described, in February 2018, the proposal to retire HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark ahead of their anticipated lifetime dates of 2033 and 2034. May I advise and warn the Secretary of State not to be blindsided by the people who are raising this matter again after a change of Secretary of State for Defence?

I point out that, of course, they will be five years older, but I again stress to the House that no decision has been made on the landing platform dock vessels.

Let me take the Minister back to the Triples. There has been some debate about the extent to which the Triples were paid directly by UK forces. I know that that was the case. Does the Minister accept that and, if he does, does he not think they should be looked at under category 2 rather than category 4 of the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme?

There is a difference of opinion between the advice I receive from officials and the position the hon. Gentleman has set out. It would be good to bring him in to meet those officials, have that discussion and reach some truth.

Will the Ukraine action plan 2023 ever be published? Better still, will there be a Ukraine action plan 2024? And when will that be published?

We work hand in glove with the Ukrainian Government to make sure that the action plan is one that can win the war. We have seen huge progress, in particular, in Crimea and the Black sea, and we look forward, throughout the House, to further progress in ’24 for our brave Ukrainian friends.

Given that homelessness among veterans has gone up by 14% and that it is a cross-departmental issue, what more are Ministers doing to ensure that all our veterans are housed?

As I said in answer to a previous question, homelessness remains a Government priority, whether or not someone is a veteran. In general, the experience of our veterans, when they return to civilian life, is a positive one and we should celebrate that.

Clyde-built HMS Argyll is the oldest escort in the fleet. She is currently in refit in Devonport and has been since August ’22. Will the Minister for Defence Procurement advise when she will be recommissioned, re-crewed and back in service?

Israel and Palestine

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office if he will make a statement on the situation in Israel and Palestine.

Let me begin by reiterating our fundamental belief in Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas. The events of 7 October were truly horrifying. Israel has a right to restore its security and to ensure that such horrifying events can never be repeated. We are also clear that too many civilians have been killed. Israel needs to ensure that its campaign is targeted on Hamas leaders and operatives, fulfils its obligations to protect civilians and is consistent with international humanitarian law.

No one wants to see this conflict go on for a moment longer than necessary. That is why the United Kingdom played a leading role in securing the passage of UN Security Council resolution 2720, which made clear the urgent demand for expanded humanitarian access. The resolution also called for the release of hostages and for steps towards a sustainable ceasefire, for which the British Government have consistently led calls.

Britain has been pushing a number of innovative and impactful approaches—especially, but not only, maritime delivery—to support aid for Gaza. We are focused on the bigger picture and longer-term strategic value. UK Ministers are lobbying the Government of Israel hard and regularly to allow more aid in and reduce the numerous constraints that are hindering many aspects of our and others’ efforts to help Gazan civilians. We have appointed Mark Bryson-Richardson as our representative for humanitarian affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Last week, a Royal Navy vessel delivered 87 tonnes of life-saving UK and Cypriot aid, destined for Gaza, into Egypt. We have also supported the United Nations World Food Programme to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza. Seven hundred and fifty tonnes of life-saving food aid arrived in the first delivery and a second convoy, with 315 tonnes of critical supplies, reached Gaza last week, partly funded by the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the risk of famine is stark, and the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers throughout the Government are pushing the need to address this with the Israeli Government.

The Government are urging all sides to avoid further escalation. The situation is fragile and an escalation in violence, including on Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, is not in anyone’s interests. In the Red sea, the Houthis’ attacks against commercial shipping are patently unacceptable. We have already taken action to deter Houthi threats, and we will not hesitate to take further action as needed.

There is no perfect formula for peace. What I can say is that Gaza should ultimately be under Palestinian control, and we support a two-state solution that guarantees security and stability for both Israeli and Palestinian people.

Mr Speaker, the Christmas period has not brought peace to the middle east. There has been no let-up to the intolerable suffering in Gaza and no end to the cruelty for hostages. Millions are displaced, desperate and hungry. Israel continues to use devastating tactics that have seen far too many innocent civilians killed, with unacceptable blocks on essential aid, nowhere safe for civilians, a growing humanitarian catastrophe, and now warnings of a deadly famine. Meanwhile, Hamas terrorists continue to hold hostages, hide among civilians and fire rockets into Israel.

