Skip to main content

Westminster Hall

Volume 743: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2024

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 9 January 2024

[Carolyn Harris in the Chair]

Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases

As this is the first sitting in this Chamber of 2024, may I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy and prosperous 2024?

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the role of the UK in ending malaria and neglected tropical diseases.

Thank you, Mrs Harris, and a very happy new year to you too. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate, and to the hon. Members from across the House who supported the bid, not all of whom have been able to make it here today. I think a few folk are stuck in traffic or whatever, so perhaps we will see some more faces as the debate goes on. I am very grateful to everyone who has come here to take part.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last year I and a number of colleagues visited Malawi with the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases to learn more about the efforts to end these diseases, and to see at first hand the impact of UK investment on those efforts. I will draw on that experience in my contribution today.

We are particularly grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate now, because at the end of this month, on Tuesday 30 January, we will mark World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day—a day designated by the World Health Organisation to raise awareness of the challenge and the opportunity that we have to eliminate many of these deadly diseases. It will be the first such awareness day of the calendar year, and the fourth time that that particular day has been marked. This year’s theme is “Unite. Act. Eliminate.” It challenges decision makers and those in positions of power—including everyone taking part in this debate—to work together to mobilise the resources necessary to eliminate malaria and other neglected tropical diseases.

Debates such as this about international development can be full of acronyms, and we will no doubt hear today references to many of them, including SDGs, sustainable development goals; spending on ODA, official development assistance; and WHO, the World Health Organisation. Acronyms can be a useful shorthand, but we have to be careful that we do not reduce what we are discussing to technical or abstract concepts. When we talk about NTDs—neglected tropical diseases—we are not talking just about a group of 21 diseases that exist in test tubes or Petri dishes in a laboratory somewhere. These diseases are having an impact on the daily lives of 1.7 billion people around the world—nearly one in five of the global population. They can cause immense suffering, disability and disfigurement, and are often fatal. In many ways, it is not just the diseases that are neglected; the people affected by them are also, by definition, being neglected.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. He rightly says that we should not be distracted by the statistics, but given the fact that one in five people on the planet is affected, it is important that we remember that many of these diseases are entirely preventable if the right action is taken as early as possible.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I think that the point he makes will come through in all the contributions and evidence that we hear today.

The evidence shows that, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, it is the poorest and most vulnerable and marginalised people in remote communities, and particularly women and girls, who are affected most by these diseases. For example, noma, which was added to the WHO’s list of NTDs just a few weeks ago, in December, is a severe gangrenous disease of the mouth and face that primarily affects malnourished children between the ages of two and six years in regions of extreme poverty. Hookworm, a type of soil-transmitted helminth, affects one in three pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa and can cause anaemia and lead to death during pregnancy. Schisto-somiasis, or bilharzia, which is slightly easier to say, is very common in Malawi, where we visited; it can lead to female genital schistosomiasis, of which there are 56 million cases worldwide, which can triple the risk of HIV and cause infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and in some cases maternal death.

The human cost of these diseases is incredibly high. On our visit to Malawi, in the Salima district we met a number of people who had lived with trachoma, a bacterial infection that can cause eyelashes to draw in, damaging eyesight and even causing blindness. People affected in that way can very easily lose their independence, and their family and friends have to dedicate time and resources to caring for them. If it is caught early, trachoma can be treated with antibiotics or surgery, and it can be prevented by good water and sanitation for health practices. The key lesson, which the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) just mentioned, is that trachoma can be eliminated altogether. That gives us another acronym, SAFE: surgery to treat the blinding stage of the disease, antibiotics to clear the infection, facial cleanliness and hand hygiene to help reduce transmission, and environmental improvements to help stop the infection spreading.

I commend the hon. Gentleman. He is right to say that.

As you do over the holiday period, I watched lots of films. One of the advertisements on the channel that I was watching said that, at a small cost—I think it is as little as £11—a surgical operation that stops eyesight loss can be offered. That is a small cost to pay for a long-term health gain.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and we will come on to that as the debate continues. It is exactly as I was saying: we met people who had been affected by trachoma, but interventions supported by the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust’s trachoma initiative helped to restore their sight through are exactly the kinds of operations and access to medicine that he is talking about. Since 2022, trachoma has been eliminated as a public health concern in Malawi. It is the first country in southern Africa, the fourth country in the WHO Africa region and the 15th country globally to achieve that milestone.

What we witnessed was not just individual transformation —men and women whose sight had been restored and who could again live independently—but community transformation, because they could go back to actively contributing by caring for their grandchildren and helping with other tasks around the home. In turn, their families benefit from that support and can focus their time and energy back on education or employment. That is the reality of the statistics, which demonstrate both the value of taking action and the cost of continuing to neglect these diseases.

Many of the researchers and practitioners who are taking an interest in this subject have told us, as the hon. Gentleman just suggested, that investment in NTDs really is a best-buy in global health intervention. The campaign group Uniting to Combat NTDs reckons that, in some cases, investing just $1 in tackling these diseases could unlock $25 of benefits. Brighton and Sussex Medical School has calculated that the economic burden to a patient with podoconiosis, which is a form of elephantiasis, can be up to £100 per year, but that the one-off cost of a single treatment is just £52. A study by Deloitte showed that, if Nigeria met its NTD elimination targets by 2030, it could add $19 billion to the value of its economy. If we want to achieve the sustainable development goals, unlock wasted economic potential, change the nature of aid flows and release new forms of finance to help developing countries drive poverty reduction and grow their economies, investing properly and effectively in tackling NTDs is essential.

The fight against malaria is one of the best demonstrations of that point. The all-party group’s visit to Malawi was not my first visit, or even my last visit to that beautiful country. I first lived and worked in Malawi nearly 20 years ago. The prevalence and impact of malaria has always been evident throughout that country’s history. Those of us who came from Scotland and other countries where malaria is not endemic were affected, because we were strongly encouraged to take prophylactic medication—at that time, Lariam—which is not without side effects. Daily, we saw kids in the school where we taught missing class because they had contracted malaria. Sometimes it would affect the teachers, too, so that whole classes missed out on their education or relied on some of the volunteers to pick up the slack, which might have been okay if it was a maths or English class, but was slightly more complicated if it was Chichewa lessons.

Malaria, like so many of these diseases, is preventable and curable, yet there were 249 million cases in 2022, which is five million more than in 2021 and 16 million more than in 2019. Malaria still kills around 608,000 people around the world each year, most of them young children. That is approximately one child a minute, or 90 completely avoidable deaths in the time set aside for today’s debate. There has been progress, but more can be made. Many of the required interventions are, in principle at least, very straightforward: for example, using bed nets is very simple and effective. The New Nets Project, developed by a number of UK institutions including the Innovative Vector Control Consortium, a Liverpool-based product development partnership, along with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and Imperial College London, has developed nets with dual active ingredients that combine insecticides to respond to growing resistance to insecticides among mosquitos.

In Malawi, in Mtira village in the Balaka district, we witnessed indoor residual spraying of insecticide, and in the local clinic—a small, brick, thatched building with one room—a chart was proudly displayed showing the dramatic decline in the incidence of malaria patients in the village in just the four years since the spraying began. Outside Lilongwe, in Mitundu village, we visited the clinic where some of the very first doses of the new RTS,S vaccine against malaria had been dispensed, starting in 2019. We were very privileged to meet young Evison Saimon, who is now five years old and had benefited from the vaccine.

These success stories have come about only through the incredible effort of and collaboration between a range of partners and funding bodies, including national Government ministries, UNICEF, the WHO and private or charitable organisations including GlaxoSmithKline and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. What they all have in common is security of funding and a clear goal.

Around the world, however, more money is still spent on treating male pattern baldness and curing hay fever—I and a few other hon. Members in the Chamber have lived experience of both conditions—than on tackling malaria. Hay fever can be debilitating, but it is rarely life-threatening, and the main symptoms of baldness can be readily treated with a hat. That speaks to some of the serious challenges in how the pharmaceutical industry approaches these diseases and how research and development can be properly carried out.

Many of us know about researchers’ frustration with the lack of certainty around funding. The product development partnership model funded by the former Department for International Development worked to overcome shortcomings in the commercial research and development sector and was seen as a leader in funding such efforts through public ODA until the axe began to fall in 2021. Since then, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has been able to provide funding guarantees only one year at a time, which causes massive uncertainty for projects that require long-term funding. Clinical trials cannot be turned on and off like a tap; they take time and effort in the field and have to run over defined periods of time. They cannot be driven by political funding cycles.

Where trials work, there have been and continue to be breakthroughs. The drug discovery unit at the University of Dundee, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) will be familiar with, has worked with the PDP Medicines for Malaria Venture to develop cabamaquine, which could not only treat malaria with a single dose but potentially protect people from contracting the disease and stop its spread. The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative has revolutionised treatment for sleeping sickness with fexinidazole, a simple oral cure, instead of the only available previous treatment, which was toxic and cumbersome and could kill up to one in 20 patients. For those kinds of innovations to be effective, there has to be sustained, effective and targeted investment. Without it, we find an ever-changing environment where the malaria virus continues to adapt and evolve, and buzzes about just like the mosquito that carries it, frustratingly difficult for the scientists to whack it against the wall, even though they can see and hear it.

We know that elimination of malaria and other tropical diseases is possible, because it has already been done. Many diseases that were once endemic here in the United Kingdom and in other parts of the world have been eradicated. Individual countries and regions, as we saw in Malawi with trachoma, have been able to make progress and eliminate certain diseases as public health threats, but if we allow progress to stall, we risk undoing the good work that has already been done, and new, stronger and more difficult to treat variants of these diseases will emerge.

That is before we take into account increasing challenges such as climate change. Last year, for the first time, the World Malaria Report included a chapter on climate change. Malaria and other tropical diseases are extremely sensitive to the environment, affected by temperature, rainfall and humidity. Locally acquired malaria has been detected in Florida and Texas in recent years, while dengue fever has appeared in France and other parts of Europe. All of a sudden, commercial pharma-ceutical companies are taking more interest in many of these diseases, but a purely economic or profit-driven approach on its own will not be enough to tackle these diseases properly. For example, investing in a vaccine for dengue fever that would benefit tourists travelling to affected areas is very important, but for countries such as Bangladesh or the Philippines, an effective, immediate treatment for people who have already contracted the disease is more of a priority.

In all of this, we have to consider the role of institutions and organisations in the United Kingdom and the role of the UK Government in supporting them and global partners. There can be no hiding from the impact of the cuts to the ODA budget. Any of us who speak to partner organisations or to those who have previously received funding and put it to such good use, continue to hear of the long-term impact of short-term decisions. We all welcome the White Paper, the new tone and focus of the International Development Minister, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), and his team, the reinvigoration of the SDGs and the determination to build a new consensus, but at the end of the day, stakeholders ask us when 0.7% will return. That is a question both for the Minister and for the official Opposition, and for all our manifestoes in this election year.

The next replenishment cycle for the Global Fund will be in 2025. At that point, we hope that the UK will be in a position to meet the requested funding, rather than the 29% reduction that it provided last year. Can the Minister make similar commitments for multilateral initiatives such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and Unitaid? The UK has signed up to a number of commitments on neglected tropical diseases, including the 2022 Kigali declaration, the G7 leaders’ communiqué and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting communiqué, so what steps will the Minister be taking to drive these commitments forwards?

The SDGs are a welcome focus in the White Paper. SDG 3.3 sets a target of ending the malaria epidemic and achieving a 90% reduction in the number of people requiring interventions against NTDs by 2030, so how are the Government leveraging funding and working with partners to meet those goals? In practical terms, can the Minister commit to multi-year funding for research and development in these areas, particularly for product development partnerships? What steps are the Government taking to build and support R&D and manufacturing capacity in affected countries? On our visit to Malawi, we saw the world-class Blantyre-Blantyre facility, which was developed in partnership between the University of Glasgow, in my constituency, and the Kamuzu University of Health Sciences, and funded in part by the Scottish Government. That is real innovation, genuine partnership and the empowerment of a new generation of young local researchers, clinicians and academics, and it was inspiring to meet a number of them during our visit.

The Government must recognise the importance of cross-sectoral approaches, and ensure that there is co-ordination and collaboration between malaria and NTD programmes and existing investments in nutrition, education, WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—disability inclusion, and maternal and child health. In all of this, we have to address the structural issues, including the climate emergency and the growing debt burden on developing countries. We have debated a number of these topics recently in Westminster Hall, and it shows the interconnectedness of so many of the challenges around achieving the SDGs.

In November’s debate on African debt, which was led by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who I am delighted to see present, I said that Malawi is one of 21 African countries that are in or at high risk of debt distress. Its external debt effectively tripled between 2009 and 2021, and we can see the impact of that in the country’s inability to get moving. How different the country might be if the payments it is making on debt, or even just on debt interest, could be invested instead in primary healthcare and in eradicating not just trachoma, but malaria and all the other endemic diseases affecting its population.

All of these challenges are created or, at the very least, exacerbated by the actions and decisions of people, which means that the challenges can be overcome by the actions and decisions of people—whether that it is each of us as individuals practising basic hand and face hygiene to help prevent the spread of disease, or Government Ministers making decisions about millions of pounds of aid spending. Malaria and many other tropical diseases have been neglected for far too long, which means that the people most affected by these diseases have also been neglected for far too long, but all the evidence shows that we can cure, prevent and, ultimately, end the scourge of these diseases. For relatively little cost, we can achieve a massive return on investment, both in long-term savings on the costs of chronic treatment and in the actualisation of the economic and social potential of people who are no longer confined to a sick bed or, worse, to an early death, but who are working for the betterment of their families and communities.

Many, if not most of us, present for the debate will have witnessed malaria and tropical diseases at first hand on delegations or through our own personal experiences, so I look forward to hearing the contributions from other Members and how the Minister responds. I hope that when we get to World NTD Day at the end of the month, the Government will be able to draw on the experiences of Members and their contributions to today’s debate, and endorse this year’s theme that we should all unite, act and, ultimately, eliminate malaria and all neglected tropical diseases.

It is an absolute pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), whom I commend. He and I are often side by side in debates on issues that are of interest to us—whether freedom of religious belief or health—and I know this subject is close to his heart. When he asked whether I would participate in the debate, I said, “Of course; it is Westminster Hall, after all.”—[Laughter.] No, I said I would do it because it is the right thing to do and because the subject matter he has chosen is also close to my heart. Due to his personal experiences, he brings vast knowledge to the subject matter that I do not have. He also brings compassion for those who are less well off. That is what I always admire about the hon. Gentleman, and he has done that exceptionally well today.

I am pleased to see the shadow Ministers in their place and I look forward to their contributions, because they both have a deep interest in the subject matter. It is always a pleasure to see the Minister in her place. She often speaks as we speak, with the difference that the Minister has the opportunity to put in place the answers we need, which is what we always ask for. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Harris. You are looking extremely well this morning. Your choice of glasses excels each time I see you. Well done and thank you very much.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this important debate on malaria and neglected tropical diseases. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that climate change—the worsening climate crisis—has had an alarming impact on malaria and neglected diseases?

Locally acquired cases of malaria have now been found in the US, and a recent UK Health Security Agency report concluded that dengue fever could be transmitted in London by 2060. Does he agree that addressing the climate crisis is imperative in our fight against these diseases, and that this global challenge requires a unified global response?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I completely agree with his point. I said beforehand to my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), that in the past year there have been reports, in southern England anyway, of mosquitoes that we had never had before. The threat level cannot be ignored in this country. He is right to underline the need to address climate change. To be fair, the Government have a commitment on that. It is important to work together collectively politically across the United Kingdom, Europe and the world, to try to address these issues. He rightly says that we cannot ignore them.

Global aid funding cuts not only have affected developing countries, which need our help, but lead to a knock-on effect for British citizens travelling globally. Looking at the title of the debate—malaria and neglected tropical diseases—we must acknowledge travel is easier to achieve now, and with that comes the potential threat. For example, since foreign development aid was cut, there has been an increase in malaria cases globally. I have no empirical evidence that the two are linked, but I believe that is noteworthy and should be acknowledged.

Africa accounts for the majority of global cases of malaria. According to the World Malaria Report 2023, there were 249 million malaria cases in 85 malaria-endemic countries. The hon. Member for Glasgow North also referred to that. It is so important that we grasp the magnitude of this problem.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the frustrating part of this issue of neglected tropical diseases is that a straightforward partial solution would be the greater availability of clean drinking water, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa? That would not solve all the problems, but many of them.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In the past, there have been debates on water aid in this Chamber. If the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) were participating in the debate, she would have brought her knowledge from her involvement with Christian Aid and other charitable organisations. Their advertisements on TV always mention clean water, so we have a massive role to play there too.

On 14 December 2023, the UK Health Security Agency published provisional UK case numbers for 2022-23 up to October that suggested that there were 250 more cases in the first nine months of 2023 than in the whole of 2022, and that the case total in 2023 was higher than the average between 2010 and 2019 of 1,612. That upward trend is discouraging. That is despite preliminary data from the Office for National Statistics suggesting that UK resident visits abroad remain lower than pre-covid-19 pandemic levels. Travel destination data for this year is not yet available. I am not sure whether the Minister is able to provide that, but it would be good to get some figures. If we cannot get them today, will she pass them on to those who have participated in the debate?

In previous years, the majority of cases where the travel history was known were acquired in Africa—particularly western Africa—by travellers visiting friends and relatives. In my constituency—I know this is true for my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry and others, including the hon. Member for Glasgow North—I have a large number of church groups and non-governmental organisations that work across Africa. Nearly every church has a missionary connection with Africa, so people travel there maybe once a year—certainly, every couple of years.

The rise in the number of cases, despite travel intensity lessening, is a worrying trend that must be addressed, alongside the reinstatement of our foreign aid. The hon. Member for Glasgow North referred to the 0.7% target, and I support that 100%, as others do. I know the Minister is keen to respond positively. I am ever mindful that she is not in charge of the money, but I want to underline the issue. We need investment in malaria research, and we must make cheap and reliable medication available.

The last time I went to an area with high malaria levels—Nigeria—my wife was able to order malaria tablets online from the local Boots pharmacy. I am not promoting Boots; I just went there and collected the tablets. It is great to have that facility available. I only knew that the medication was necessary when one of my staff members looked up the area and told me. Information about the spread of malaria in certain countries is not readily available. Perhaps flight tickets should come with a warning. They could say, “Your bag must weigh under 23 kg and you really should get your malaria tablets.” There are some things we could do from a practical point of view. There is no 100% effective vaccine for malaria, but there is medication that massively reduces its severity. The official advice is that a combination of preventive measures provides significant protection against malaria.

This is not solely an issue for travellers; we have a moral obligation to tackle malaria. I believe that is the motivation of the hon. Gentleman; it is certainly my motivation for being here. The restrictions on travel and aid due to the covid pandemic demonstrate halting those steps had a detrimental effect. In 2020 and 2021, there was significant disruption to malaria services, such as the distribution of bed nets, which the hon. Gentleman referred to. That caused a spike not just in malaria incidence but mortality rates.

In 2022, $4.1 billion was invested globally to fight malaria—far short of the World Health Organisation’s $7.8 billion target. Before I look globally to ask other nations to step up to the mark, I look to my own Minister and Government and ask what else we can do right here, right now to assure others across the world that we will not simply increase funding but ensure that none of the funding is wasted and that it goes directly towards meeting the need.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that preventing and treating malaria and NTDs is within our grasp? They can be beaten, but progress is stalling. Does he agree with me that the UK aid funding gap from Government, the climate crisis, conflict and humanitarian crises all pose a serious threat to sustaining those lifesaving efforts?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It gave me time to get a good gulp of water. He is right again in underlining the issue and our role as this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and what we can do together. The use of non-governmental organisation partnerships that are charitable and faith-based will always be my motivation for being here. That is where I come from.

I think of the clinics in Malawi, which the hon. Member for Glasgow North referred to, as well as in Zimbabwe and Swaziland. I think of those three and of those in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria that I know the churches back home are involved with. The Elim church and missions are active in my constituency. In particular, the clinics in the first three countries are supported through the Elim Relief Association, which has taken steps to deliver anti-malaria tools at a low cost with a big dividend at the end, purchasing nets in bulk and handing them out through the charitable hospital and clinics. That is replicated worldwide.

We have questions to ask about how much funding is wasted on unnecessary red tape. When we see images of a child wasting away with no proper care, suffering from a disease that could have been managed, it underlines how we must do better. I believe we can.

To allow the hon. Gentleman to have a quick drink, I will make the following point. He is making a passionate speech on the importance of supporting the tremendous work to tackle malaria and neglected tropical disease. We often talk about this from an Africa or an international perspective. Does he agree with me that it is important we recognise that our work through the UK aid budget and international development also has an impact on UK citizens and the UK’s reputation in many ways? It is important we do not lose sight of that.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. That is a good reminder that what we do here is appreciated across the world. There is feedback and a positivity that comes through that.

I support many organisations, as do others, whether they be church groups or charitable groups. One such organisation that I want to mention is the Christian Blind Mission, which I have supported for about 20 years. I had never met any representatives in person until I got to Nigeria and visited them and saw what and how much they do. One of our former Members, Jo Cox, was involved with that organisation. I did not know that until that day and it was interesting to catch up. We may donate to charity but may not always know all the good an organisation does.

Time has prevented me from going into other tropical diseases, but the trends are the same and so is the solution: joined-up thinking, working in partnership with the bodies that exist on the ground and a budget that can and does deliver compassionate aid. This debate is important. I believe we have an obligation to speak up for those who need help and be the ears and voice of those across the world. I thank the Government for what they do but urge them to do more.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who contributes to so many debates and always brings a huge amount of commitment, passion and knowledge. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing time for this important debate on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, particularly ahead of the world awareness day. I have long been interested in the issue and my support continues. Malaria and neglected tropical diseases are embedded in UN sustainable development goal 3—good health and wellbeing—and under target 3.3, as I am sure hon. Members will know all too well, to end the epidemic of malaria and NTDs by 2030. The UK actively contributes to that target.

As a former FCDO global health Minister, I was pleased to launch the “Ending preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030” paper in December 2021. That paper highlights the UK’s key achievements to date in the fight against malaria and NTDs. It is worth just reminding ourselves of a few of those achievements. In 2019, UK aid helped to distribute 160 million mosquito nets, sprayed 8 million buildings with anti-malarial indoor spray, gave preventive malaria treatment to 11 million women and supported the development of seven new drugs for malaria.

But, all too sadly, as we know, malaria transmissions are concentrated throughout countries in sub-Saharan Africa, especially those close to the equator. In 2022, there were 249 million cases of malaria and 608,000 deaths, of which 95% were in Africa. I am very fortunate to have visited, and actually volunteered in, some of those sub-Saharan countries—for example through Project Umubano, with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and as a member of the International Development Committee—including Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Mozambique. Like most travellers, when I visited, I would take anti-malarial pills as a short-term preventive precaution. However, for people living in those countries, anti-malarial pills are either not an option or not a long-term solution.

Another preventive measure, which of course is more accessible and affordable—and often free—is the use of mosquito nets. When used properly, mosquito nets are very effective. However, an unintended consequence that we need to be aware of is that, when they are free or subsidised—which is a good thing—that can lead to some of those nets being used for alternative uses, such as for fishing.

I therefore urge that, when the Government are looking at these projects and at funding, we also insist that we accompany that with education of how to use mosquito nets properly. I think we all know that there is no point in having a mosquito net if it is not being used effectively. Otherwise, not only are we risking somebody’s life, but we are risking our investment at the expense of the British taxpayer.

I was also very fortunate to visit the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine during my time as Minister for global health. That is, again, another organisation here in the UK that does absolutely incredible work, and I am glad to see that the UK continues to set malaria and NTDs as a priority on its agenda.

The UK’s international development White Paper, published in November 2023, highlights the following achievements: the UK’s contribution to the World Health Organisation’s malaria vaccine implementation programme, the UK’s Fleming fund for strengthening anti-microbial resistance surveillance systems in more than 20 low and middle-income countries, support for civil society advocacy groups such as Malaria No More, and both of the first two malaria vaccines in the world to be recommended by the WHO coming from British science and British expertise. Those are Mosquirix, developed by GSK, and R21, developed by the University of Oxford. I would like to give recognition to GSK and the University of Oxford’s Jenner Institute for that incredible contribution to global health.

Indeed, our battle against malaria and NTDs is not just a struggle for survival but a reflection of our collective humanity. Does the right hon. Lady agree with me that it is a global fight that transcends national boundaries and demands worldwide unity, that our actions today will define the legacy we leave for future generations, and that this battle is about saving lives and upholding our moral duty to the global community?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We often talk about budgets in terms of countries and regions; insects and diseases such as malaria do not see the boundaries that we do, so it is always important that we do as much as we can, working with our partners, to address the long-term issues and finding the solutions, but taking a holistic approach. I do not believe it is always that simple, but we must absolutely continue to work on it. That is why I think the UK has a very good reputation when it comes to international development, particularly now that that work is integrated within the Foreign Office. However, it is important that we continue to work on this, whether on malaria or many of the other diseases that we see around the world.

As a vice-chair of the all-party group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I have a great interest in this issue, and having spent a lot of time in Africa over the years, mainly with the military, I understand this particular field intimately. Does my right hon. Friend agree that even though the percentage of overseas aid fell from 0.7% to 0.5%, the Foreign Office should now be focused on maintaining at a consistent level the funding relating to life and death issues? With the overall funding headroom being reduced, the funding element for life and death issues—particularly malaria and NTDs—should be consistent in order for the UK to fulfil its global responsibilities.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and having been a Minister, I know how difficult some of these challenges can be. I am sure that the Minister may well pick up on that issue during her speech. It is important that we look at our priorities and seek to achieve the most effective outcomes for our spend. It does not matter whether this is about international development or any other Department. All too often we talk about the amount of money we are putting into a project, whereas I would like to see us look more at the outcomes alongside that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) acknowledges, we are discussing really important topics this morning that are often about the difference between life and death.

I was pleased that in May 2022, the UK launched its 10-year international development strategy, with one of its four priorities being global health. The strategy states that we will

“work towards ending preventable deaths”


“investing both bilaterally and through initiatives such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.”

I appreciate the great work of the Global Fund. I also gently remind Ministers—I am sure they are very aware—that there have been some issues with funding in certain parts of the world. That is why it is so important that there must always be the appropriate management and oversight capacity, as well as accurate inventory records checked by external auditors, so that we have overall accountability to British taxpayers.

That said, I absolutely acknowledge the positive results that have been achieved. The Global Fund’s 2023 report states that in 2022, it treated 165 million cases of malaria, and gave preventive treatment for malaria to 14.6 million pregnant women. That is another example of the scale of the challenge we face, and how important this is.

The UK has contributed to those results as the third largest Government donor to the Global Fund, pledging £1 billion for the Global Fund’s seventh replenishment for 2023 to 2025. It is also important to recognise that the funds are spent on some other very important areas, such as HIV and TB, which I know this House and some Members here take very seriously.

It is right that we continue to invest in malaria prevention and treatment if we are to meet our target of ending preventable deaths by 2030. I recognise that the total number of malaria deaths worldwide is falling. The statistics show a fall from 896,000 deaths in 2000 to 608,000 in 2022. By my calculation, that equates to a reduction of about 13,000 deaths a year. Even if we apply that rate between today and 2030, there will still be approximately 517,000 malaria deaths in 2030, which is obviously far from us being malaria-free, so we urgently need innovations to continue to tackle malaria. Perhaps we need to scale up the newly recommended R21 malaria vaccine as part of the solution.

Good international development is not all about spending money overseas to benefit developing countries, although we need the funds to do this. It is also about protecting and developing our interests as the UK: for example, through trade and the building of new trade relationships, and making a strong contribution to the UK’s soft power and international place in the world. It is about honouring the UK’s international commitments, but it must also firmly remain about making this more effective by improving openness, transparency, value for money and delivering. Today’s debate is a very helpful reminder of that.

Happy new year, Mrs Harris. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, as ever. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing this debate, not least because it is timely and critical ahead of World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day. I also thank him for his continued commitment to speaking up for the most vulnerable and poorest people in the world, as well as for his constituents.

The fact that one child dies every minute from a preventable and treatable disease is not simply a tragedy, but a moral failure. As we have heard in this debate, malaria and neglected tropical diseases are preventable and curable, but a lack of political will and much-needed investment is resulting in the progress towards eliminating these diseases stalling. When minds are focused and resources are properly mobilised, successes can be achieved. Between 2000 and 2022, an estimated 2.1 billion malaria cases and 11.7 million malaria deaths were averted globally. Fifty countries have eliminated at least one neglected tropical disease, and 600 million fewer people require intervention against those diseases compared with 2010.

In 2022, however, the global tally of malaria cases reached 249 million. That is an increase of 5 million from 2021 and 60 million more cases than in 2019—well above estimates from before the covid-19 pandemic. Today, around 1.65 billion people are estimated to require treatment for at least one neglected tropical disease, resulting in devastating health, social and economic consequences. That is more than 20% of the global population.

Malaria and neglected tropical diseases have been exacerbated by climate change, conflict and humanitarian crises. Furthermore, drug and insecticide resistance, as well as invasive mosquito species, also hamper progress. However, the challenges can be overcome with the right investment. At the heart of this debate is a significant funding gap for malaria and neglected tropical diseases, as well as the shameful role of this UK Government, with their years of death sentence cuts, stepping away when they should be stepping up.

The funding gap between the amount invested in malaria control and elimination and the resources needed is dangerously large. Spending in 2022 reached $4.1 billion, which is well below the $7.8 billion required to stay on track to reduce case incidence and mortality rates by at least 90% by 2030, as highlighted in the SDGs. Similarly, neglected tropical diseases are preventable and treatable, often at a very low cost, yet they are neglected in terms of funding and research.

The UK was once a global leader in tackling those diseases, particularly in research and innovation, but that contribution has been fundamentally undermined by the reckless decision to cut ODA from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%. For example, in June 2021, the UK Government decided to terminate the Accelerating the Sustainable Control and Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases programme—otherwise known as ASCEND—with no alternative funding offered to more than 20 beneficiary countries in Africa. That resulted in over 250 million treatments and over 180,000 disability-preventing surgeries being stopped. In Zambia alone, it resulted in the cancellation of 1,500 sight-saving trachoma surgeries and 1,500 disability-preventing lymphatic filariasis surgeries.

There is international acceptance of the hard facts that demonstrate that malaria and other tropical diseases are far from eradicated. In November 2022, the UK Government announced a pledge of £1 billion for the seventh replenishment fund of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and that is to be welcomed. Crucially, however, that commitment is £400 million less than in 2019, and £800 million short of the 29% increase in funding that the Global Fund called for to get progress against those three diseases back on track. Other G7 allies, such as the US and Germany, have met that call.

That money was and is needed to regain progress lost during the covid-19 pandemic and to save 20 million lives over the next three years, but that pledge by the UK Government is on trend with their theme of grandiose gestures and media splashes that may sound good, but have little meaningful impact. It is on track with the UK Government’s morally corrupt insistence on finding loopholes in their international commitments.

For example, in the recent FCDO White Paper on international development, there was noticeably no recommitment to the 0.7% spending on ODA and no reinstatement of the pre-2021 projects or commitment to beneficiaries of cut projects. The UK Government must therefore, as a matter of utmost urgency, recommit to the UN-mandated 0.7% spending of GNI on ODA, and they must go further and clarify that funds from that are available for research into tropical diseases including malaria.

My first question is: will the Minister tell us what tangible action the UK Government intend to take to make up the shortfall left by the ODA cuts? Do their Government colleagues feel any remorse for the beneficiaries of projects that have had their funding stripped due to the 2021 policy?

Over the past decade, the UK has led the way in research into global infectious diseases, and the thriving scientific research and innovation sector must continue to be world leading and supported through long-term, sustainable UK funding and investment. The lack of commercial drivers for anti-malarials and neglected tropical diseases requires not-for-profit solutions to help to develop new medicines through public sector and charitable sources.

I am very proud to say that the Drug Discovery Unit at the University of Dundee in my constituency is a world-leading drug discovery centre, focused on developing new treatments for neglected infectious diseases. I have had the opportunity to visit the unit on a number of occasions, and I give my personal thanks and gratitude to all those who use their skills and expertise to make such valued contributions.

The Drug Discovery Unit has collaborated with the Medicines for Malaria Venture on the discovery of a potential anti-malarial compound called cabamiquine—a single-dose cure that has also been shown to be effective in preventing malaria in trials and is currently undergoing phase 2 clinical trials with patients in Africa. That type of research does not fit nicely into typical funding body structures based around a specific scientific hypothesis and employing one person for three years. Rather, it requires large multidisciplinary groups and is focused not around a narrow research question, but a broader challenge. Are the Government looking at recommitting to longer-term multi-year funding?

Furthermore, the Drug Discovery Unit recognises the increasing need and desire to involve scientists from low and middle-income countries in partnership in this work, and it has been working to establish collaborations with scientists with particular focuses on Ghana and Brazil as part of the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research. Do the UK Government intend to support partner programmes from countries that are most impacted by malaria and other tropical diseases?

Of course, to continue its world-leading progress on virus research, it is fundamental that Scotland and the rest of the UK continue to be able to attract the best talent from the European Union. The “make it up as you go along” approach to Brexit, which was not voted for in Scotland, has had one disastrous consequence after another for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

In that context, the inability to work effectively and efficiently with partners in the EU has hindered the UK’s full potential in addressing malaria and tropical diseases. Despite the UK now rejoining Horizon, which I welcome, the years of missed opportunity, broken partnership and lack of EU funding have significantly set the UK back in the context of tropical disease research. Crucially, can the Minister explain how the UK Government intend to be a global leader or to continue to punch above their weight in global medical research without the collaboration or resources of one of the deepest pots of funding, and by limiting the information-sharing capacity and collaboration with our European counterparts?

The fight against malaria and neglected tropical diseases is global, requiring collaboration and for each of us to take all the necessary steps to help combat them. The existential global challenge of climate change should further focus minds on malaria and NTDs. We know that many of these diseases are driven by the environment. Changing temperatures, precipitation levels and increasing extreme weather events have the potential to change the distribution, prevalence and virulence of these diseases. For example, flooding in Pakistan in 2022 resulted in more than 2 million additional cases of malaria and a 900% increase in dengue fever.

One of the most meaningful ways in which the UK Government can be proactive in combating malaria and other tropical diseases is to acknowledge the nexus between climate change and the transmission of these diseases. Again, can the Minister outline how the UK Government intend to work with global partners to tackle malaria and NTDs as part of their work on reacting to climate change?

Finally, these diseases are referred to as “neglected” because they have been largely wiped out in more developed parts of the world, but they persist in its poorest, most marginalised or isolated communities. I cannot help but feel that we would be doing more if they existed here. Of course we would—we just have to look at the experience of covid-19 to see that, and the subsequent inequitable distribution of vaccines from high and middle-income countries to low-income countries as another example of the moral failure to protect the most vulnerable in our world.

The UK Government must restore their credibility and urgently scale up their contribution to the eradication of these diseases. Given the vast numbers of people affected across the world, there is no excuse for neglecting them. As I said, more than 20% of the global population is affected. The elimination of malaria and neglected tropical diseases is possible, and it will be a small step to a more equal world when it is achieved.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Harris. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) on securing this debate; he has a proud record of work, both in his constituency, with the University of Glasgow, and in Malawi itself. I also refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

As hon. Members have said, we remain at a critical point in tackling malaria and neglected tropical diseases due to the pandemic; humanitarian crises as a result of conflicts, flooding and famine; rising biological threats such as insecticide and drug resistance; a decline in the effectiveness of core tools; a widening funding gap and resource constraints; and disruptions to already fragile health systems. We really must act now. Global malaria progress has stalled in recent years, with malaria incidence and mortality currently above pre-pandemic levels. In 2022, 5 million more people were infected than in 2021, and 16 million more than in 2019.

Despite malaria being preventable and treatable, nearly half the world’s population remains at risk—particularly in African countries, as the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) said. The global burden of neglected tropical diseases also remains significant and, as with malaria, continues to be a barrier to health equity, prosperity and development, with devastating health, social and economic consequences to 1.65 billion people worldwide, including over 600 million people in Africa.

As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I thank my hon. Friend for her leadership as chair of our APPG. I also thank her and Martha Varney of Malaria No More for their leadership in orchestrating our recent visit to Malawi. Their insights and the dedication of partners such as the Wellcome Trust have significantly deepened my understanding of the challenges at hand. Does the shadow Minister agree that malaria is a relentless barrier to development, thwarting educational progress, disproportionately impacting women and girls, and perpetuating cycles of poverty?

Indeed, and my hon. Friend pre-empts my point about the impact on women and girls. I know that you will be particularly interested, Mrs Harris, in the relevance of tackling what seems to be the disproportionate impact on women and girls, due to various biological, social, economic and cultural factors. Limited financial resources, time constraints, diminished autonomy, and stigma and discrimination create barriers that prevent women from gaining access to timely healthcare, education and employment opportunities. Due to their responsibility for home and family care, they often miss out on crucial treatments. Through close contact with children, women are two to four times more likely to develop trachoma, which is a neglected tropical disease, and are blinded up to four times as often as men.

It was particularly exciting, in the visit mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), to see old women, who are often neglected in developing countries, receiving crucial treatments and being enabled to feel that they were not a burden on their children. It was particularly special to learn that trachoma has been eliminated in Malawi. The World Health Organisation has signed that off, which is a really exciting development. Sometimes, these things feel very overwhelming, but when we see that trachoma has been eliminated in Malawi, it really is wonderful and encouraging.

The “Ending Preventable Deaths” strategy recognised malaria as a major cause of child deaths, and important tools such as bed nets and intermittent preventive treatment in pregnancy as examples of evidence-based health intervention and best buys. It was also welcome that the strategy recognised the critical importance of clean water, sanitation and hygiene. However, there is no way of ending these epidemics and meeting the sustainable development goals without working to empower and enable women and girls to succeed. I know that is very much at the heart of your work in Parliament, Mrs Harris.

The shadow Minister and I, and many others here, went to Malawi, as we heard earlier, and we share many of the same views on the way forward. In fact, it is quite nice to have cross-party support on such a key issue. We have sought a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda. Does the shadow Minister agree that it is important for the league tables to be published, so that African nations can take a lead and have responsibility for a particular NTD? In Malawi, we have eliminated trachoma, and I welcome that noma has now been added to the list of approved—if that is the right word—diseases that the WHO is looking at and investing in. Does the shadow Minister agree that empowering African nations and ensuring that the UK can take a lead in thought leadership and education is really important?