This dire situation must not continue. The need for a sustained ceasefire is clear. The fighting must stop urgently. We need a humanitarian truce now—not as a short pause but as the first step towards what will stop the killing of innocents, provide urgent humanitarian relief, ward off famine, free hostages and provide the space for a sustainable ceasefire so that fighting does not restart. I urge the Government to do everything they can to work for a sustained ceasefire, which will also ease the growing regional tensions across the divides and avoid the catastrophe of a wider war. Those risks are rising.

Will the Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to urge restraint in Lebanon and to see the full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which would allow civilians on both sides of the border to return home? In the Red sea, all the targeting of commercial ships and international trade routes that puts civilians and military personnel in danger must stop, so I welcome the approach of the US, the UK, Germany and others to send clear warnings to those responsible. Will the Government ensure that this House has the time and space to scrutinise decisions of any significance that may be required?

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for what he said and the way he said it. He is entirely right about the plight of civilians caught up in this tragedy and the urgent requirement for humanitarian support to get into Gaza in much greater numbers.

The right hon. Gentleman calls for a sustained ceasefire, and the British Government believe that is the right approach. That is why we put so much effort into securing agreement on United Nations resolution 2720.

The right hon. Gentleman is also entirely right to say it is important that the conflict is contained, and from the first moment Britain has moved military assets and other equipment to try to ensure that we detect any likelihood of it spreading more widely.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned in particular what is going on in the Red sea, and will understand that many Governments are committed to ensuring freedom of navigation and trade. We are protected in that extent by international law. Operation Prosperity Guardian is in full swing and HMS Diamond will join HMS Lancaster shortly.

Thank you Mr Speaker.

I welcome the £2 million for additional food and the special envoy that so many of us have been calling for. First, now that Israel says it has dismantled Hamas in the north of Gaza, what are the plans to surge aid into the area, and what are Israel’s plans to rebuild the territory? Secondly, will my right hon. Friend give consideration to my proposal for an Israel-Palestine contact group that can start the hard work of a long-term peace process by kicking off track 2 negotiations?

I thank the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee for her comments about a contact group, which we will look at extremely carefully. I am grateful for her welcome for the humanitarian aid co-ordinator, who is working flat out on these matters, and also for what she says about the additional funding for food. The problems at the moment are not a shortfall in funding; they are in getting the food and necessary humanitarian requirements inside Gaza.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and may I wish you and your staff a very happy new year?

Of course, it has not been a happy new year for the 2 million desperate and terrified people trapped inside Gaza, for whom 2024 brought further constant bombardment as well as the threat of famine and disease, with 50,000 people injured and almost 25,000 confirmed killed. That proves that repeated pleas from this Government and others for Israel to abide by international humanitarian law have been routinely ignored.

Scotland’s First Minister recently described what is happening in Gaza as “tantamount to ethnic cleansing”, and South Africa has asked the International Court of Justice to urgently declare Israel in breach of the 1948 genocide convention for its continued killing of Palestinians, the destruction of homes, the expulsion of people and the blockade of food, water and medical assistance. Do the UK Government think that Scotland’s First Minister and the Government of South Africa are wrong in their assessment of the current situation? If they are wrong, how are they wrong specifically?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The Government respect the role of the ICJ and we will of course follow what is going on with great care. We have always made it clear that it is up to the courts to determine these matters and that all parties must ensure that their actions are proportionate and necessary and minimise harm to civilians.

What have we learned since we last met? We have learned that Hamas are using North Korean weapons. We have heard of further examples of gender-based violence, we have heard examples of hostages being kept in cages, and we have heard the testimony of a released 17-year-old hostage, Agam Goldstein Almog, who spoke of sexual violence and torture perpetrated against hostages who are still being held. To top it all, in the last few days Jibril Rajoub, a Palestinian Authority representative and the secretary of Fatah’s central committee, has said:

“We view political Islam, and foremost among it the Hamas Movement, as part of the fabric of our struggle and our political and social fabric.”

Given what the Minister has said about the need for a two-state solution and the role of Fatah and the PA in that, what representations is he making to the PA about the radicalised language that they are using?

The Government urge everyone to exercise restraint in the language that they use, but I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s first point. Like many other Members, I saw the extensive reporting in The New York Times about what happened on 7 October, during the recess, and it behoves everyone to read it. As for the Palestinian Authority, Britain and our allies, and like-minded countries, are doing a great deal of work to try to secure a better arrangement for it when the fighting stops.

As the Minister will know, a large number of children are being killed, but many others have been wounded or maimed as a result of the conflict. We now know that hospital treatment and hospital facilities in Gaza have virtually collapsed. A number of non-governmental organisations, such as Save the Children, are now working to evacuate children from Gaza to ensure that they receive urgent medical treatment in third countries. Will the Minister ask his officials to convene a meeting of the NGOs to establish what further assistance our country could give in this respect, as we did in the case of Ukraine?

The right hon. Gentleman is right about the plight of children on both sides of this conflict. We are in close touch with the NGOs that he has cited, and we are also considering carefully what contribution a UK medical team could make. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, field hospitals, both inside and outside Gaza, are an important aspect of that. They could have a dramatic effect, and using them would be much better than taking people who are wounded either on to ships or to other countries. We are looking at all these matters to try and address the precise problem that the right hon. Gentleman has described.

The conflict is clearly escalating, and no single power or, indeed, alliance is in full control, but what we should not lose control over is freedom of navigation and shipping movements in international waters. Surely a red line has already been crossed because ships have been targeted. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what will happen if shipping is further targeted? Will we not just take out those missiles in the air, but attack the silos from which they are launched?

My right hon. Friend will have seen that HMS Diamond has shot down an attack drone, on, I think, the first occasion that the Navy has been in action in that way for 30 years. He will also have heard what the Government have said: like many other countries, they have made it crystal clear that we will not accept the fettering of the international rights of navigation, and all those involved in trying to frustrate that should hear those words.

Just today, Medical Aid For Palestinians has reported that, along with the International Rescue Committee’s emergency medical team, it has been forced to withdraw and cease activities at Al-Aqsa hospital—the only functioning hospital in Gaza’s middle area—as a result of increasing Israeli military activity around it. There seems to be a repetition of the dismantling of health services that we have witnessed in the north in the south and middle of Gaza. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government’s support for the continued bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure will now apply in every conflict, or whether it applies only in relation to Palestinian civilians and Palestinian hospitals?

The hon. Lady knows very well that all parties must ensure that their actions are proportionate and necessary and minimise harm to civilians, and it is in that context that we seek on all occasions to urge the Israeli Government to adopt those three key criteria.

There will not be a single person in the House today whose heart does not break for the death of innocent civilians, which is a consequence of any conflict. Are the Government having any discussions in the wider Arab region to get Hamas to move away from their stated aims of destroying Israel and to ensure that they disarm, which would allow a basis on which to bring this fighting to an end?

May I offer my right hon. Friend my congratulations on his honour? He is right about the importance of ensuring that all pressure is put on Hamas to desist from these outrageous and horrendous proposals that make up part of its charter. The British Government, through a whole variety of different means, do everything we can to prosecute that case.

Said Zaaneen, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, has been trapped in Gaza by the war. He is an extremely able student, who has a full scholarship from the university, and he is keen to continue his studies. The Foreign Office has been compiling lists of those who wish to leave, but it is currently limited to dual nationals and their immediate dependants. I appreciate all the difficulties at the Rafah crossing, but would the Minister consider extending eligibility for the Foreign Office lists to those Palestinian nationals who, like Said, are in the middle of courses at UK universities, or will he at least agree to meet me to discuss the case?

I think the answer is for the hon. Gentleman and I to have a chat immediately after this urgent question, and we will see what we can do to help.

Women and girls are reported to have been raped or mutilated by Hamas in at least seven different locations in Israel in a deliberate, systematic and premeditated way. Hostages have been reportedly subject to appalling sexual abuse, too. These are girls as young as 18 or 19, and they are still there. What assessment has my right hon. Friend’s Department made of the emerging evidence documenting Hamas-style savagery? What conversations has he had with the Red Cross, which should be stopping at nothing to insist on access to these hostages?

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. Our contact and heavy involvement with the Red Cross and Red Crescent is happening daily. In terms of her core remark, it is the British Government’s endeavour to ensure that there will not be impunity for those who commit these horrendous crimes. No matter how long it takes, we will do everything we can to ensure that that impunity does not exist.

The Israeli Defence Minister has set out proposals for the post-war governance of Gaza involving a multinational taskforce working with Palestinians to restore peace, order and normality. What is the British Government’s assessment of those proposals?