Indeed, and it has been estimated that 500 million more people, rising to a billion by 2080, could become exposed to chikungunya and dengue, as these diseases spread to new geographies due to warmer climates—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough. As an example, the impact of flooding in Pakistan has also been mentioned, and in 2022 there was a 900% increase in dengue and a fivefold increase in the number of malaria cases. The Minister might be quite creative and see whether there is money in the climate funds to join up the health inequalities with the climate funding that will eventually become available through the COP28 process.

While countries in the global south will of course carry a disproportionate burden, tropical diseases are now becoming a growing concern in non-endemic countries. Will the Minister update the House on Government efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change on malaria and NTDs, and what steps they are taking to support lower-income countries to address climate-sensitive infectious diseases? Conflict and humanitarian crises are considerable threats to progress. Many countries have seen increases in malaria cases and deaths, and a few experienced malaria epidemics. Ethiopia saw an increase of 1.3 million cases between 2021 and 2022, and political instability in Myanmar led to a surge in cases, from 78,000 in 2019 to 584,000 in 2022, with a knock-on effect in neighbouring Thailand.

Last June, mycetoma services in Sudan were suspended due to a lack of safety, resulting in patients not receiving vital medication. We know that in refugee camps—as I am sure the Minister also knows from visiting refugee or internally-displaced persons camps—there is a particularly high risk of scabies due to overcrowding. Can the Minister reassure us that the UK is working to support countries affected by conflict and other humanitarian crises to ensure the safe delivery of medical supplies, which are the basics?

Despite the difficulties in surmounting the challenges we face, the elimination of these diseases is possible. Both malaria and neglected tropical diseases can be beaten, as we have seen. Azerbaijan, Belize and Tajikistan have been declared malaria-free by the World Health Organisation recently, and 50 countries, including 21 in Africa, have eliminated at least one neglected tropical disease, marking the halfway point toward the target of 100 countries set for 2030. As a result, 600 million fewer people globally require interventions against neglected tropical diseases than in 2010. Bangladesh, supported by the UK and other partners, is the first country in the world to be validated for the elimination of visceral leishmaniasis, which is the very complicated form of the disease that is fatal in over 95% of cases and has devastating impacts, particularly on women.

The Labour party is proud of the UK’s contribution to date in this global effort, and of the legacy of Department for International Development, one of our proudest achievements of the last Labour Government. As part of that commitment, the last Labour Government helped to found the Global Fund in 2002. It is an incredible fund, and we saw the important work it does when visiting Blantyre. The results are staggering, with the malaria incidence rate decreasing from 164 positive cases four years ago to 36 at the time of our visit last autumn.

I know that you want me to wind up, Mrs Harris, but I have one final anecdote. I met Mirriam, an inspiring midwife and primary healthcare provider working in rural Zambia, when she visited the UK Parliament. She said that she encounters disease every day at her health centre, and spoke to me about her harrowing experience of caring for and losing pregnant women and young children with malaria. However, over the past few years the availability of high-quality, inexpensive, rapid diagnostic tests, insecticide-treated bed nets and preventive treatment for pregnant women, all provided by the Global Fund, are transforming how Mirriam and her midwife colleagues diagnose and manage cases of malaria. She also mentioned the important work being done on tuberculosis and HIV.

Many of the tools and medicines we need to beat malaria were also developed here in the UK, and a number of Members have outlined the important connection with our excellence in research—for example, at the University of Dundee, which the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) mentioned in his speech, and other important UK research institutions. It is important that we listen to what they say about what we need to keep that research going and maintain this country’s leadership in research and development.

We have already talked about the Vaccine Alliance, Unitaid and the Global Fund, so I will not go into the detail. However, we have one specialism that I need to mention: the crucial research into snakebite. Many who may be watching will not be aware that snakebite kills so many people in Africa, or aware of the important work being done at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine—I declare an interest as an unpaid trustee there. That work is very special and niche, but it is crucial to keep it going.

I will conclude on the important work that we need to do this month, given that World Neglected Tropical Disease Day is on 30 January. Can the Minister assure me that the UK is doing all it can to support the development of new medicines for neglected tropical diseases and look at re-committing to multi-year funding for product development partnership models? What is her view on manufacturing in Africa? If we look at the map, we see that expensive medicines are produced here in Europe or America and then sent to Africa and so on, so it would be wonderful to see more manufacturing, perhaps through the Serum Institute of India, for example, which did so much important work during covid. What is her thinking about collaborations there that we could lead and push different parties towards? Finally, as 30 January 2024 approaches—World Neglected Tropical Disease Day—the World Health Organisation argues that, for malaria, “business as usual” will simply not be enough. I hope that the Minister agrees that we now need to act, because there is no more time for us to lose.

I apologise for the cough—I am apparently enjoying a three-month winter cough, so apologies to all for that. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing this important debate and thank the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases for its really thoughtful contributions today and, more importantly, for its long-standing advocacy in this whole arena. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

Members will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) is the Minister in FCDO with responsibility for global health. He is unfortunately unable to be here, hence my presence. I am happy to respond; this is an area of both policy and personal interest anyway. When I was the Secretary of State for International Development before the merger, we spent a lot of time on this policy area, so I am pleased to be able to respond on behalf of the Government. If I miss any questions, for which I apologise, I will ensure that my right hon. Friend picks up on them.

On the point made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), a number of colleagues touched on the wider question of the UK’s focus on climate change, the impacts more broadly, and how the UK can assist, and is assisting, on the wider question of resilience and adaptation to the changing nature of communities, landscapes and healthcare. All the work that we do has health impacts at its heart. Women and girls are at the centre of every single piece of programming work that the FCDO does, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield to set out a few examples in his reply to help colleagues to see the broader picture, beyond the issue we are discussing today.

As colleagues have pointed out, we are at a critical point for the sustainable development goals. With COP’s focus on the impact of climate change on global health, and with World Neglected Tropical Disease Day at the end of the month, this is a really important opportunity to consider the UK’s role in helping to end those diseases. We know that the covid pandemic has taken a toll in so many ways on the pathway to the 2030 SDGs, and I can safely say that, across the world, we are all focused on trying to get back on track and thinking about how we can do that, using all the tools at our disposal.

As many colleagues have set out, the burden that malaria and NTDs place on so many countries is not geographical; it is about families and people. It is perhaps concentrated in some countries, not only by virtue of their geography and their landscapes, but because of the state of their health systems. As colleagues have said, malaria is still killing a child every minute of every day, and NTDs are causing devastating health, social and economic consequences for more than 1 billion people. We know that they fall most heavily on the poorest and the most marginalised.

In November, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield set out the Government’s White Paper on development, which has at its heart the principles underpinning the UK’s ongoing contribution towards ending extreme poverty and combating climate change. A key focus of getting the world back on track to meet the 2030 SDGs includes targets to end the epidemic of malaria and NTDs. The White Paper reaffirms our commitment to ending the preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children under five, which we cannot achieve without a particular focus on malaria. As I have mentioned, however, the White Paper also underlines the importance of helping countries to build health systems by working with them in mutually respectful partnerships and harnessing innovation and new technologies to help them to solve some of these problems.

On malaria, we are at a critical juncture in our fight against the disease. As a number of colleagues have set out, this year’s World Malaria Report showed once again that progress has stalled. We are facing a perfect storm of challenges, including rising drug and insecticide resistance, the climate impacts we have talked about, the spread of urban mosquitoes, conflict and humanitarian crises, rising prices and funding shortfalls. This is, of course, a complex mix to try to get ahead of, but the UK continues to provide global leadership. We will continue to make the limited resources that we have go further and to think about how we can adapt our approaches to fit local contexts more closely, because it is not the same everywhere. How can we help countries to focus in a more targeted way on tackling their most difficult health problems?

The UK has long been a leader in the fight against malaria. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) mentioned, we have been the third largest contributor to the Global Fund over its lifetime, investing over £4.5 billion. It has three specific focuses—to eradicate malaria, TB and AIDS—which has enabled it to channel global energies into tackling those diseases. We provided £1 billion towards the seventh replenishment of the fund, and the mission to eradicate those diseases remains absolutely at the heart of the UK Government. The latest investment will help to fund 86 million mosquito nets and 450,000 seasonal malaria chemoprevention treatments, and provide treatment and care for 18 million people. Our funding continues to help drive scientific advancement—for example, the next generation of malaria bed nets, which were developed with funding from the UK and which the Global Fund is now rolling out. We have also long funded the Medicines for Malaria Venture, whose anti-malarial drugs are estimated to have averted nearly 14 million deaths since 2009.

There is further cause for optimism from new vaccines. As colleagues have mentioned, in October the WHO recommended the second ever malaria vaccine, R21. In November, just before Christmas, the first consignment of the RTS,S vaccine was delivered to Cameroon to begin roll-out across Africa. Both vaccines were developed through British scientific expertise, including the long-term commitments that we have seen from GSK, whose RTS,S vaccine has now been given to over 1.5 million children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi. A further nine countries will receive the vaccine over the next two years, and the UK will continue to support roll-out through our £1.65 billion funding for Gavi and by further funding clinical trials.

Colleagues might not be aware that the UK led the replenishment of Gavi back in 2020, at the height of the covid pandemic, when its funding had never been more urgently needed. Gavi is the organisation that delivers vaccines to many hard-to-reach corners of the globe. It is an incredibly important organisation that is respected and welcomed in pretty much every country in the world. We were proud to bring $8 billion-worth of global commitments to Gavi, despite the challenges that everyone faced during the ongoing covid epidemic. The UK’s commitment was the largest of all those made to that replenishment.

Of course, time goes quickly, and Gavi’s replenishment for next year is coming round again; I know that the UK will continue to provide leadership on that. Gavi is one of the many parts of the machine that enables us to deliver. It does such important work to ensure that, whichever brilliant new technologies brilliant scientists come up with, they get to the places they need to be. That is so important. Indeed, through covid Gavi demonstrated—sadly, more urgently than ever—how effective it can be.

Colleagues have set out the impact of neglected tropical diseases across the globe. We have seen incredible progress, which has been due in part to the UK’s contribution. It is encouraging that 50 countries have eliminated at least one NTD, in line with the WHO’s ambitious target for 100 countries by 2030. Last year saw Iraq, Benin and Mali eliminate trachoma, Ghana eliminate a key strain of sleeping sickness, and Bangladesh and Laos eliminate lymphatic filariasis. In October, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to eliminate visceral leishmaniasis, which would not have happened without long-standing UK support.

Here, again, we face major challenges: climate change threatens to unravel so much of the progress that we have seen, and global funding falls short of what is needed to achieve our overall ambitions. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) highlighted the rise of dengue, which causes real concern and impacts too many places. The UK was pleased to sign the Kigali declaration on neglected tropical diseases at the 2022 CHOGM meeting, and towards that goal we committed to continued investment in research and development. Each signatory makes a unique contribution towards ending NTDs; it is very open and was designed to encourage countries, however small or large, to push on with tackling the challenges.

We are delivering on our commitment with our ongoing funding to the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, or DNDi—I apologise for all the acronyms; there are lots of them—in which we have invested over £80 million so far. Through our and others’ support, DNDi has developed 13 treatments for six deadly diseases, and those are already saving millions of lives. They include a first oral-only treatment for both chronic and acute sleeping sickness, which recently received regulatory approval; a treatment for mycetoma, an infectious flesh-and-bone disease that leads to amputations; new short-course treatments for deadly visceral leishmaniasis, which I mentioned earlier, that can replace treatments with severe side effects and growing drug resistance, which is a continuing challenge in this space; and the first paediatric treatment for Chagas disease, a complex tropical parasitic disease that can result in heart failure.

Some of the DNDi’s incredible work takes place in the UK, where it has over 40 partners across industry and academia. To name but a few, we have the incredible leadership of global companies such as AstraZeneca UK and GSK, which are well known and based across the world, through to some of the smaller developing companies such as BenevolentAI, DeepMind and AMG Consultants. Those smaller companies are using other modern technologies—not pharmaceutical technologies but wider technologies—to think about how we can solve these challenges. It is worth remembering that many UK industry partners threw their technical expertise into the scientific ring when covid-19 hit the world, for instance through the COVID Moonshot work. Continuing to focus on the incredible investments made by our world-leading life sciences, tech and pharma companies is part of the whole solution.

The Minister is being very generous in giving way. What assessment has she made of the possibility of promoting more African leadership in manufacturing? Developing really good partnerships may require investment at the beginning, but it could be a very effective way to work. How do we strengthen in-country leadership in Africa while avoiding a top-down approach?

I said earlier that the Government are focusing not only on how we spend our development budget but on how we invest in and give space to the private sector to use its research and development investment as effectively as possible in areas where there can be global solutions. The shadow Minister raises a really important point, and I spent a lot of time at the World Trade Organisation in 2022 discussing how patents and investment in expensive production facilities can be done more globally. The issue was not resolved at the WTO, but it is at the heart of the conversation, which is, as has been said, about trade. We must understand how to empower the countries that will potentially get the most immediate benefit from production domestically, which will then be able to export to their neighbours, and ensure that investment flows work securely for the pharmaceutical companies that are investing billions of pounds to solve these challenges. We must ensure that production is secure and that the vaccines and other medications reach those they need to. A lot of discussion is going on globally around those issues, and some of our largest pharmaceutical companies are already doing these things around the world. Particularly in South Africa, there has been a real shift in investments, and that country can be a hub from which to export to neighbouring countries. That ongoing area of global policy development sits within the world trade discussions, and it is really important to keep pushing it.

I and others mentioned the important role that church and charity groups play and the significant voluntary contribution they make. How can the Minister’s Department work alongside them to encourage them and align partnerships so that things can go better?

The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point. When I visited Malawi a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that almost every Scottish church and school has a relationship with that country. The history goes back to the Scottish explorers of the 19th century, and that fascinating relationship feeds into church and other community groups across Scotland working together to support religious hospitals in Malawi. That really interesting model has been built up over more than 100 years, and those connections continue to grow. I have visited schools in my patch where children want to be involved in these issues and understand them more closely. Strong relationships can be built, and there are some very good organisations—I will come back to the hon. Gentleman because I cannot remember their names—that try to develop links with schools, in particular, to help them understand each other better. We know, as Churches across the world do ecumenically, that that is the best way to share knowledge and develop better understanding.

The Minister is right to acknowledge the good work that has been done in Malawi. There are 94 churches in my constituency, and I know of only one that is not doing some work in Africa. In particular, the Elim church and the Church Mission Society do work in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Swaziland. I would like to encourage those things, and I am keen to hear how we can do that.

I will take that away and we can perhaps pick it up more fully.

As colleagues set out, this has been an important and positive debate. The UK plays a long-standing and leading role in the fight against malaria and neglected tropical diseases, both as a leading donor and with our world-leading scientific and research capability, which has focused on this issue for decades. Although, as a global community, we have made incredible progress in the last 20 years, we know that too many countries still face major challenges, not the least of which is the impact of climate change. As colleagues have pointed out, in many countries the most challenging health problems are across boundaries—diseases do not see a line in the sand. As we set out in the development White Paper, we will continue to lead the fight against poverty and climate change, including, very importantly, on global health.

If I have failed to answer any questions, I hope that the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, will pick up on them. We will continue to seek health solutions, alongside building health systems to help make these diseases history.

I am grateful to all Members who have taken part today. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) spoke about the return on investment. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made the point that this issue is very important to our church communities and to many of our constituents. The right hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) brought to bear much of her personal experience, as did the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland)—I will call him my hon. Friend, because I think we are all hon. Friends today. I thank the hon. Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West)—this is a bit of a reunion for those who went on the APPG’s visit—and my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), who provided a suitably robust challenge to the Minister. I also thank the Minister for her summation and her reflection on all the points that were made during the debate.

It is quite frustrating that there is a category of diseases known as “neglected” and that work has to be focused on them. One of the key principles of the sustainable development goals is that we leave no one behind. Nobody should be neglected, and none of the factors that keep people in poverty, including these diseases, should be neglected. That is a challenge for all of us as we come to write our election manifestos for the coming year.

I hope that today’s debate has, at the very least, raised some awareness, meaning that these diseases will be slightly less neglected and that we can continue to unite and act and can, ultimately, eliminate malaria and other neglected tropical diseases so that they become eradicated tropical diseases.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the role of the UK in ending malaria and neglected tropical diseases.

Financial Advice and Guidance: Consumer Market

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the consumer market for financial advice and guidance.

It is an absolute pleasure, Mrs Harris, that you are in the Chair for this debate on the consumer market for financial advice and guidance. I am very grateful for the opportunity to hold this debate, which follows up on a cross-party amendment I tabled to the Financial Services and Markets Bill a year ago. I am grateful for all the hard work done by officials from the Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority over the past year under the leadership of the former Economic Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), who championed this cause. I am also grateful to the current Economic Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), for taking things forward and for his support.

I welcome the proposals published in December for closing what is called the advice gap and completing the first part of the advice guidance boundary review. This morning, I want to cover three things. Why is this review important for our constituents? How will these changes help them? And what more can we do to help them? I will start with why this is important for our constituents.

Now more than ever our constituents need personalised help and advice about their financial situation, and when I say “help”, I do not mean just the billions of pounds of financial support that was given through the energy price guarantee, the money off electricity bills and so on. I mean the kind of help that will make our constituents more financially resilient over a lifetime.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this debate forward, and I commend her for her work on improving facilities for providing financial advice and guidance in the consumer market—that has been noted in the House, and I congratulate her on that. I wholeheartedly support her view that we must give individuals and businesses the best possible opportunities to grow their wealth. Does she agree that we should particularly target help to smaller businesses that are looking to start up locally, to ensure that they can take advantage of high-quality and, most importantly, affordable services and advice to help them make informed financial decisions?

I want to limit my remarks today to consumers and their access to financial advice, but the Treasury Committee is doing an inquiry into access to finance for small and medium-sized businesses, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to share with us any evidence he might have in that regard.

Our constituents need more personalised help to make them more financially resilient over their lifetime. We want them to be more prosperous, better informed and more able to prepare for the inevitable highs and lows of financial life. With the success of auto-enrolment, we now have millions more people taking personal decisions about saving for their retirement, possibly across a multitude of different pension schemes over a full working life. They need an expert hand to help them to make good decisions and yet, despite our world-leading financial services sector, it is surprisingly difficult to get help. That is because of the advice/guidance legal definitions.

Mrs Harris, I want to try out an analogy on you. Imagine a supermarket where, if you pay an up-front fee of several hundred or perhaps even several thousand pounds to join, you will, over your whole lifetime, be allowed to go into a section where you have a full choice of delicious, healthy food and other goods, offered at competitive prices. Someone will ensure that you are buying things appropriate for your age and dietary needs; they will suggest some terrific, easy-to-cook, healthy recipes and wonderful meal plans.

However, to make it worth paying the up-front fee, you have to buy exceptionally expensive goods or sufficient quantities, and only 8% of our constituents would in fact choose to pay the fee; everyone else in the supermarket chooses to avoid it. They wander round the generic aisles of the supermarket. They may see some generic NHS advice about healthy eating or something on the supermarket website. They pay much higher prices for the same range of goods and often choose the unhealthy and expensive options. They even find scam and rogue options that scam them out of their shopping money altogether, because anyone can set out a stall in the supermarket I am describing.

It is a slightly stretched analogy, but I know that you know what I am getting at, Mrs Harris. The quality and cost of financial advice in this country mean that we have created a marketplace where only the richest 8% of the population choose to shop and benefit from the healthy financial choices that our excellent financial services firms can give.

I congratulate the hon. Member on this very timely and important debate. She is now moving into the important area of providing professional, impartial, independent consumer advice to ensure that people avoid making bad choices and to steer them in the direction of making good, effective choices.