We greatly welcome all constructive proposals, and we welcome the point that the Israeli Minister has made that when this dreadful conflict is over, Gaza must be run by Palestinians.

Overcrowding and inadequate food, water, shelter and sanitation—the World Health Organisation has already warned that these are ideal conditions for disease to spread. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support partners on the ground in Gaza to help prevent the outbreak and spread of disease?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. There is a huge danger that, as a result of insufficient food, appalling sanitation and inadequate shelter—made worse by the winter rains—these conditions will persist, and that is why we are intent on trying to get the number of trucks that get into Gaza up to 500 a day. It is also why we have deployed this medical team, working with others, to see what can be done immediately on the ground.

The Israel Defence Forces chief spokesperson reflected on Saturday on the destruction of Hamas in the north of Gaza, before the IDF starts to tackle Hamas more seriously in the centre and the south. He said:

“We will do this differently…based on the lessons we have learned from the fighting so far.”

What confidence does the Minister have that Israel will conduct its counter-insurgency operations in such a way as to abide by international humanitarian law?

It is not for me to second-guess the military tactics of what is going on in Gaza, but all I can say to the hon. Gentleman is to repeat the point I have made before: all parties must ensure that their actions are proportionate, necessary and minimise harm to civilians.

Members of the Israeli Government have expressed their desire that settlers should return to Gaza at some point after the conflict. Away from the terrible massacre taking place in that awful conflict zone, the situation in the west bank continues to deteriorate. In a very welcome move, the UK Government announced that they would bring in travel bans on violent settlers, but does the Minister agree that in order to deter this activity, which is worsening by the day, something more draconian may be needed? Would he please look at instituting immediate bans on trade with settlements?

I can tell my right hon. Friend that his first point, about the importance of these matters, is well understood by the Government. On his second point, that is not the policy of the Government. He will be aware that we are opposed to boycotts, divestments and sanctions—that is the position of the Government.

Senior representatives of Israel continue to use language endorsing genocide against Palestinians. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that the IDF would turn Gaza into rubble, and a senior leader in the Israeli army has said that, in Gaza:

“There will be no electricity and no water…there will only be destruction”

On LBC radio last week, the Israeli ambassador advocated the full destruction of Gaza and said that there was “no alternative”. Last week, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary to ask him to condemn her genocidal words, but he refused. Will the Minister now condemn her remarks and commit to taking the strongest possible action against her?

No, but I can tell the hon. Member that, in respect of the humanitarian difficulties that he has identified, we are doing everything we can to try to secure unhindered humanitarian access, and we will continue to do so.

Given that Hamas will never accept a two-state solution, does the Minister agree that any two-state solution must exclude Hamas—or any renamed successor—from any role in the government of Gaza after this horror is all over?

There is clearly no place in any future settlement for Hamas and their vile ideology and terrorist actions. The two-state solution must be driven forward by people of good will on all sides.

Last week, when the Israeli ambassador was told she was making

“an argument for destroying the whole of Gaza”,

she replied,

“do you have another solution…?”

Genocidal rhetoric like that has been echoed by a litany of Israeli officials and is matched by a murderous bombing campaign that has now killed more than 23,000 Palestinians. That is why Israel now faces the charge of genocide at the International Court of Justice. Will the Minister expel the Israeli ambassador for her genocidal rhetoric? Will he support the case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, and will he end his Government’s complicity in this atrocity by banning arms sales to Israel and demanding an immediate ceasefire?

As I think the hon. Member will know, we are pressing for a sustainable ceasefire as well as humanitarian causes, and we are doing everything we can in that respect. In respect of the wider matter about international humanitarian law, the judgment that the Foreign Secretary made on 12 December on these matters still stands. There has been no additional evidence since that time to suggest otherwise.

Regarding the South African application into the International Court of Justice, our US allies have described it as

“meritless, counterproductive and completely without any basis in fact”.

The Irish Prime Minister also appears to have distanced himself from it. Will my right hon. Friend say a bit more about his view on that application at the ICJ? Does he agree that using terms such as “genocide” is actually an inversion of the truth in this context?

I do think that using such inflammatory terms is unhelpful; I agree with my right hon. Friend about that. In respect of the ICJ, South Africa is entirely entitled to refer this matter. Right hon. and hon. Members will reach conclusions for themselves on whether something like that is helpful at this time.

My right hon. Friend, like me, will bear in mind that Israel is a state party to the Geneva convention of 1949, so it is obliged to take action against those accused of grave breaches of international humanitarian law. Because of the nature of Israeli society, that is something that we would expect it to do, were those circumstances to arise.

Blwyddyn newydd dda—happy new year. More than 23,000 people have died in Gaza since October and entire communities have been razed to the ground. While the International Court of Justice has a clear definition of genocide, there remains no legal definition of ethnic cleansing. Will the Government act to ensure a definition of ethnic cleansing in law so that this legal test may be applied to the conflict?

I am sure that there will be plenty of time for these legal concepts to be questioned and advanced, but the central aim of the British Government today is to get relief and humanitarian supplies into Gaza, to help those who are trapped there and who have been eloquently described across the House this afternoon.

Too many civilians and children have died. A sustainable ceasefire is needed urgently. There are concerns about malaria, scabies and other diseases, so as well as food and medicines will the Minister prioritise fuel for hospitals and health workers?

There has been an increase in the amount of fuel getting into Gaza, but my right hon. Friend is right that it needs to be distributed. We are looking very carefully at how we can make progress on that.

More than 22,000 Palestinians have been killed, two thirds of them women and children. Our own Foreign Secretary has warned Israel that civilian deaths in Gaza are too high. Now a state has triggered the genocide convention, which will be determined by the International Court of Justice this week, yet Britain continues to grant weapons licences and to export weapons to Israel. Does the Minister agree that it would be reckless to continue to grant weapons licences and to export weapons to Israel, as that could support a potential act of genocide and render UK Government officials complicit in genocide under article 25 of the Rome statute?

The hon. Lady will know that Britain has one of the toughest arms exports regulation regimes in the world. Clearly, any new applications would be considered by that very tough regime in the normal way.

Hamas leaders have long enjoyed impunity, moving freely between Turkey, Lebanon and Qatar, financing and amassing international support for their terror activities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this special treatment by those nations has resulted in Hamas accruing the capabilities that led to the barbaric, evil and, frankly, medieval 7 October massacre? Will he ensure that more is done to clamp down on states that facilitate the strengthening of Hamas?

My hon. Friend makes a very good case. He is right that we must ensure that those who perpetrate the dreadful evil to which he refers are not able to do so again.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State has indicated that he is in contact with the Israeli Government and is expressing the Government’s views, but has he raised with them the prospect of widespread disease and famine among Palestinian people in Gaza? If so, has he received any sympathetic response from the Israeli Government that they are aware that how they are conducting their bombing campaign is likely to bring that about?

These discussions are going on all the time, and they are greatly assisted by the British Government’s appointment of Mark Bryson-Richardson, the humanitarian co-ordinator. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers have been actively engaged in making the points to which the hon. Gentleman refers, so he may rest assured that there is no lack of explanation from the British Government in that respect.

We all want a sustainable ceasefire that leads to a lasting peace, but it is easy to forget that a ceasefire existed between Israel and Hamas on 6 October, and we all know what happened the following day. Does my right hon. Friend believe that a sustainable ceasefire can ever be achieved while Hamas remain in place?

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not speculate on his last point, but he is right that we need to work towards a sustainable ceasefire. We need yet more urgently humanitarian pauses, because in order for there to be a ceasefire, both parties must be willing to accept it. That is one of the reasons why Britain went to such effort to ensure that council resolution 2720 was secured.

The statement we have just heard really does not measure up to the needs of the occasion: 22,000 people already killed; 1.9 million displaced; thousands dying in the rubble; thousands of children dying because of a lack of medical care and food; and people dying of starvation, thirst and hunger in the Gaza strip at the present time. Can the Government not understand the anger around the world when they watch this happening in real time, and why so many people are very pleased that the Government of South Africa have taken the initiative by going to the International Court of Justice to hold Israel to account for the deaths of so many wholly innocent people in Gaza? Can the Government not understand that and at least support the South African process?

The policy of the Government—supported, I think, by those on the Opposition Front Bench—is to secure a sustainable ceasefire. The problem with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis, in my view, is that it does not take adequate account of the quite appalling events that took place on 7 October, when more Jewish people were murdered in a pogrom than at any time since the end of the second world war.