That is exactly right. I am using this analogy to make us realise what a scandal it would be if we had supermarkets like the ones I have just described, but that is sort of what we have in our financial services supermarket. It is a slightly stretched analogy, but the quality and cost of financial advice means that we have created a marketplace where only the richest 8% of the population shop and benefit from the healthy financial choices on the menu that our excellent financial advisers can give.

The remaining 92% of our constituents end up unadvised. If they are lucky, they might find out that there is state-sponsored guidance such as Pension Wise and the Money and Pensions Service, perhaps through a newspaper article or a Google search. A small number do find that advice, but it is very generic. It can be useful and helpful but, more often than not, it leaves them with more questions than answers; it offers some very simple thoughts, which perhaps leaves people not knowing how the advice relates to their personal circumstances. Without urgent Government action to explore solutions for the unadvised, I fear that we are creating terrible long-term consequences for the nation’s savings health and for the prosperity of our constituents in retirement.

At its best, that generic guidance and the personalised guidance available through the Money and Pensions Service and Pension Wise is a bit like the generic advice from the NHS to eat five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day: it is useful but it is not going to help anyone make an informed investment choice. Yesterday, I did some mystery shopping on the Money and Pensions Service website to see what advice my constituents would get if they had received a small lump sum—perhaps an inheritance, a redundancy payment or some tax-free cash they had taken from their pension. I followed a link on the website’s landing page to an article labelled, “Types of investments”, which I thought might be helpful. That page then asked,

“Do you need help making smart investment choices?”

which I thought was probably the right page. I was then directed to the Financial Conduct Authority’s InvestSmart website. On the landing page of that website, the first article is called, “Crypto: The basics”. That is on the FCA’s website. The third article on the landing page is called, “Investing in crypto”. The website then said that, if I wanted advice, I needed to see a financial adviser, so I was back to square one. Those crypto pages are probably there prominently to warn people not to buy those products, but the prominence ends up looking like an endorsement.

There used to be a network of bank branches in this country, where people could go to talk to a human being who might be a bit more helpful, albeit that they would focus on their own-brand products. However, there have been so many bank closures that most people would not know where to start to find anyone to speak to face to face about savings and investment choices. Yet, we have asked millions more people to invest in their own pensions through auto-enrolment and have left them with a default provider—the National Employment Savings Trust—which charges an up-front load of 1.8%. We have given people pension freedoms, which means some very big decisions can be taken at the age of 55 that will have long-term consequences for people’s financial health.

As you can tell, Mrs Harris, I am not happy with this outcome for my constituents, and I am sure you are not happy with the outcome for yours. When I was Economic Secretary to the Treasury in 2015-16, I commissioned the financial advice market review, which tried to make financial advice and guidance work better for consumers. It came up with some good recommendations, including allowing consumers to redeem a small part of their pension pot against the cost of retirement advice in certain circumstances. However, at the time, it was constrained in what it could do by European regulations. Now that we are under way with the Edinburgh reforms and there is scope for a more UK-centric regime, I have been raising the problem once again.

In addition, Parliament has legislated for a consumer duty on financial services firms, which began to be implemented last July. We have a world-leading financial services sector with many excellent firms serving consumers well, but they are held back by regulations from offering their consumers any helpful advice from their own expertise. That could even contradict their consumer duty—if they can see their customers making poor decisions such as leaving long-term savings in taxable, low-interest accounts when they could perhaps be in an individual savings account or earning higher rates. Even Martin Lewis, whom many people turn to for financial wisdom, has told me he feels he is held back from recommending certain sensible things because it might be considered financial advice. So I very much welcome the proposals that the Government and the FCA have published jointly to address the advice gap. I think they go in the right direction.

There are three elements. Further clarifying the boundary between advice and guidance would give FCA-authorised firms greater certainty that they can give more support to consumers without providing a personal recommendation. It would help firms give consumers greater levels of support with more confidence to operate closer to the boundary. That is a necessary element, but on its own it might not surmount the cautious behaviour that we see from some compliance departments.

The second proposal is targeted support. The new regulatory framework will enable firms to provide broader support without up-front charges based on the limited information that they have on their consumer, and enable firms to suggest products or courses of action. That will be a key proposal to close the advice gap.

The third proposal is for simplified advice for consumers with smaller sums or simpler needs at a price that is commercially viable for both consumer and firm. With the development of technology, more powerful artificial intelligence tools and more data out there, innovators will find ways to give consumers more customised, less generic, financial advice—something like coaching or help—at a commercially viable price. Whatever we call it, such changes will help our constituents by giving them better and more personalised information to make their choices.

Some consumer groups worry about allowing our financial services firms more leeway to help their customers. To go back to the supermarket analogy, there are some bad apples even in the premium aisles of the supermarket. Last year the Financial Services Compensation Scheme paid out millions to those who were badly advised, but doing nothing about the advice gap is also a choice. I believe consumers are being harmed much more in the generic aisles of the supermarket, where often there is no regulatory redress.

The proposals are to be welcomed and should be brought in as quickly as possible. Let us also agree to do more for our constituents by making sure there ia much higher awareness of services such as Pension Wise and the financial advice money that people can take from their pension to pay for financial advice at key moments. I wish my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary well in implementing this important change. It will cost taxpayers nothing. It will harness the expertise of a range of excellent financial services firms and get much more personalised advice to our constituents when they take key financial decisions. I give power to the Minister’s elbow in bringing the changes forward.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) for securing today’s debate. I recognise her long-standing commitment to the issue that she has outlined to the House. I am mindful that, as one of my predecessors and Chair of the Treasury Committee, she is watching me keenly to make sure that I do the right thing. I am very glad that she broadly supports the proposals and strongly supports the Edinburgh reform. I want to make it clear that I, as Economic Secretary, share her ambition to ensure that consumers can access the support they need to make good financial decisions. I welcome the opportunity provided by this debate to outline how I intend to achieve that.

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of the timing of this debate and the proposals. This has never been more important. Too often, people in this country, particularly younger people, feel as though they do not have enough of a stake in our economy and society. They want to make their money work hard, but they do not know where to start.

On the changes to our pension system, she mentioned the success of auto-enrolment. Advances in technology and the cost of living instabilities abroad are just two of the reasons why we increasingly need a financially savvy population. She also mentioned pension freedoms for older people, which give them a lot of economic freedom to make these financially important decisions.

Before I get on to the changes, it is worth recognising the support that current guidance and advice services can offer consumers; those should not be ignored. The Government established the Money and Pensions Service in 2019 to simplify the financial guidance landscape and provide support to consumers on important issues such as benefits, budgeting and pensions. The Government work closely with the FCA to ensure that the financial advice market works well for both firms and consumers. There is always more to do, but I believe that we have made significant progress.

In 2012, the retail distribution review drove up the quality of financial advice, and in 2016, when my hon. Friend was the Minister, the financial advice market review helped firms to support more consumers. However, she is right that further action is needed. Despite the progress made, I share her concern that many consumers still struggle to make critical decisions about saving and investing or accessing their pensions, and to access the right help and support. That is why, in 2022, the Chancellor announced that the Government and the FCA would commence a joint review to examine the regulatory boundary between financial advice and guidance. The review provides a key opportunity—probably the greatest opportunity in the last decade—to rethink the way support is delivered for consumers and to help close the advice gap.

In December, as part of the review, I was pleased to announce that the Government and the FCA had published a joint policy paper setting out the three initial proposals, which it is worth saying can be taken either alone or together. We are still thinking about these proposals. We are developing them and we hope to get them delivered as best we can. They represent real regulatory reform, and we need to act.

First, the paper considers whether changes to the FCA’s regulatory guidance or new rules would allow regulated firms to move closer to the boundary and provide more support for their consumers. One difficulty is that we need to be able to, within the existing rules, give firms more confidence that they can move closer to this boundary and give advice and support in ways that do not require legal changes; they just need to be given the confidence to do that. For example, we need to give greater certainty to firms that want to contact a customer holding savings in cash to warn them of the detriment of inflation, and to pension providers that want to proactively warn customers at risk of receiving an inadequate income in retirement. We need to help firms to give better support to customers in such ways.

Secondly, the paper explores a new and innovative type of support that would allow firms to suggest a product or course of action to their customers. That suggestion would be tailored to targeted group of customers and would be presented as appropriate for “people like you”. Take again, for example, a customer who is saving into a pension at a low rate that could lead to an inadequate income in retirement. Under the second proposal in the paper, based on simple and limited data points such as age and size of the individual pot, the pension provider could offer a straightforward piece of advice that the customer could increase their contributions to a specific rate, depending on their personal circumstances. I am glad that my hon. Friend said that this second proposal was a key proposal.

The final option explores a simplified advice regime that would allow consumers with a specific need to access low-cost financial advice. It is worth saying again that the cost of advice is prohibitive for a lot of people. What we are proposing is not just a regulatory change; we need to make sure that all the options are commercially viable for more people. This final option would provide consumers with a recommendation personalised to their individual circumstances, based on a more limited approach to fact-finding than full holistic advice.

I thank the Minister for summarising the three proposals again. Could he clarify which of them would need a vote in Parliament, and will he commit to bringing forward any necessary legislation with urgency?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I will need to come back to her on whether a specific vote on primary legislation is required. I think secondary legislation would be needed to deal with certain aspects of the proposals, but I will follow up and write to her on the detail, and I commit to moving forward as quickly as I can. With a year left of this Parliament, I want to get this moved forward as far as possible. I am passionate about doing that.

Under the third proposal, for example—it is important to get these examples on the record—a consumer who has just inherited a small lump sum of, say, £10,000 or £20,000, and wants to invest it but does not know where to start, could receive simplified advice that includes a suitability assessment and a personal recommendation as to how they should invest that sort of inheritance.

The paper will allow us to receive input from stakeholders to inform the details of each proposal as we progress this year. Other things are going on in this area—for example, the NatWest share sale that the Chancellor announced in the autumn statement, which will hopefully be taken forward later this year. With that sort of retail offer to the public, it is very important that we have as good a provision for support, guidance and advice for ordinary people as possible.

I am committed to using my time in office to build the skills and trust of UK consumers to bring back the confidence in our financial system that so many people lost following the financial crash. I am confident that with further input from industry, the hon. Lady, Members of this House and consumer representatives, this paper can help to lay the groundwork for a new regulatory framework that will help firms manage risk, help consumers make good decisions and ultimately build a thriving and healthy financial services sector for us all.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Antisemitic Offences

[Valerie Vaz in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of increases in anti-Semitic offences.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I will begin by reminding colleagues that 7 October saw the biggest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the holocaust. The number of Jewish people currently displaced within Israel is the largest since the holocaust. In response to this, antisemitic incidents worldwide have soared.

Since 7 October, Auschwitz-Birkenau has been called an “embarrassment to humanity”. “Heil Hitler” has been shouted at Jewish students in the UK. Protests have included shouts to “burn the Jews” on the streets of London. The hats of Jewish men have been thrown off them in our capital, and menorahs have been attacked. We have seen threats from a professor to blow up the Jewish Labour Movement conference. University societies have championed “the resistance”, glorified Palestinian “martyrs” and denied the murder and rape of Israelis at Nova music festival. Synagogues have been targeted and threatened, Jewish schools have been attacked, and Jewish businesses have been vandalised.

In Bristol, “Free Palestine” was shouted at visibly Jewish men walking to a Sabbath lunch. In Leeds, a Jewish university footballer was called a “big nose Jew” by a member of the opposing team. In Manchester, a Jewish school was sent a letter saying

“warning your school is being targeted, No one is safe, no one should support killers, Palestine forever”.

In London, the Wiener Holocaust Library, a great organisation named after Lord Finkelstein’s grandfather, who escaped the Nazis, had “Gaza” spray-painted on its sign. In my area of the west midlands, a swastika was painted on a bridge, and a curry house announced its full support of Hamas. I thank West Midlands police for its support over the last few days in dealing with localised incidents incredibly fast.

That is by no means an exhaustive list; rather it is just a small insight to the Jewish experience in Britain over the last few months. Dr Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust describes antisemitism as a

“light sleeper lying just beneath the surface of society, ready to raise its head whenever the opportunity arises”.

These worrying statistics make clear the disturbing reality of the current situation.

I congratulate the hon. Member on the timeliness of her debate. Does she agree that there is not much that unites the far right and the hard left, but what does seem to unite them—for whatever reason that mystifies me, and possibly her as well—is their innate hatred of Jewish people?

The hon. Member is of course right.

Around the world, we have also seen arson attacks on synagogues in Germany, Tunisia and Armenia. In Canada, Jewish buildings were firebombed and Jewish religious schools were shot at. Terrorist plots against Jewish targets have been foiled in Germany, Cyprus, Denmark, the Netherlands and Brazil. Israeli flags were burnt outside synagogues in Spain and Sweden. In Vienna, part of the Jewish cemetery was set alight and swastikas were painted on walls. Jewish homes were marked by antisemitic graffiti in Paris and Berlin. In the US, a man fired shots outside a synagogue, and declared “Free Palestine” to the police who arrested him. In Russia, a mob stormed an airport looking for Jewish passengers to attack. A Jewish American, Paul Kessler, was killed by a pro-Palestinian protester in Los Angeles. A holocaust memorial in Berlin was defaced.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. Does she share my concern that so much of the work done in this country by the CST and Tell MAMA to build bridges and understanding is being undermined by what is happening across the world and, frighteningly, in this country? Does she share my fear that there are people up and down this country—students, schoolchildren and the elderly—living in fear in a way that we never envisaged in this century?

The hon. Lady is right. We see some great examples of communities working together. A few months ago, I visited the Jewish community in Birmingham, who told us about the support they had had from the mosque in Birmingham and faith leaders across the board. This by no means describes everything that is happening at the moment, but there are plenty of examples. We have a chance on Thursday to debate some of the more positive aspects of community relationships, but sadly today’s focus is on what is going wrong at the moment.

Across the UK, in the days following Hamas’s barbaric massacre on 7 October to 13 December, the Community Security Trust recorded 2,098 antisemitic incidents. That figure is expected to rise and 2023 is expected to be the year in which the highest ever number of antisemitic incidents was recorded in the UK. The figure of 2,098 dwarfed the 800 or so incidents recorded up until 7 October and was the highest ever number reported to the CST across any similar period, even during other conflicts in the middle east. To clarify, that is 2,098 incidents of antisemitism as a result of a massacre of innocent Jewish men, women and children in Israel. The impact of this is massive and should not be underestimated.

Whereas the police require only for victims to say that they have been the target of a hate crime, the CST requires evidence of antisemitism. The CST logged at least another 1,288 incidents, which have not been classed as antisemitic. Those include criminal acts affecting Jewish people and property, suspicious behaviour near Jewish locations and anti-Israel activity that is not directed at the Jewish community or does not use antisemitic language. Many of those potential incidents involve suspicious or hostile activity at Jewish locations.

The 2,098 incidents included hateful comments, threats of violence and death threats. Among them were 95 assaults, 165 direct threats, 127 instances of damage and desecration of Jewish property, and 1,677 incidents of abusive behaviour. One hundred and thirty-three incidents related to schools and included the abuse of schoolchildren and teachers; I will talk about universities later.

Meanwhile, some of the focal points of the recent rise remain a source of concern. Rallies have taken place across our nation weekly. Of course people have a legitimate right to protest, but that is not the same as feeling free to support terrorist groups or attack Jewish people. The Select Committee on Home Affairs recently investigated the protests, and I think that it will be helpful to highlight some of the contributions from the CST’s Dr Dave Rich.

Dr Rich explained that 7 October left the Jewish community in the UK “completely traumatised and grief-stricken”. He explained that within 24 hours of that largest murderous assault on Jews since the holocaust, the first pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstrations were beginning—some of them while the attack was still continuing. The protests appeared supportive of the barbarism: for example, the announcement on Facebook about one such march called the attack “heroic”. More people have been on these marches than there are Jews in Britain. The CST has had impact statements from British Jews explaining that they feel unsafe living in this country and are changing dates of hospital appointments, forbidding their children to get on the train, and so on.

There have been some 300 arrests at protests—instances where the police have identified, located and arrested someone. There have been antisemitic placards and expressions of support for terrorism, which the organisers are not doing enough to stamp out. Their communications about a rally must include warnings not to engage in antisemitic conduct or support for terrorism, and the communications of the police during the rally must prioritise accuracy over speed. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend the Minister set out what the Government are doing to ensure that the rallies are not hotbeds of antisemitism, and how much it has cost to police them effectively.

Social media platforms must act too. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology has been holding meetings with the companies, asking them to set out their actions and policies. Despite that, the companies are failing in their duty of care to the users. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue found a fifty-fold increase in antisemitic comments on YouTube immediately after the 7 October attack. It found a major rise in threats made against Jewish institutions and individuals, as well as posts on X supporting and glorifying Hamas’s terror attacks. By 12 October, this content had been viewed more than 16 million times on the platform. TikTok has insufficient systems for monitoring live-streamed content, including antisemitism voiced at rallies. The Antisemitism Policy Trust and the Woolf Institute have already demonstrated a number of trends across social media platforms, including antisemitic supply rather than demand on Instagram. There are two antisemitic tweets for every Jewish person in the UK per year on X. It would be helpful if the Minister set out in detail the work that Ofcom is doing in relation to not just the platforms that I have mentioned but small, high-risk platforms such as 8kun and Rumble, both generally and specifically with regard to hate being spread by technology systems during the current middle east conflict.

The situation on university campuses, no doubt compounded by social media, is dire. Since the 7 October attacks, antisemitism on campus has risen sixfold, with 157 recorded incidents according to the CST. Jewish students have been the victims of death threats, physical assaults and violent abuse. There has been explicit support for Hamas and calls for an intifada. The Union of Jewish Students has provided examples, including a student in Scotland being pelted with eggs, graffiti on a poster in Manchester encouraging students to kill more Jews, and participants in an online lecture at Queen Mary University of London joking about Hitler’s gas bill and about getting a Hitler reboot card. The result is that some students remove visible signs of their Jewish identity, while others simply avoid campus altogether.

The Union of Jewish Students has been running training for thousands of union officials up and down the country. Are Government willing to support that effort? Last year, we witnessed what many had hoped would not be possible: three grown adults unable to clarify whether calling for the genocide of Jews was problematic, arguing that it depended on context. Those were not uneducated women; they were university leaders, and not just any university leaders; they were leaders of some of the most respected universities not just in the US, but in the world.

I thank the hon. Lady for for introducing this very important debate, as we see the oldest hatred in the world resurfacing so badly. Should we also deal with the argument about free speech? Free speech and discussion is vital in a democratic society but, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes of the US Supreme Court, it is not

“the right to shout fire in a crowded theatre”.

Words have consequences. Should not universities and public authorities be cracking down on this and taking determined action?

I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Just in the past few days, I have been alarmed by the responses I have received on Twitter, having reported an antisemitic incident to the police, and by the support for Hamas, but also by the number of people who do not understand why hate speech, tweets and what they call freedom of speech are being reported to the police. They do not understand the consequences. The statistics I have read out today about the number of Jews living in the UK and the number of antisemitic tweets—two antisemitic tweets per year for every Jewish person in the UK—show why it is important to crack down on it.

Since 7 October, the call for an “intifada until victory” has been plastered up and down campuses, and a model motion calling for that was passed at University College London and the University of East Anglia students’ union. Does the Minister agree that motions passed that call for an “intifada until victory” are disturbing, and that calls to globalise the intifada are extremely worrying? Perhaps we could have some clarity on the legality of the term in those contexts. Will he say something about the role of the prevent duty in relation to speakers and other activity on campus? Will he make it clear that support for Hamas, whether voiced by individual students or groups such as the Socialist Workers party, must be investigated by the police, because support for proscribed terrorist organisations, including Hamas, is illegal?

As we begin 2024, let us be clear. Policing must be robust, with zero tolerance. Sentencing must not be lenient. Education must be improved and widespread. Relevant authorities, whether they be universities, councils or companies, need to work to support Jewish colleagues, employees or students, and ensure that they recognise their duty of care.

This is my message to those engaged in antisemitism in response to a conflict in a place they are unlikely to have visited or know much about. Last week, I met people my age who had survived a massacre at a music festival purely because of their immense courage and chance. I met heartbroken but determined families of hostages and people killed. I witnessed a nation still overcome with grief. For those who diminish what happened on 7 October—or worse, seek to justify it—I hope they will never witness what those strong and brave people did. I watched 47 minutes of the gleeful spree and slaughter by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as civilians. Nothing will erase those images from my mind: the look of fear in their eyes that I did not know was possible. Nothing will ever be the same again for Jewish people around the world following that dreadful day in October last year, so have some humanity, recognise the impact of your language and ask yourself what you stand for.

Antisemitism is centuries old, but it still persists. It does not give up, so neither should we. We must remain unwavering and uncompromising in our efforts to challenge it, and I thank all colleagues present for doing so. I hope this debate will play its part in doing that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for securing this very important debate.

It has been the most horrific time since the attack in Israel. I was in the country with a delegation from Labour Friends of Israel almost three weeks to the day before the attack occurred, and I visited the Kfar Aza kibbutz. Luckily for the young lady who showed us around, she was with her husband and family further up, near Tel Aviv, at the time of the attack, so they survived. Sadly, her parents did not, and she is having to deal with that grief. Having seen the close proximity to Gaza, I just cannot imagine the fear that they must have all felt for the hours and hours that the attack went on, and the horror and atrocities that occurred. I am someone who witnessed the footage that the Israeli embassy shared with some of us, and there are things in it that I will never, ever forget.

As the hon. Member for West Bromwich East has outlined for us today, the wave of antisemitism we have seen across the country since 7 October is shocking and appalling. We have heard “Burn the Jews!” shouted at protest marches. Jewish children have been advised not to wear their school blazers. Swastikas have been graffitied in public places, and Jewish schools vandalised with red paint. Jews have been harassed, intimidated and assaulted in the street and as they leave their places of worship. The roll call of incidents is both long and shameful. It is shameful that in Britain, in 2024, our fellow citizens are subject to such racism and hatred. Sadly, however, it is not surprising.

As the Community Security Trust suggests, whenever Israel is at war there is an increase in antisemitism incidents, and an acute rise is usually reported specifically in and related to educational establishments, as the hon. Lady spoke about with regard to universities. None the less, the Community Security Trust suggests that, even compared with periods of previous conflicts involving Israel, the current statistics are unprecedented. This is grimly ironic, given that the state of Israel was established to provide the Jewish people with a safe haven, after centuries of persecution which culminated in the Nazis’ attempt to annihilate Jewish history and the Jewish people of Europe. The persecution continues to this day.

Let us be clear: these antisemitic attacks are nothing less than the latest iteration of the oldest hatred. In the charges levelled against Zionists—that they control the media and the Government, that they are disloyal, greedy and bloodthirsty, and that they are ideologically akin to, and collaborated with, the Nazis—we see the repetition of classic antisemitic tropes and smears. Our country, which rightly prides itself on its tolerance and its rejection of extremism, cannot allow antisemitism to go unchecked and unchallenged. We need swift, tough and comprehensive action to tackle anti-Jewish racism.

First, as the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), has rightly argued, we need an increase in policing and stronger action to tackle and monitor antisemitism, and we must ensure that the police have the powers they need to tackle to hateful extremism. Secondly, it is appalling that Jewish venues and institutions need extra levels of security and protection, but as long as that remains the case, it is imperative that the Community Security Trust receives the funding it needs to do its vital job. Thirdly, what is said online rarely stays online. The hateful conspiracy theories and lies about Jews and Israel that are peddled on social media by antisemites directly contribute to racism on our streets. Social media companies must enforce their own rules against hate speech, and where crimes are committed, they must co-operate with the police to ensure that the guilty are punished.

Fourthly, in relation to universities, the National Union of Students and student unions must do more to fight antisemitism and to ensure the safety of Jewish students. At the same time, surveys indicate shocking levels of ignorance about the holocaust, and strong public support for greater holocaust education. The work of organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust is of paramount importance; they are on the frontline of the battle for hearts and minds.

Finally, Iran is a leading purveyor of holocaust denial, antisemitism and extremism. Its terrorist proxy armies slaughter Jews, while its ideological arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, attempts to incite and perpetuate violence and spread disinformation globally, including throughout Britain. As Labour has argued, we must proscribe the IRGC and begin to turn off this pipeline of hatred.

In two weeks’ time, we will mark Holocaust Memorial Day. This year’s theme is the fragility of freedom, and that is especially relevant in the light of the antisemitism that we have seen on our streets over the past three months. Without security, there can be no freedom. Freedom from fear and violence is the prerequisite of any civilised country. We cannot allow Britain’s Jewish community to be denied that freedom.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for securing this important and very timely debate.

According to the Metropolitan police, in my constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster, we have sadly seen an unprecedented 1,350% increase in the number of antisemitic incidents since the awful scenes on 7 October in Israel. I received an email from a Jewish constituent who is in her late 70s, I believe, and was born and bred in the United Kingdom. She says:

“Some of my non-Jewish friends ask me if I feel safe now. The answer is generally yes, but I would not want to wear my necklace with its star of David when it can be seen. I would not feel safe walking past the pro-Palestinian protests if they knew I was Jewish. I love this country. I cannot think of living anywhere else. I have never been to Israel, but Palestine supporters, when I spoke to them in the street a couple of years ago, said I had no business being here, and a neighbour told me I should not be living in Belgravia; I should go to Golders Green or Stamford Hill.”

Over recent months, my constituency has been the location of protests in solidarity with Palestinians. I support peaceful protest, and always will. It is important to recognise that the vast majority of people taking part in these protests do so peacefully, but I fear that a minority are using them for antisemitic purposes. I am glad to see that these protests no longer tend to end at the Cenotaph, and that the protest organisers have been more sensitive about moving start times and locations to reduce clashes with Shabbat services in nearby synagogues in my constituency. I really hope that that will continue.

As I said, the majority of those on the protests are peaceful, and that has been the case across the country, but we have seen too many incidents of antisemitism on these marches. The police were slow to react initially, but they have got better, and hundreds of people have rightly now been arrested. We cannot live in a country where we shrug our shoulders when somebody is antisemitic. We would not do it if someone was being racist towards a black person or somebody of Muslim heritage; equally, we must not allow it to happen to the Jewish community.

The incidents are wide-ranging, and include the use of intimidating language, physical abuse and criminal damage to property. They have all been reported. One of the biggest issues raised with me as the local MP is abuse on university campuses—places where students should feel free to express themselves and their identity without threat of intimidation.

The hon. Lady is making a very salient point. I was frightened by a recent conversation with a University of Glasgow student who went to a meeting about the war in Gaza. He thought it would be a wide-ranging discussion, but he suddenly found himself at the centre of a meeting that was very antisemitic. He did not feel comfortable; he felt under threat. Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is that the public are not aware of this? They do not see it, and the media is not expressing the danger of growing antisemitism in this country in the way that we would like.

I absolutely agree. One of the most important books I have read over the past couple of years is David Baddiel’s “Jews Don’t Count”. I have always been a supporter of the Jewish community— I have spoken about going to a kibbutz when I was 18, and I have been to Israel several times—but I had never really thought about the cultural antisemitism in this country. None of us really thinks it is racism—well, many of us do, but it is seen as, “Oh, they are Jewish; it’s fine.” As I said earlier, if the target was a black person or anybody of colour, it would be considered completely differently. Those involved in that type of “humour” would be cancelled, and might even be prosecuted for hate crimes.

According to the Union of Jewish Students, there has been a staggering 500% increase in antisemitism on university campuses. I heard about that at first hand soon after the 7 October attacks, when a group of Jewish students from my constituency, from King’s College London, the London School of Economics, the University of Westminster and Imperial College London, came to visit me. One young man of Jewish heritage, British born and bred—from north London—experienced his first antisemitism on the tube coming to visit me. That was shocking for both of us. Those students, who are part of the UJS, have been doing absolutely fantastic work to support Jewish students over the past few months and before that. They informed me that they have received more than 400 calls to their hotline reporting antisemitic abuse over the past few months. The UJS not only supports students but provides training to thousands of people on campus to help them spot antisemitism and root it out before it can harm students. As has been said, one of the big points is understanding that antisemitism is racism, and that we need to call it out.

After I met the UJS, I wrote to all the vice-chancellors and their equivalents at King’s College London, the University of Westminster, Imperial College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science. I highlighted that, although of course it is critical to protect freedom of speech, there is a fine line between speaking freely and causing harm to groups of people and minorities. I reiterated in my letters that we must have a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism and Islamophobia on campus. I also asked the vice-chancellors to inform me whether they were providing additional support to Jewish staff and students after the 7 October attacks. I was encouraged by their responses, which were far more rigorous in their condemnation of antisemitism than some US college presidents have recently been.

Initiatives such as the LSE’s “Report It, Stop It” allow students to safely and anonymously report abusive or threatening behaviour. However, that sort of mechanism is effective only if the reported abuse is met with swift repercussions for the offenders, which I hope the vice chancellors of the universities will continue to provide. University campuses are rightly hotbeds of debate, sometimes on contentious topics and views, but as I say, there is a fine line between the protection of freedom of speech and the protection of people’s rights. People need to feel safe and welcome on their campus, at lectures and elsewhere.

It is not only Jewish students who feel intimidated. Unfortunately, Jewish primary school children are being targeted as well. Some feel so uncomfortable that they cannot show their true identity when on school trips. This struck me so clearly in November last year, when a group of Jewish primary school children visited me. They were from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). He could not make their meeting, so he asked me to meet them. They were boys, about 10 years old. The first thing I noticed when I met them was that they were all wearing baseball caps. I asked their teacher why, and it was to hide their kippahs. British children in the House of Commons were hiding their identity for their own safety. How have we come to that? That has to stop.

I have heard from rabbis across my constituency. I am blessed to have so many synagogues in the Cities of London and Westminster, but I have been told how fearful and scared their communities are. We must do all that we can to protect them. I am pleased that the Metropolitan police in Westminster borough have taken that very seriously. They have increased the number of patrols around synagogues, and now liaise with rabbis. I thank the Westminster borough command and the neighbourhood teams for their work.

I hope that through today’s debate, and the continuing hard work of organisations such as the Union of Jewish Students, the Antisemitism Policy Trust, the Community Security Trust and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, we can continue to support those impacted, and slowly and surely rip out any form of antisemitism in this country. We should celebrate and thank the Jewish community for the amazing contribution that they have made, and continue to make, in our country.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Vaz. Thank you for calling me. I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for leading today’s debate. She and I spoke in the Members’ canteen today. She said, “I suppose you will be there,” and I said, “I certainly will.” I ran the whole way from Horseferry Road, where I was meeting the Transport Minister, to be here on time, because I told the hon. Lady that I would do my best to be here. For a guy of a certain vintage, I am not sure whether that was a good idea.

It is good to see the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety in his place. I look forward to hearing what he will say. He has always been positive in his response to these debates, and he encapsulates our concerns and requests. I also look forward to the contributions of the shadow Ministers, the hon. Members for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), and for Blaydon (Liz Twist), two hon. Ladies with whom I have had many debates. Their contributions will mirror what we all say; I am positive about that.

When we look at this important issue, especially this month, in which we celebrate Holocaust Memorial Day and recognise the devastation that the Jewish community has been subject to in the past, it saddens me—it saddens us all—to see that across the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, we have seen a torrent of antisemitic attacks, more recently throughout the war on Israel. It is great to be here as a friend of Israel, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I were when we were both on the Northern Ireland Assembly. We were in the Friends of Israel group there, and we are pround and privileged to be friends of Israel today in the House of Commons.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) was absolutely right in what she said, and I agree with it—I was nearly going to start cheering, so I was. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We speak up for those of the Christian faith, those of other faiths, and those with no faith, because we believe in our hearts that everyone who has a religious belief has a right to express it. The Jewish people have a right to express theirs, without any fear of threat or hindrance whatsoever.

On the issue of freedom of religious belief, does my hon. Friend agree that the protests, which get out of hand more than occasionally, are based on a false premise, and on misinformation peddled on social media? For example, in Israel there are hundreds of mosques, and freedom of religion for Muslim people to go to them. That is in sharp contrast with the very low number of synagogues in some of the adjoining Arab nation states. Those facts need to be spelled out, so that people have correct, factual information before they embark on any type of protests, which sometimes end up being violent.

Often—indeed, always—my hon. Friend brings forward very serious points. In my major town of Newtownards, we have a mosque. My second son grew up with the young boys from the mosque. We welcome that, and we speak up for them, and I am pleased to have the mosque in my town of Newtownards.

I attended an event in the synagogue in Belfast some time ago. I will speak about this issue quickly, because others have referred to it. There was a full house of people there, including some students. I sat beside a young student, and I said, “Tell me this: how are things in Queen’s University in Belfast?” That was where she attended. She told me that she felt threatened by some elements, but not by Queen’s University staff members—its policy is absolutely clear that there is to be none of that. However, there were threats, and I focus on them, from students of a different political opinion. She clearly felt threatened.

At times of conflict between countries, there are always religious and cultural tensions, with some communities feeling threatened and frightened to live in their own country. At the outbreak of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I received calls and emails in my office about an incident that occurred at the city hall in Belfast. There were pictures and videos going around on social media of Lasair Dhearg activists—those of a nationalist opinion—projecting on to city hall an image of Hamas fighters paragliding into Israel, alongside the words “smash the Zionists”. I want my police service, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to make those people accountable for their actions. A section of the Jewish community contacted local representatives stating that they felt frightened—I felt frightened for them—and that the antisemitic language used threatened them. We reported that to the police as a hate crime, and thankfully the projections stopped, because the police acted properly and without much more correspondence from me.

Further to that, in North Down, a neighbouring constituency, a local Bangor Central councillor had incidents of antisemitic hate language scribbled on a local park bench reported to him. That is completely unnecessary and threatening, and it gives the local area such a bad look. It could have been left for children of all ages to see. There are those who think that they can do things and get away with them—no, they cannot. Let us make them accountable.

We usually see a string of attacks, or certainly an increase in them, when issues are going on across the world, but those attacks are often inflicted on minorities in our communities, further isolating them and causing a feeling of fright. I have heard of so many attacks recently, especially on the mainland. I am so sad to hear of the antisemitic attack on the office of the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark)—that is disgraceful. There is absolutely no place for that kind of behaviour in our society. I am so pleased that the police took swift action in response. I am quite sure that the Minister encouraged the police to take that strong action.

Antisemitic crime in the UK has risen sharply amid the renewed conflict in Gaza, with 1,000 incidents logged by the Jewish charity Community Security Trust. What is taking place is just astounding. The trust works closely with police at local, regional and national level on joint patrols in Jewish areas, training classes and exercises, and exchanging antisemitic incident data, and in numerous advisory roles. As many will be aware, regional integration is so important to me and my colleagues.

I conclude with this, Ms Vaz, because I am conscious that you asked me to be fair to the other speakers, and I will be. There is no place in society for racially motivated groups who use threat and terror to achieve their aim. A just and harsh punishment must be implemented to ensure that these crimes do not go by with a mere slap on the wrist. I thank Members for their correspondence, for their comments today and for all they have done on behalf of my constituents in Newtownards and my constituency of Strangford. I support what the hon. Member for West Bromwich East has said, and I look forward very much to what the Minister will say to encourage us on behalf of our constituents.

Thank you, Ms Vaz, for your chairpersonship. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for raising this important issue. I thank all those who work in Jewish community groups—the CST, the Antisemitism Policy Trust, the Union of Jewish Students, the Jewish Leadership Council or others—who do so much to bring attention to this appalling issue and to keep the Jewish community safe.

We know that a survey conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that 30% of the public hold at least one antisemitic view, so it is fair to assume that up to a similar percentage of people who attend some of these marches, which have been deeply distressing for Jewish people, also hold some of those views. It may be true that the majority of people who have attended the marches have been peaceful, but if they find themselves marching alongside people who call for jihad, display symbols in support of terrorism and call for an intifada, perhaps they should consider whether they should be keeping that company. Certainly, if I ended up on a march where there were neo-Nazis, I would exit it fairly swiftly.

I will say more on the marches at another opportunity. This afternoon, I want to focus specifically on the issue of Israelophobia, which is really just a new and updated form of antisemitism, and particularly on what I think is institutionalised Israelophobia in parts of our media. When, in 2017, I had the privilege of responding to the Holocaust Memorial Day debate as the Minister, I said:

“Unfortunately, there has been an increased Israelification of anti-Semitism, using Israel and Zionism as a proxy for Jews. I have seen that and been on the receiving end of it, particularly on Twitter. There are pictures of the Star of David represented as the Nazi flag—that is unacceptable and a form of anti-Semitism.”—[Official Report, 19 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 1168.]

That is exactly what we have seen displayed on the streets of this country in recent weeks. I have become increasingly concerned about the tone and what I believe is the one-sided nature of the coverage of this conflict in parts of the media, and about what that is doing to fuel Jew hate in this country. As has been said, it is bad enough that we already have people on the streets of Britain calling for an intifada. Let us remember what the last intifada involved: the bombing of a pub, the blowing up of buses and the murder of a nine-year-old Israeli child whose head was smashed between a rifle butt and a rock. That is what an intifada means, yet people are on the streets of this country marching for that and are not arrested for it. Indeed, at times, it has looked as though the Metropolitan police in particular have been the public relations arm of some of the protests.

My fear is that this Israelification of antisemitism—this Israelophobia—is now engrained at every level of British society. As Members have mentioned, we find it today in academia among university lecturers; it seems that it is tolerated in schools; it is promoted by ignorant football pundits, senior professionals and actors; and I am sorry to say that it is given succour in parts of the British media. Behind it sit age-old but updated antisemitic tropes, which include that Jews are too powerful and that they are untrustworthy, sneaky and greedy. That Israelophobia has been on display in recent weeks. It is a poison that has dripped into every aspect of western life and has been promoted by very clever activists who, over decades, have created a false history and a false narrative about Jews in the middle east, have smeared Zionism and, in so doing, have played on the victimhood of Palestinians which, itself, has taken away agency from Palestinians.

What is this Israelophobia—this updated antisemitism? As the editor of The Jewish Chronicle put it, it has three elements: demonisation,

“smearing Israel as evil and a threat to the world”;


“exploiting social justice movements as a Trojan horse for hatred of Jews and their national home”—

how we have seen that on the streets of Britain; and falsification,

“echoing the lies and canards of the Nazi or Soviet propaganda.”

That is what we have seen on the streets: people marching with banners and saying things about the state of Israel and this conflict that are directly drawn from Nazi and Soviet antisemitic propaganda. Never mind that Hamas want to murder all Jews. Never mind that the majority of Palestinians in recent polling reject co-existence with Israel. It is Israel, or rather Jews, who are the problem. As the late and great rabbi, Lord Sacks, said:

“In the Middle Ages, Jews were hated because of their religion. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were hated because of their race. Today they are hated because of their nation state, the state of Israel.”

A Jewish banker of the past antisemitic tropes is now the Israeli lobby. Never mind the truth of how much other countries spend on lobbying, which is far more than anything spent by the state of Israel, the medieval bloodthirsty Jew, who drank the blood of Christian children, is now the bloodthirsty Israeli. There is nothing new here. Israelophobia is antisemitism, pure and simple.

Sadly, we have now seen that ingrained in parts of the media. I am a big supporter of the media and the BBC, and I have never bought into the Defund the BBC campaign. However, I have serious concerns about some of the coverage we have seen—about how Israel has been singled out for special treatment, which is directly putting Jews in this country at risk. It plays into those tropes of bloodlust. Hamas’ figures on civilian casualties are reported without qualification or reference to the BBC being unable to verify their figures. The imagery of this conflict, as it would have us believe, is a well-armed Israel Defence Forces soldier versus a civilian of Gaza, never mind that the IDF is obviously seeking to destroy a despotic, terrorist death cult. For example, we are told by Jeremy Bowen that

“Israelis have hardened their hearts”.

That was in a report without any evidence, any reference to polling to back it up, or any reference to the Israelis who, even in this conflict, work hard for peace between Palestinians and Israelis to this day.

Where the reporting suggests that Israel’s claims are untrustworthy, they are treated differently to those of Hamas. We are repeatedly being told of the BBC being unable to verify claims. When the BBC reported on witness statements of Israeli Jewish women being raped and murdered, not only did it challenge those statements directly to the people making them, it included within its reports that it had been unable to verify those claims. I do not remember that appearing when we had reports about the awful rapes of Yezidi women by ISIS. It certainly was not included in BBC reporting of alleged incidents involving released Palestinian prisoners, some of whom not only owe a debt to Hamas but are convicted or accused of very serious offences. They were released and allowed to tell their story, with the BBC choosing not to mention in its reporting that it had been unable to verify the numbers.

Then, of course, we had the reporting of the “strike” on the Al-Ahli Hospital. Hamas propaganda immediately reported that there were 500 deaths and that it was an Israeli strike. We know that is untrue. It was a smear, it was a lie, and it remained on many media outlets and still remains on some of issues now. But when the IDF uncover a hospital that has weapons inside or is being used to hold hostages, what are we told? Once again, that the BBC has been unable to verify those claims, yet an unverified claim about a strike that never took place was push notified on social media. It is no wonder that 75% of British Jews consider the BBC biased in its coverage of this conflict. We have good reason to feel that.

I am conscious of time, and I think another Member wants to speak, but I would like to give a couple of other recent examples in the media that need calling out. On 23 December, Sky analyst Sean Bell said that Hamas’s strategy may prove to be “prudent”. The rape, murder and torture of Israeli women, the cutting off of children’s limbs and the slicing off of women’s breasts may prove to be a prudent strategy—Sky News. On 28 November, Dominic Waghorn of Sky said in a series of tweets that Yahya Sinwar had assured hostages that they would be well treated, and, indeed, that some hostages had said the only thing they feared was Israeli bombardment. His exact words were:

“They were held in reasonable conditions, reportedly, though those held above ground lived with the fear of being killed in Israel’s bombardment.”

Let us consider the facts. Never mind the mental health impact on these people; never mind the fact they were taken against their will; never mind that Mia Schem, one of the released hostages, described living in constant fear of rape and being operated on without anaesthesia; never mind that hostages were held in cages; never mind the reports of sexual assault on the hostages that have come out since 17-year-old Agam Goldstein-Almog was released. Never mind any of that. It is okay, according to Sky: the hostages were treated well because Yahya Sinwar, the leader of a terrorist death cult, assured them they would be okay. These are the things that are going on in our media. Is it any wonder that Jew hate is being fuelled in this country? We have institutionalised Israelophobia in the BBC and other parts of our media, and it needs to be called out.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East on securing this debate, as well as other Members present on their contributions. I know that another Member wishes to speak, so I will end on those numerous examples—all of which, I must add, I have made complaints about beforehand. I believe in making those complaints privately; the reason I mention them today is that none of them has been resolved properly. On that, I shall end.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for bringing forward this important debate at such a critical time. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who is a member of the same synagogue as me, and with whom I have enjoyed mixing Hanukkah cocktails in the past.

As a proudly Jewish parliamentarian, this is an issue that has significance both to my constituents, of all faiths and none, and to me personally. The devastating attack on 7 October had a far-reaching impact on the Jewish community in the UK, not least because its scale means that most of us are only one degree of separation from someone killed, taken hostage or otherwise impacted, as well as the huge surge in antisemitism that has so shamefully followed the attack. The war in Ukraine has also led to an uptick in the conspiratorial filth I have received and seen online, in part due to the Jewish faith of Volodymyr Zelensky, but also the offensive denazification pretext for invasion by Russia. I had wrongly thought that this sort of conspiratorial nonsense was on the wane after covid and the George Soros and 5G conspiracies, but they have now been replaced by nonsense about Rothschilds, satanists and Putin propaganda.

I pay tribute to CST, which is such an invaluable resource to our community and to me personally, providing practical and moral support when things are at their most difficult. I also pay tribute to Warrington Borough Council, which has always acted speedily in clearing up the incidents of antisemitic graffiti we have reported, including the swastikas recently daubed on local playparks.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich East made specific reference to antisemitism online, which it is vital to mention. Twitter, or X, in particular, has mainstreamed antisemitism. The number of times I have reported objectively antisemitic tweets, with posters and names that specifically reference nazi ideology, only to get an email back saying the tweets have not broken any of the website’s rules since Elon Musk’s takeover is, frankly, staggering. More must be done to hold tech companies accountable for the hate that is peddled on their platforms.

Antisemitism online is bad enough; it not only has an insidious impact on the individuals to whom it is directed, but poisons the overall atmosphere of those sites. However, the online sphere does not stay online. Recently, I was accosted by a man on the street. While he was filming me—he later posted the video online—he made repeated references to me being part of a Jewish and Masonic conspiracy to commit genocide against Catholics and Muslims and shouted at me that I was a murderer. Thankfully, my team intervened and the police were nearby, so things did not escalate to where they so easily could have. Nevertheless, it left me shaken on that day and has led me to feel less safe when out and about, and to take additional measures for my physical safety.

Ultimately, hatred is only defeated by solidarity. We have some incredible local initiatives to build relationships between communities, which are more important now than ever, but constraints on local government finance mean that some of the more targeted support that can make the most difference is under-resourced. I welcome the additional funding for the CST as a result of the latest increases in antisemitic incidents, but there is much more that the Government could do here. There is also more that we can do with schools around education about the Jewish community. With the Jewish community as small as we are, it cannot be left to us to educate others about Jewish life and our common humanity to build that understanding.

I hope and pray that we will see peace in Israel and Gaza speedily, but ensuring that our vibrant and multicultural society is one in which all our constituents can feel safe is something that we must be proactive about. Our interventions and focus as Parliament in this area cannot be led by events overseas.

I know that my hon. Friend shares my concerns about antisemitism on university campuses. I recently spoke to Jewish students at Leeds University, where there have been a number of antisemitic incidents. One of those was when Moazzam Begg, who has diminished the role of Hamas in the 7 October massacre, was invited to speak. Jewish and other students raised concerns, but the student union did not cancel the room booking, citing the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, which my hon. Friend and I both warned would create scenarios that could unleash antisemitism on campus. It appears that we have been proved right, as the horrific events in October and the misguided aim of allowing freedom of speech on campuses have unleashed a wave of antisemitism. Is it not time that we looked at the legislation again, to protect Jewish students on campus?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct that there have been some unintended consequences from that legislation, which were warned about. The very people that it sought to stop from coming on to campus have in fact been protected on campus. That is something we need to look at again.

Hon. and right hon. Members have picked up on a number of points in this debate, which I hope will help us to ensure that, as we tear antisemitism out of our society by its roots, we plant something better and more hopeful in its place. This is a good place to start.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Vaz. I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for securing today’s debate. This is obviously an issue of great importance to her, as it is to me and others here. She spoke powerfully about the worldwide phenomenon and about the nature of this concerning upturn in antisemitism. She also spoke powerfully and clearly, as did the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), about the online space, which is often just a cesspit. I am keen to hear more from the Minister about how Government see the role of artificial intelligence in this space, which I agree is a serious cause for concern. The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) talked about the conspiratorial nature of much of this material, particularly online, and the need to tackle it. I would also be keen to hear more about that.

My constituency of East Renfrewshire is, on the face of it—and indeed under the surface—a very nice but perhaps unremarkable place. But scratch the surface even slightly and we are very much more than that. East Renfrewshire is one of the most diverse communities in Scotland. We have a fantastically active and growing Muslim community locally, which enriches the life of our area in many ways. We have a thriving and broad spectrum of Christian congregations, which are also all doing good work, and, similarly, significant Hindu and Sikh communities, which are all contributing brilliant things to our area. Our Baha’i community does so much to improve our local environment, and we are home to a significant Jewish community also. In fact, the majority of Scotland’s Jews have their homes in East Renfrewshire, and we are very much the better for that. We are the better for the contribution that the Jewish communities and these other faith and non-faith groups make locally. We are fortunate as well to live in a community where we respect, value and work with one another, and where we support each other in difficult times. That has never been more important, and it has never been clearer to me, than at the moment.

We have all watched in horror as events have unfolded in the middle east. Like the hon. Member for Warrington North, I have constituents with family members and friends in Israel and Palestine. People have been heartsore and so worried, and the wider community has worried along with them and continues to do so. Of course, these worries are now amplified by the spectre of hatred and the scourge of antisemitism, which has been described eloquently today. Some who have expressed concern to me locally have actually been members of other faith communities, troubled by the worries their neighbours face. I visited an excellent local Muslim centre recently to discuss the worrying rise in Islamophobia, and was struck by the sincere concerns raised by the people I was speaking to about the impact on the Jewish community locally and the increase in antisemitism.

The headlines might not always reflect that kind of thing, but there is a deep and broadly held concern about the impact of the terrible stain of antisemitism on our communities. The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) spoke well about the issues with neighbours and people’s worries. This is a real stain on our society; and it is increasing, and alarmingly so. We have heard today that antisemitism always rises at home when there is conflict in the middle east. We have seen overt threats. We have seen the horrible denial, the stereotypes and the tropes online, but not only online. The Community Security Trust, which does hugely important work, reflects all that in its output. It has shared eye-watering figures, which we have heard today, that should give us all pause for thought. I was struck by the description we heard earlier of antisemitism as a “light sleeper”, according to the Community Security Trust. That is true, and there is no excuse, no justification and no reason why antisemitism should ever raise its head or be accepted. Conflict somewhere else can never justify hatred here.

No one’s identity should ever be a reason for hatred. That is never acceptable. There is no place for antisemitism or hatred in our communities. Nothing can justify expressions of racial or religious hatred—nothing at all—and history has surely shown us the peril of not standing up and rejecting intolerance and prejudice. That rings particularly true today, and we need to heed the lessons of history.

I hope the hon. Lady will allow me to use her as a conduit to the Minister. She is talking about people holding particular views, and I mentioned the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s previous study, which showed that up to 30% of British people hold at least one antisemitic trope. Does she agree that now is perhaps a good time to update that, and for the Minister to look into whether we can fund another piece of research in the area?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. The more we can do to shine a light on the realities of people’s lives, the realities of communities and the issues people face, the better. We are all the better—Scotland is the better, and I am sure that others would agree that the UK is the better—for our diversity and for the different contributions that communities make to that plurality of cultures.

I am ignoring that contribution from the hon. Gentleman! [Laughter.]

Scotland’s Jewish community plays a very important part in our country and civic life, along with other faith communities. It was right that the Scottish Government formally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-semitism, as did my own party, and the continued dialogue and solidarity is particularly important at the moment.

I was privileged to speak alongside our First Minister, Humza Yousaf, at a moving and profound service at the Giffnock Newton Mearns synagogue in October, and the mutual sorrow, concern and respect between the Muslim First Minister of Scotland and the Jewish hosts of the ceremony was clear. We have to stand collectively. The joint statement of solidarity issued by the First Minister and faith leaders in Scotland is really important; that joint commitment to working to foster cohesion and good will across Scotland really matters. I am grateful for the meetings between the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities and the First Minister, and for the exemplary ongoing work of those organisations. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) mentioned a number of other organisations that are similarly doing important work.

It is really important that, as elected representatives, we have zero tolerance of hate crime and Islamophobia. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), who is no longer in her place, spoke about the worry that antisemitism creates, and it is really important that we accept that in our roles. Like others, I have spoken to students and parents who feel vulnerable, anxious and unable to express their identity. That is unacceptable. Again, I am grateful to the First Minister, who has committed to meet those students to hear their concerns, and to ensure that they are well understood and can be dealt with. Our universities are there for all our communities, and everyone must feel safe and able to be themselves in them.

When I spoke to my constituents about Remembrance Sunday events, I was very sorry to hear some of them express a reluctance to wear medals or carry wreaths that showed their Jewish identity. Nobody should fear laying a star of David wreath or wearing a star of David medal. The irony that they were fearful at that event should not be lost on us. We have heard about incidents at such occasions and in day-to-day life. We heard about the young pupils who wear baseball caps over their kippahs. People’s identities are not to be toyed with; we absolutely must respect them. We all matter, and we must all feel safe.

It is not just the horrible spectre of antisemitism—we have heard some terrible examples of antisemitism—but the cumulative worry, the build-up of concerns and the impact on people’s general confidence about going about their business that matter. We need to seriously take account of the anxiety that people experience about the prospect of antisemitism. There is obviously considerable anxiety at present.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government recently published their hate crime strategy, which was informed by communities with lived experience of hate crime and sets out strategic priorities for dealing with hate crime, including antisemitism. That really matters. I also thank Police Scotland, which has been outstanding and constructive in my local community; it is very aware of communities’ worries.

I am heartsore that we have to have this debate, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Bromwich East for securing it. I am deeply concerned that a creeping intolerance has evidently ramped up over recent times. Scotland is a safe place, but it is important that we are clear that we are not immune from this old hatred. We need to stand collectively against antisemitism. We have a particular responsibility here, and I am keen to hear further how the Minister believes the Government can support that work.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair in this important debate, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for securing it, and my hon. Friends the Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) for their important contributions.

The horrific attacks carried out by Hamas on 7 October have caused and continue to cause widespread grief within the Jewish community here in Britain. On top of that, the substantial increase in antisemitic incidents and offences in the months since has created an environment in which many members of our Jewish community feel threatened, vulnerable and unsafe, as we have heard.

We thank the Community Security Trust for its tireless efforts alongside the police to protect and support the Jewish community across Britain. Between 7 October and 13 December, the CST recorded more than 2,000 incidents of antisemitism, including 95 assaults and 165 direct threats. That is the highest total number of incidents it has recorded in that kind of time period since its records began 40 years ago. Police forces around the country have similarly recorded spikes in antisemitic offences in the months since 7 October. We know that many hate crimes go unreported, so those figures by no means reflect the full picture, and nor can they fully capture the deep and tangible impact that these incidents are having on the Jewish community as a whole.

Of course, events unfolding internationally have had alarming repercussions on many facets of community life. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North, some of the most shocking incidents have included graffiti on a holocaust library and a Jewish primary school vandalised with red paint. We have also seen unacceptable words on placards at protests and rallies, and a steep rise in antisemitic incidents at schools and on university campuses. Threats have been made against Jewish institutions and individuals across major online platforms. All those disturbing developments have heightened feelings of vulnerability among British Jews, a sizeable majority of whom have said that they have felt less safe in this country since 7 October.

Sadly, the appalling spike in antisemitism over the past few months has been paralleled by rising antisemitism across the world. In Russia, a mob stormed an airport looking for Jewish passengers to attack. We have seen arson attacks on synagogues in Germany, Tunisia and Armenia. Jewish homes in Paris and Berlin were marked by antisemitic graffiti. It is essential that we stand together in condemning such horrifying attacks.

Urgent action must be taken to prevent antisemitic hate crime, as well as all categories and strands of hate crime, which have soared over the last decade in Britain. We must take steps to ensure that incidents are reported, investigated and prosecuted, and be clear that we mean business in tackling antisemitism. Labour stands totally and wholeheartedly with the Jewish community in that vital task. That is why we are grateful for the reassurance policing work that has been taking place across communities, and why we supported additional funding for the Community Security Trust. However, we remain concerned that the Government are taking too little action, and that the monitoring of antisemitism and Islamophobia has been downgraded by the Government in the last 12 months. Specifically, incidents that do not cross the criminal threshold are no longer being recorded by the police, despite the Home Office’s assessment that such data is vital for targeting resources and preventing serious crime.

Over the past decade, the staggering year-on-year rises in hate crime have laid bare the Conservatives’ decade of failure to keep our communities safe. More than 145,000 cases were recorded in 2022-23, and violent crime rose sixfold in the 10 years prior. Hate and division have surged in response to conflict in the middle east, and we desperately need reassurance from the Government that they take hate crime seriously and that perpetrators will face the full force of the law. We cannot and must not accept this hatred, which corrodes our communities. Will the Minister back our calls to strengthen monitoring requirements around antisemitic and Islamophobic hate incidents in response to the current tensions? There has not been a refresh of the hate crime action plan since it expired in 2020. A refresh is vital. Do the Government intend to refresh the plan? If so, when?

Between 7 October and 13 December, the CST recorded 133 incidents of antisemitism related to the schools sector and 157 incidents related to universities, and there have been similarly shocking reports of Islamophobia in the education sector. Has the Minister, or any of his colleagues, issued full guidance on how schools should respond to such incidents? Does he support calls for secondary schools to teach about contemporary antisemitism?

At a time when antisemitism and Islamophobia divide our communities, cross-community and interfaith activities can bolster community cohesion. What action have the Government taken to promote positive, long-term projects to support community cohesion, and have they sought to identify and share examples of best practice at local authority level? Based purely on incidents that have been proactively reported, the CST recorded 625 incidents of antisemitism online between 7 October and 12 December last year. Does the Minister agree that, as colleagues have said this afternoon, the Online Safety Act 2023 was stripped of its powers to effectively monitor and challenge online safety incidents? What steps are the Government taking to tackle antisemitism online? Finally, can the Minister say when the last meeting of the cross-Government working group on antisemitism was held, and will the Government arrange for an urging meeting of the working groups on antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred?

It is essential that swift and firm action is taken to prevent antisemitic crime. In government, Labour will take firm action to do so.

I will call the Minister next, but I remind him to finish his remarks by about 3.58 pm to allow Nicola Richards to wind up.

I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) for giving us the opportunity to speak about this hugely important subject, and to almost all hon. Members for their contributions. To the hon. Members who have sought to politicise this, I would just say that there are times and there are places, and this was neither the time nor the place.

It is customary to start debates like this by saying that it is a pleasure to serve—and, of course, it is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz—but in truth, it is not a pleasure to be here today. It is not a pleasure to have listened to some of the absolutely outrageous stories that we have heard over the past half hour. It is not a pleasure to be sat in a debate that should not be needed at all. There is no pleasure to be had in this discussion, and I know that all colleagues here and outside this place share in that.

This debate is not a pleasure, but it is most definitely a necessity. It is a necessity, because in this seat of democracy there is an opportunity to call out the appalling acts of a tiny minority in recent months. It is a necessity for us to shine light on unacceptable behaviour, and to speak and articulate what we have sadly seen in recent months from a tiny group of people—that is, pure antisemitism. It might be dressed up as something else: it might be shrouded in a plaintive sense of emotion; it might be a preamble of obfuscation or confusion; it might be an inaccurate reference to fighting for something else; it might be the imposition of a horrifying hierarchy where Jewish deaths, Jewish injuries and Jewish blood appear to be less important than any other; or it might be the extraordinary insertion of context into the deaths of 1,200 people on 7 October. In truth, some are not even that subtle, and are now explicit about it, but whatever it is—whether implicit or explicit—we see it: it is present. If it walks, talks and acts like what it might be, then it probably is. It is antisemitism.

I want to be clear that no one in this room, nor the Government, seek to close down debate. No one here seeks to conflate legitimate criticism of one actor, one country, or one situation with explicit discrimination and prejudice. No one does not acknowledge the horror of war and the inhumanity of conflict—any conflict, anywhere, anytime, in any part of the world. No one is saying that we should not hear hard things; that is the mark of a civilised, educated, compassionate and curious society. But the other mark of a civilised society is calling out when things have gone too far, both implicitly and explicitly.

Part of the answer is law—you cannot incite violence—but another part is personal responsibility. There is a term that I hate; it is massively overused and I never thought I would be saying it. That term is “gaslighting”. But with the “From the river to the sea” chant, there is the most incredible abdication of responsibility for those who have used it casually, willingly, publicly—even, for some, joyfully. It may not be the case that everyone who has said it is antisemitic, but it absolutely is the case that all antisemites would be happy to use it.

There may also be a staggering misapplication of emotion via the trusted, weird logic of post-modernism that has taken root in so many of our universities, which abolishes the agency of the individual, dismantles the principle of the nation state and sees society only through the prism of a power dynamic where everyone either holds no power whatsoever, or holds all the power; and it follows that, as a result, anything that those without power do is virtuous and everyone who may have some semblance of power must be disregarded, ignored and dehumanised.

I will not give way. Postmodernism is an insidious, regressive and depressing call to all our worst selves, relying on false binaries and erroneous arguments. Most of the time, it sits in front of us without incident, in weird ideologies and daft PhDs. Yet occasionally it pops to the surface and the utter baselessness of it is revealed. At its heart, it needs to be ripped out of our society. This is not Britain. It is not supposed to be like this. This debate should not have happened; we are supposed to have moved on from this. It is clear that we have not.

I will not, if I may.

Like so many others in this debate, I have seen examples as a constituency MP. Individual one: an employee at a Russell Group university who raises money for charity in her spare time. She started to email me on Saturday 28 October to ask whether it is donations to my party or the selling of weapons to Israel that influences my stand. She tells me that she does not agree with me about “from the river to the sea” being a call for a race to be wiped out. She tells me that groups such as Hamas will continue while Israel does what it does.

Next, individual two: a nurse practitioner just over the border in Sheffield, who lives in my constituency. She asks me how I sleep at night, tells me there is collective punishment, that there is a war crime and that there is genocide. Then individual three: an ex-civil servant, an economist and a volunteer at a children’s society, who decided to debate with me on Facebook how much terrorism would be acceptable. Or individual four: a retired nurse who posts sunsets on Facebook and talks about a plan to free up land, with some rubbing their hands together for oil deals and expansion. It is just incredible.

If someone had told me on Friday 6 October that within three months we would have seen Jewish schools vandalised, missing persons posters torn down, a massive rise in crime, Jewish friends telling me they sometimes no longer feel safe in this country and words that have real meaning being casually tossed around, I would not have believed them. If they had told me on Friday 6 October that the apparent genesis of that hatred was the execution of 1,200 innocent Jewish people simply for the crime of being Jewish, that would have been doubly shocking.

Recently, I spent a few days on holiday in America. When I was there, for the first time, I visited the site at Dallas. One of my favourite, although lesser known, quotes of John F. Kennedy said that history

“is the memory of a nation.”

Just as a memory enables the individual to learn, choose goals and stick to them, it prevents them making the same mistakes twice. That is exactly what we need to do here and that is what the Government and all decent people in society need to do.

The Prime Minister and a senior set of Ministers have already met Jewish community members and key organisations to listen to their concerns. As has been outlined by colleagues here already, we have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism and we encourage other bodies to adopt it and consider its practical implementation. The Community Security Trust, which Members on all sides have referenced, has reported that incidents often occur near Jewish community buildings, such as synagogues and schools. The Government are providing protective security, such as guarding, CCTV and alarms at schools, colleges, nurseries, synagogues and community sites through the Jewish community protective security grant, which has provided more than £110 million since 2015.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East, I should say that we continue with efforts to reduce radicalisation through the network of Prevent practitioners, who provide training to school staff on radicalisation and empower teachers to challenge extremism in the classroom. The reporting extremism online form allows concerns to be raised directly with the Department for Education. Since 7 October, the Government have engaged with schools, colleges and universities to offer support and guidance. The Education Secretary wrote to the sector urging them to respond swiftly to hate-related incidents and to actively reassure Jewish students so they can study without fear, harassment or intimidation, as hon. Members rightly said they must.

At the opening of the autumn statement, the Chancellor made clear his deep concerns about the rise of antisemitism, underscoring the Government’s commitment to tackling it. His commitments were backed by a further £7 million in funding over the next three years to help tackle antisemitism in education. I will take away the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) about research. I would be happy to do that, and, if we can, I am sure we will try. The autumn statement will ensure that support is in place for schools, colleges and universities to understand, recognise and deal with antisemitism effectively.

It was absolutely right and reasonable for the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) to ask about the online space. Ministers from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology recently convened social media companies and community voices to discuss online antisemitism and to understand the impact of this abhorrent content on communities. As part of the implementation of the Online Safety Act, we will remain in contact with social media platforms, and we have been clear that they need not wait for regulation before taking action.

I want to end with something that a Jewish friend once told me many years ago, long before the recent challenges. We were in conversation about our backgrounds, childhoods and families. In truth, I thought I would educate her, as the working class kid from Derbyshire talking to the posh girl from London. I told her about my background, and I waited for her to contrast it with her Twickenham upbringing, her gilded life at private school and her middle-class comforts, which she did. At the end, she turned to her Jewish heritage. It is something that she has always been hugely proud of, and she spoke about it with verve, passion and a reverence for history.

Casually, right at the end, my friend said one of the most arresting things that I have ever heard. “Of course, Lee,” she said, looking at me right in the eye, “I always keep a bag packed under my bed.” Confused, I did not immediately catch on. I had no knowledge, no background, no experience—I do not think I had met a Jewish person until I was 18. I am not saying that this is indicative of everybody in the community, but she said, “For me and my family, it is something we have done for decades. History taught us that we needed to be ready in case something ever went wrong, as it did for my forefathers and their forefathers before them. I don’t think it will ever be necessary, but it’s there in case it is—in case this country ever stops being my home.”

That must never ever happen. We are proud of our Jewish communities, just as we are proud of every single other community that makes up this rich patchwork of the United Kingdom, and we stand with them today. The United Kingdom is so much more than the isolated ugliness that we have seen. This Government and this Parliament—all parties here—and this country will continue to do whatever we can to build a stronger foundation to support our Jewish community in the months, years and decades ahead.

I thank all Members for taking part today. I want to quickly plug the debate on Thursday, when, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken), the House will be debating the contribution of the Jewish community to the UK. I hope that the Jewish community in the UK and around the world will be reassured by the warmth that the debate will create, in contrast to the very sad statistics and incidents spoken about today.

I thank all hon. Members for being here, particularly the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who ran here—no Westminster Hall debate would be the same without him. I thank the Minister for his incredibly powerful response. The commitment from this Government to stamp out antisemitism has always been a priority, and I am very proud of that.

The Minister also mentioned that he was asked how he sleeps at night given his support for Israel. As other Members—my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson)—will know, having visited Israel last week, I have not slept very well. I watched 47 minutes of innocent Jews—children, women, men—being slaughtered; I saw evidence of rape. I have not slept very well. No person at the moment in Israel, or any Jewish person around the world, is sleeping well.

It is impossible to get one’s head around the evil displayed that day, so it is hard to explain how disgusting it is for people to blame 7 October on Jews or on Israel, or try to use what happened as a springboard for their own antisemitic beliefs. A rise in antisemitism in the UK in 2024, in response to the 7 October attack in particular, serves as a national embarrassment. I am pleased to hear the commitment from colleagues today to do all we can to reverse that.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of increases in anti-Semitic offences.

Cost of Living in Scotland

I call David Linden to move the motion. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for him to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the cost of living in Scotland.

My ability to wind up the Minister is never going to be in question, Ms Vaz, but in all seriousness I am grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship. I would like to open by reminding everyone that this debate takes place against the backdrop of a truly dire situation—one characterised by emergency food parcels, poor mental and physical health, parents and children having to cut back on meals, households putting the heating on less, and people relying on insecure pay-day lenders just to make ends meet. The situation I am referring to is one that we as MPs, with much regret, have become all too familiar with: the cost of living crisis.

The crisis as we know it today has shown no sign of abating, and as a result people continue to suffer. The reality is that our social security system, as it stands and at its most fundamental level, no longer prevents hunger and destitution. The British Government show no sign of taking the drastic action needed to reform it. We are witnessing a deafening silence and a lack of action that speaks louder than any words could. From social tenants, those in and out of work, parents, carers, students and disabled people, to the over-50s, the cost of living crisis knows no bounds. It will continue to run rampant through our communities unless tangible policy is put in place immediately.

As the eyes of the electorate narrow on Westminster as we creep closer to a general election, the policy and spending decisions made by the British Government are all the more pertinent. From eye-watering energy bills and excessive food costs to soaring mortgage bills, we must be in no doubt that we face a cost of living crisis made right here in Westminster.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. It is an incredible subject matter that applies not just to Scotland but all the United Kingdom, in particular Northern Ireland. I spoke to the hon. Gentleman beforehand about property prices, which have increased again this year. Does he agree that what we and the Government need to do as we go into 2024 is all we can to address the housing crisis, which I know he is deeply concerned about, so that the first-time buyers have a real chance to get a mortgage at an affordable rate and have a property, as we all do?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I was referring to that particular issue with my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) earlier on, who was outlining some thoughts about how the economy has suffered as a result, frankly, of the UK Government’s rather reckless approach during last year’s mini Budget.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting this debate. To the critical point about the cost of living crisis in Scotland, I wonder whether he agrees that the Minister, when they rise to their feet, will undoubtedly try and devolve their Government’s catastrophic economic policy to the devolved Administrations, whether in Edinburgh, Cardiff or, if it were sitting, in Belfast. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that responsibility for the impact on my constituents in West Dunbartonshire, in his own constituency and across Scotland lies fairly and squarely at the door of Westminster, with the UK Government.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on, and that is the reason, I believe, why when the general election comes the best opportunity to make Scotland Tory-free is to vote SNP. That includes in his constituency in West Dunbartonshire, because his constituents, who are paying higher mortgage prices, will know that the cost of living crisis that they face at the moment has been made in Westminster.

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry) is seeking to catch my eye as well.

On the subject of reserved matters, energy policy is entirely reserved. The current cost of energy and electricity is particularly painful for people in the highlands. It is exceptionally galling in an area that produces six times more electricity than it needs to use. Highlanders pay a higher unit price, we have to use more electricity to heat our homes, because of the climate, and we have the highest level of fuel poverty. This Government should have taken the opportunity to do something to help people in the highlands and yet they did not.

I absolutely agree. As somebody who represents the highlands—I think the constituency he is seeking to contest at the next election is even more rural than the one that he represents at the moment—my hon. Friend is right to make reference to the challenges in relation to energy, particularly for constituents who are off-grid. Fundamentally, he is right to highlight the fact that Scotland is an energy-rich nation but that far too many of our constituents are living in fuel poverty, particularly those in his constituency and that of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), to whom I am happy to give way.

I know from personal experience that the hon. Gentleman is speaking from the heart and that he means what he says. Further to my colleague’s intervention, is it not terrible that people are faced with making the invidious choice of keeping the heating on and running into debt or putting it off and risking ill health or something far worse? That should not happen at a time when we think of ourselves as being civilised.

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is spot on. Of course, he previously served in the devolved Parliament in Scotland, where there is responsibility for health policy. One thing that he and I would share a concern about is that, as a result of some of those decisions around poverty, we find that there is a knock-on effect for many of our constituents. If someone is living in fuel poverty, that has an impact on their health, which in turn has an impact on other aspects such as employment; all of these decisions are linked up. That is a pressure that our colleagues in Scotland face.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he feel, as I do, that the Tory Government here in Westminster have absolutely forgotten disabled people? They announced a social energy tariff consultation, which has not happened. Many people across these isles, and especially those with disabilities, cannot afford to heat their homes.

Absolutely. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who I know does a power of work on this issue and is an active member of the Lanarkshire forum on poverty. She is right. We know that there is evidence suggesting that people with a disability experience £950 a month more living costs, not to mention the fact that the UK Government so cruelly overlooked the 2.5 million legacy benefit claimants during the pandemic, who did not get their £20 uplift.

I know that my hon. Friend did not see my speech in advance, but she touched on a point that I want to come to next, which is about the impact on physical and mental health. That is an issue that impacts people across all of these islands. Indeed, the Mental Health Foundation found that almost one third of Scottish adults reported feeling anxious about their financial situation in the last month, with one in 10 feeling hopeless about it. I guess that that goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross: in one of the richest economies in the world, people feeling hopeless due to financial precarity is simply unacceptable.

These statistics are only reinforced by the findings of the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, who revealed in their recent survey that over half of parents reported experiencing high levels of anxiety relating to money. That is in addition to the almost two thirds of mothers with a child under 12 months who reported that they either have cut short or will cut short their maternity leave due to cost of living pressures. From the Scottish Women’s Budget Group, we know that women are the shock absorbers of poverty; during a cost of living crisis, I am afraid that that problem is only exacerbated.

If we take a look at the impact across demographics in Scotland, we also know, from Age Scotland, that 43% of over-50s identified as living in fuel poverty, with 9% of over-50s skipping meals. The very fact that so many people are living in fuel poverty and that that has an impact on many constituents in the Easterhouse area of my constituency is, I know, a huge area of concern for my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin), who I think was seeking to catch my eye to make an intervention on this point.

I was waiting for the appropriate moment. I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate, but also for allowing me to make a couple of points. I wonder whether my hon. Friend shares my absolute horror at the yesterday’s news that Ofgem has said that Scottish Power are fit and proper persons to force-fit prepayment meters once again. We know that there was a consultation and that Ofgem said, “Well, okay, you can all do it if you meet these criteria and follow these rules”—one of the rules being that you cannot do it to somebody over the age of 75. My hon. Friend and I both represent the east end of Glasgow, where in some areas the life expectancy is considerably lower than that, so that is a real concern. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is never a reason to force somebody onto a prepayment meter simply because they are poor?

Absolutely, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on this particular issue. She and I have the privilege of representing the community of Carntyne, both north and south. It will be bittersweet for me, but after the boundary changes, I very much hope that she will be able to take on the south Carntyne part of the constituency. We should be aware that it is an area with a lot of older residents. The forced fitting of prepayment meters was in the news yesterday, which I know is an issue of huge concern for constituents there. The only thing I would say is that they should take heart that in my hon. Friend they will have a doughty champion to continue campaigning on that.

It cannot be the case that so many people are affected to the point of hunger, anxiety and destitution, when the Government hold the power to shield people from those very things. The most recent report from the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, titled, “It’s Your Life’s Opportunities”, makes a number of recommendations. It talks about how this cost of living crisis is impacting social tenants in Scotland, who are amongst the very hardest hit by this crisis. Due to the nature of the social housing sector, people on the lowest incomes, with varying needs—for example, refugees or those who were previously homeless—came into the cost of living crisis already struggling. I regularly seek to make the point to Ministers that for many of my constituents the cost of living crisis is not necessarily a new thing. It is a continuation of an already challenging circumstance that they found themselves in.

As of September last year, less than one in 10 social tenants felt as though the cost of living crisis was easing, as we headed into the winter period. Looking particularly at West of Scotland Housing Association tenants, some of whom are my own constituents, 44% reported missing meals because of the crisis, with 65% stating that the price of food limits the extent to which they can buy healthy foods for their households.

I will give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan), because she is a Glaswegian, and then I will come to spare Glasgow, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands).

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward this debate. He represents the east end of Glasgow, but many of the issues he is talking about could equally apply to my constituency in the north west of Glasgow. One of the things often thrown at people in poverty is, “They just need to get a job,” but my hon. Friend will know, like me, that 61% of people experiencing poverty are in households where at least one adult is working. These are working people, and in-work poverty has become far more acute as a result of the actions of this Government.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is spot on to draw the comparison on an issue that impacts both my constituents and hers. I think that probably the two places in Glasgow that are most often twinned are Easterhouse and Drumchapel. She is spot on to refer to the fact that in-work poverty continues to be a massive blight on our communities. She actually raises this at just the right point, as I approach talking about universal credit, which is an in-work benefit.

Ending the five-week wait for universal credit, scrapping the two-child cap and lifting the benefit cap are all measures that can be taken to reduce the significant long-term effects that the cost of living crisis is having on people. That is why we need action now. Before I come to that action, I will give way to the Member for spare Glasgow, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North.

My hon. Friend forgot about spare Glasgow, even though my new constituency will have 10,000 voters in Glasgow at the next general election. When I sought to intervene earlier, he was talking about food, and he is absolutely right that food inflation over the last few years has been horrendous, particularly for staples: pasta is up 31%, bread is up 33%, and even beans are up 66%. Even if someone is skint and making beans on toast, it is up more than 50% from three years ago. We have seen cost controls proposed by Governments throughout Europe, and yet we have seen this Government have a cosy fireside chat with supermarkets, and no action. Does my hon. Friend think that is acceptable?

My hon. Friend is spot on. We hear this far too often. I know that great work is being done in local food banks and the pantry network as well, but food poverty continues to be a massive concern. There are a number of things that can be done there. We in the SNP have been consistent in our calls to the Government to introduce practical measures to alleviate the financial pressure facing households. Mortgage interest tax relief should be introduced, the £400 energy bill guarantee scheme should be reintroduced, and action should be taken to tackle soaring food prices, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North. However, I will not hold my breath over the last call. Only a few days ago we saw the amusing spectacle of a Conservative Member, the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Sir Jake Berry), frothing with outrage, filming a video outside Tesco, complaining of Easter eggs on the shelf. Bear in mind the context that, when the SNO called for action on food prices, we were accused of perpetuating communism in the House of Commons.

The reality for many of my constituents is that they are struggling to put food, let alone hot food, on their kitchen tables. I strongly urge Members to muster a modicum of empathy before complaining about trivial matters, such as supermarkets displaying Easter chocolate. As always, I am left wondering how things might be different in an independent Scotland, where politicians would understand and empathise with the reality that households face, rather than out-of-touch Westminster Governments.

While the Scottish Government and local authorities take action with one hand tied behind their backs, we see the direct impact of an inadequate social security system from Westminster, and an inadequate energy policy during this crisis, over both of which the British Government have control. Instead, the British Government sit firmly on their hands, ignoring SNP calls to tackle the cost of living crisis, which continues to plague all our constituents’ bank balances.

The UK social security system, once hailed as a safety net for those who needed it, now resembles nothing more than a frayed rope, unable to bear the weight of the individuals who rely on it as a lifeline. Despite that, I remain hopeful for the future, because in November the Scottish Government published a paper on social security in an independent Scotland, outlining bold and ambitious plans to build a fairer, more just system that places fairness and equality at its heart. That includes scrapping the two-child cap and bedroom tax, removing the benefit cap, ending the cruel sanctions regime and deductions scheme, ending the young parent penalty in universal credit, and doing more to encourage uptake of full entitlement. Those are all outlined in the prospectus, which offers hope to the most vulnerable in our communities.

Unfortunately, for as long as the majority of decisions about Scotland are made in this royal palace by a Government we did not elect, we are at the mercy of a Westminster establishment, which at best can be described only as asleep at the wheel, failing families when they need the Government most.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) on securing this important debate on the cost of living in Scotland. The United Kingdom Government fully recognise the challenges and pressures facing households due to the higher cost of living. We are have taken decisive action to protect struggling families, with the largest support package in Europe.

In total, Government support across the UK to help households with higher bills has been worth £104 billion, an average of £3,700 per household, including households in Glasgow and across Scotland. The UK Government reacted quickly to protect energy consumers, maintain continuity of supply and stabilise the markets, when unprecedented increases in wholesale energy costs from mid-2021 caused significant volatility in energy retail markets. The energy price guarantee and the energy bill support scheme covered around half of a typical household energy bill over winter 2022, and by the end of June 2023, had saved a typical household around £1,500. Businesses across the UK have also received support through the energy bill relief scheme and the energy bills discount scheme.

Wholesale energy prices have now significantly fallen, with the average annualised household energy bill in quarter four of 2023 falling from EPG level of £2,500 in 2022, to £1,834 in 2023, under the Ofgem price cap. The price cap will increase by 5% to £1,928 in the first quarter of 2024, and is expected to fall back to around £1,800 for the rest of 2024.

Hon. Members will be aware that tackling high inflation remains a core priority for the Prime Minister and the UK Government. At its peak, inflation was 11.1%, and that hit families and businesses alike. We remain committed to the challenge, and the latest Office for National Statistics data shows that we have reduced inflation to 3.9%, which is good news for everyone in Scotland and across the UK. When inflation is low, it helps people and businesses to better plan their spending and investments. In turn, that helps the economy to grow by creating jobs and prosperity, which is a key priority for the Government.

So many of my constituents are concerned about the cost of living and how they are going to afford it. Age Scotland says that 50% of people over 50 in Scotland have seen their standard of living decrease. Does the Minister agree that the answer is not constitutional change, but a change of Government?

The hon. Member will have heard about the measures that the UK Government have put in place to support all households with the rising cost of living, including the older groups that she identifies. As Members of Parliament, we all recognise the challenges that our constituents face with rising bills, but what they do not need is the reopening of the constitutional debate in Scotland. They do not need independence for Scotland; they want both of Scotland’s Governments to focus on the challenges that households face not just in her constituency in Edinburgh or in my constituency in the borders, but across Scotland.

This Government passionately believe that the best way to improve living standards in the long term is to get more people into higher-paid jobs, which is why it is so encouraging to see the employment rates in Scotland. The number of payrolled employees in Scotland hit a record high of 2.45 million in November 2023, and the unemployment rate remains below the UK average. This includes the area represented by the hon. Member for Glasgow East, Glasgow city, where the number of people in employment has increased by nearly 18,000 pay-rolled employees since the start of the pandemic to a new record high of over 275,000.

It is not just about getting people into work, but about ensuring that it pays to work. That is why the Government will increase the national living wage by 9.8% to £11.44 an hour and increase the national minimum wage by 14.8% to £8.60 an hour, benefiting around 200,000 people in Scotland. However, we recognise that short-term cost of living pressures remain and particularly impact on vulnerable groups. In addition to UK-wide support for all households, the Government have deployed specific, targeted financial support and tailored interventions to help those most in need. For example, around 680,000 low-income and vulnerable households in Scotland have received additional support through the cost of living payment scheme, with millions more households also benefiting in other parts of the country.

As you have already pointed out, Ms Vaz, we are expecting votes shortly. I am keen to cover the key points in response to the points already made during the debate, so I am not going to give way.

In the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow East, around 21,200 means-tested cost of living payments have been made to date, with about 18,200 individuals already eligible for disability payments. Nearly 12 million pensioners across the UK have received additional financial support of up to £600 to heat their homes over the winter. We are also supporting pensioners by maintaining the triple lock. The basic state pension, new state pension and pension credit standard minimum guarantee will be uprated in April 2024 by 8.5%, in line with the average earnings growth between May and June 2023[Official Report, 15 January 2024, Vol. 743, c. 8MC.]. We have also introduced new local housing allowance rates, which will come into force in April this year. That will help to boost those who are most in need, with more than 92,000 households in Scotland £800 better off per year as a result.

Overcoming the cost of living pressures facing our communities requires collective action from us all in Government, which is why we have provided the Scottish Government with the necessary levers to play their part. The UK Government have topped up the record block grant from the previous spending review with an additional £2.4 billion as a result of the decisions taken across three fiscal events. The Scottish Government receive about 25% more per person than equivalent UK Government spending in other parts of the United Kingdom, and that translates into about £8.5 billion more per year on average. The renewed Scottish fiscal framework, as agreed by both Governments, provides the Scottish Government with greater certainty and enhanced budget management flexibility to meet the expectations of devolved public services and local communities.

It is also important for us to remember the tools the Scottish Government have at their disposal under the devolution settlement. As well as control over local taxes and most rates and thresholds of income tax, the Scottish Government have responsibility for stamp duty land tax and landfill tax. About a third of their budget is self-funded, so they have significant control over their income generation and spending. Although this is a matter for the Scottish Government, I encourage them to use the tools and levers at their disposal to complement the existing cost of living support delivered by this United Kingdom Government.

I am confident that the measures that the UK Government have put in place have helped millions of people across the length and breadth of this country, including in Scotland, to deal with the cost of living pressures—[Interruption.] I have no idea why SNP Members find this so funny. My constituents are feeling the cost of living crisis, and yet SNP Members come here, barrack Government Members and laugh at a subject that is very difficult for many households in the Scottish Borders and, indeed, across Scotland.

We cannot be complacent, which is why this Government remain vigilant to any future challenges that risk diminishing household budgets. As the Prime Minister said, inflation is the real cause behind the increasing living costs, and our responsible plan for controlling inflation and reducing debt is working.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Great Western Main Line

It is a great pleasure to start the new year by talking about something that this Parliament helped to create and establish all those years ago. We approved the legislation that enabled private railways such as Brunel’s Great Western to exist and to flourish. However, we have not had much debate recently about what has effectively been a creeping nationalisation since the pandemic. Recent rhetoric has not really recognised the success of the private railways that were created, or indeed the success of the privatisation of those railways more recently, which led to a 107% increase in passenger journeys, a 32% increase in passenger services, and a 145% increase in passenger revenue. At the moment, the situation is that the Department for Transport is really in control of the railway operators, including Great Western, and His Majesty’s Treasury takes the risk, with passenger frustration over the last few months increasing during a long period of train driver strikes.

But let me start at the beginning. All of us here share being part of the Great Western geography; we are linked by our constituencies to Paddington station, that railway cathedral graced by statues of the founding genius, Isambard Kingdom Brunel—what a name—Paddington bear, and a soldier in the trenches, symbolic of the 3,312 employees of Great Western who died in two world wars. We surely all recognise the engineering achievements of the Box tunnel, or even Kemble tunnel, the architecture of Bristol Temple Meads, and the social vision of the Great Western Railway’s village in Swindon, which led to the opening of the main line from Paddington to Bristol in 1841, and the fastest trains, such as the Flying Truro, which reached 100 miles an hour 30 years before the Flying Scotsman—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

As I was saying, the network of Great Western Railway today stretches from Pembroke Dock to Falmouth Docks, from Portsmouth to Gatwick and to Hereford. The GWR railway network now runs more than 1,600 services a day, with more than 80 million passenger journeys. That, of course, is significantly down on the pre-covid figure, which was almost 100 million.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing today’s debate. I recently met the GWR managing director Mark Hopwood and his team because many of my Slough constituents were angered and frustrated by the reduction in the number of fast trains going to and from Slough. Given that Slough is a huge business hub, does the hon. Member agree that it is incumbent on the Government and GWR to ensure, for the benefit of the local, regional and national economy, that we have a large number of fast trains so that commuters can go to and fro? If he cannot comment on that Slough-related topic, does he agree that it is about time the Government built the western rail link to Heathrow, having committed to it more than a decade ago and given that it is the No. 1 infrastructure priority for the whole Thames Valley region?

The hon. Member touches on one of the themes of this debate: the importance of Members of Parliament working very closely with their railway operator, the Department for Transport and Network Rail to try to achieve the services that their constituents most value. I will not comment on the business of commuter traffic from Slough to Paddington—it is not my specialist area. On his second point, constituents all over Gloucestershire and Wiltshire would relish the opportunity provided by opening Great Western Railway services to Heathrow. I am sure the Minister will want to touch on that, and I thank the hon. Member for his intervention.

Of course, there have been constant improvements to the network in recent times, although there have also been some real difficulties—as The Sunday Times focused on at Theale over the weekend—and colleagues will no doubt highlight those successes or failures. Since he cannot be with us, I highlight for my neighbour, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), the improved forecourt, interchange cycle hub and 70 additional car park spaces in his constituency that he and Great Western Railway have worked successfully on together. There is also the fourth platform at Bristol Parkway, the delivery of the MetroWest network, the new Portway park-and-ride station, and the new Ashley Down station coming soon. All of those are helpful in the west country. In all this, the Department has played its part, as have successive Ministers, including this one, who is a great supporter and champion of railways, which is important.

Inevitably, I would like to highlight what has been achieved in Gloucester since 2010. Gloucester railway station is an extraordinary animal. It has the longest platform in the country, but it is on a spur off the main line between Birmingham and Bristol, and therefore there has always been a lot to do. Since 2010, we have managed a significant number of improvements, including a covered walkway between platforms 2 and 1, the new waiting rooms, and a new accessible station footbridge with the lifts and eventually the canopy. That also led to a remodelled station booking office, and we have introduced additional car parking on the south side of the station, which was a major business. It is difficult to transfer an asset from the Ministry of Justice to the city council—that took about three years, but we got there eventually.

The new hourly direct services between Gloucester and Paddington also benefit all my colleagues in Gloucester. The new pay-as-you-go smartcard has been helpful in a number of ways not originally anticipated, particularly when the station underpass has been closed to access. Work is going on as we speak to deliver further improvements, particularly on the underpass, which is a sensitive bit of infrastructure that links the hospital to the city centre and which Great Western has gallantly taken on. There will also be a big improvement in the electric vehicle charging stations, the forecourts, bus services and so on.

I want to highlight for the Minister that although the journey time to Paddington has been reduced by 15 minutes since electrification, there is an opportunity to increase the speed of the services simply by renegotiating how long the trains stop at Gloucester. That time is currently 10 minutes, to allow the driver to walk from one end of the train to the other, but even at a slow amble that journey could not possibly take more than a minute and a half.

It is also important to recognise some of GWR’s community contribution and community projects, such as the Getaway project for independent rail travel. Its biggest contribution to community, however, comes from station staff, who are coping, calming and carrying on. When strikes happen, no one shouts at a train driver, because they are not there. It is Steve, Mike, Alan, Naomi and all their colleagues who cop it at Gloucester and all the other stations along the line. They deal with the drunks, the drugs and even the MP who left his bag on the train. I salute them all.

This debate has to touch on problems as well. I will highlight four. The first is the continuing strikes by train drivers, which damage trust and confidence, and put a lot of strain on other Great Western Railway employees. The second is the extraordinary feature that train drivers do not have to work on a Sunday. I cannot think of any other transport system—I was an airline manager once—where the driver or pilot would be allowed to decide whether they rock up on a Sunday. That ruins many weekends for families.

The third problem is the business of Network Rail’s infrastructure, particularly the failures in the Thames valley. It is easy to criticise Network Rail, but there are some real problems and anything the Department can do to improve the infrastructure in the Thames valley will make a huge difference to all of us. The last problem is the taxpayer subsidy. We must let managers manage and civil servants hold them to account. That is the only way in which we will get the railway operators to innovate and to continue to improve with better rolling stock and low-carbon operations that support travellers and help families and growth.

All those things matter. There are opportunities for big projects ahead. The Filton Bank electrification promoted by the western gateway to electrify and speed up journeys between Bristol and Birmingham in particular would be a very good project for the DFT to support. Just before coming into this Chamber, I heard from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) that Great Western Railway has decided to open the line from Swindon to Oxford, which will have a lot of advantages for many travellers.

I see the opportunities and the improvements at Gloucester station that have happened and are happening. I will certainly continue to work closely on all those, because ultimately, railway stations and railway operations are in danger of being an orphan. They are not well managed by county councils. It is up to us here both to hold them to account and to encourage them to innovate. I hope that I and all my colleagues in Gloucestershire and elsewhere will continue to work closely with Great Western Railway to achieve the necessary improvements.

I expect to call the Opposition spokesperson at 5.31 pm, the Minister at 5.36 pm and Richard Graham to wind up at 5.46 pm, and that the debate will end at 5.48 pm.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate. As it states in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I am a member of the GWR stakeholder advisory board. I represent the Thames Valley on that board.

I want to pick up the point that my hon. Friend made about the advantages we saw from privatisation of the railways. In my experience of dealing with companies covering services to my constituency—to Maidenhead, to Twyford, and the branch lines to Wargrave, Furze Platt and Cookham—there have been significant improvements when the companies are private and we have been able to work with them to improve railway services. The companies—predominantly GWR, recently—understand the importance of providing for the needs of customers. That is why I echo my hon. Friend’s comment that it is important that the Government examine the current situation, because there is a strange dichotomy between the cost risk taken by the Department for Transport and the revenue risk taken by the Treasury. The two need to be brought together if decent decisions are going to be made about the services that will be provided to customers.

Sadly, despite my overall experience of working with GWR, I have to say that in the last month, the experience of my constituents has not been good. I want to read out the problems that they have experienced. On 7 and 8 December, there was damage to overhead electrical wires, with delays and cancellations between London Paddington and Reading. On 9 December, industrial action resulted in delays and cancellations. On 10 December, damage to the overhead electric wires between Slough and London Paddington caused delays and cancellations. On 11 December, a points failure in the Slough area resulted in delays and cancellations. On 13 December, defective track between London Paddington and Reading meant trains having to run at reduced speed on some lines. On 14 December, due to a fault with the signalling system between Paddington and Heathrow and between Heathrow terminal 5 and Reading, some lines were blocked. On 15 December, due to a fault with the signalling system between London Paddington and Reading, all lines were blocked. The lines were closed on 24, 25, 26 and 27 December because of work at Old Oak Common. On 28 December, emergency services were dealing with an incident between London Paddington and Reading, and all lines were blocked.

On 2 January, an object was caught on the overhead electric wires. On 4 January, travel was disrupted when the police took control of the line and closed it because of an incident. On 5 January, there were disruptions from flooding. On 7 January, damage to the overhead electric wires between Paddington and Reading meant that some lines were blocked. On 8 January, urgent repairs to the track between Reading and London Paddington meant trains having to run at reduced speed. On 9 January—today—there was a speed restriction between Reading and London Paddington. Frankly, from the point of view of my constituents, this is not good enough.

What hon. Members and the Minister will have seen from this is that the vast majority of those incidents were about Network Rail and its response to problems with overhead wires and on the track. Just before Christmas, I held a meeting with GWR and Network Rail. Everybody understands the issues, but the question—and what I will look for from the Minister—is whether we can ensure that we will get sufficient support from Network Rail to resolve these problems such that my constituents can continue to have the service they expect and deserve.

The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) mentioned the economic importance of Slough. Maidenhead is also an economically important place and is important to GWR in terms of the footfall from Maidenhead. My constituents need to know that they can rely on the train service. Sadly, with the way that Network Rail is behaving at the moment and how it has been dealing with the track and overhead lines, we are not seeing the service that they need.

I hope the Minister will be able to give me some confidence and comfort. We want to get people out of their cars and on to the railways. Sadly, if they see disruptions and cancellations, they will go back into their cars. That is not good for the planet—it is not good for any of us—so, Minister, over to you.

I congratulate my near neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate. I have regular contact with the Rail Minister, who is absolutely excellent.

I will just run through some of the projects we have locally. We are trying to reopen the Bristol Road Stonehouse line, which was closed under the Beeching cuts, to make sure that we have access into Bristol. This is a 25-year dream of my constituents. I grasped it, and we managed to get investment from Government to do a proper feasibility study. I am waiting for the Minister and Government to give us information about the next stage for the outline business case. I understood that it was going to come before Christmas, so it will be helpful for my constituents to hear a little more about that. Stonehouse Town Council is working particularly hard on that.

On step-free access at Stroud railway station, there is a lasting image—a picture is better than a thousand words—of me dragging up a toddler, a buggy and trying to balance a baby and all sorts of different things. I have huge sympathy with people who tell me that they are struggling to get around the station, or are disabled, have luggage or are elderly. We are really hoping to be in the Access for All pitch. I am just putting that underneath the Minister’s nose.

On the Cam and Dursley station, I have made a pitch, speaking to GWR and others about the reality. It is a really popular station, and we have a lot of homes being built around the area. We think there needs to be improved shelters for rain and all weathers, and I know that some constituents would like to see the frequency of services increased as we go along.

I do want to echo colleagues’ comments about GWR. They may disagree, because I know I am a total pest about the railway on behalf of my constituents, but I feel I have a good relationship with the organisation, and indeed Network Rail. I have had cause to contact them many times, sometimes just for run-of-the-mill, day-to-day things, but also sometimes on sad occasions, when there have been deaths on the lines. We have had good responses, and they are responsive, so I am pleased about that.

I do want to mention costs. Constituents of Stroud are talking to me about the difference between the cost of travelling from Stroud to London and other lines. At the moment, a single peak one-way fare is £95. That is absolutely prohibitive for people who want to travel to work. I know many more people are working at home, but there should be more choice. For off-peak it goes down to £46, then down to £33 at 10.30 am. A ticket on the Worcester to London line, which is a longer journey, at 7 am—when I had my £95 ticket for—costs £50. I understand that there are historic boundaries drawn up for Network Rail, and I have written to the Minister, who has kindly written back and talked to me about writing to the Rail Delivery Group, but I do think these historic boundaries and the unfairness that is built in for my constituents do need to be looked at.

One gentleman wrote to me:

“I’m really concerned by crippling rail costs; it’s proving more and more difficult for me as a freelancer to be able to commute into London because the costs are just astronomical. If areas such as ours aren’t going to be cut off from the rest of the country, a cheaper rail network is vital. FGW could operate within the rail network allowing people like me to take advantage of a rail network card that would greatly improve the costs for rail fares within the south of England. Currently, this is only reserved as far as Reading”.

It does not stretch to us, so I urge the Minister to have a look at that, and I urge all of the companies to do so, too. If it is prohibitive to get on the trains, we will lose it as a service and it will become the preserve of the rich. That absolutely should not be the case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on bringing forward this debate. I represent Truro and Falmouth, which is in the heart of Cornwall, so I have the opportunity to experience the rail network myself on a weekly basis, as I often go all the way from Paddington back to my constituency. My constituents and I all have tales of unreliability on GWR’s longer-haul services. My inbox has received several complaints from those who have to commute out of Cornwall for work and from plenty of students who go to and from Penryn back to their families each term. Any additional support we can give to these rail lines would be appreciated.

However, it is important to acknowledge the improvements that have been made to our railways since 2019. I always try to make this point to remind our really talented students at the University of Exeter and Falmouth University that their journeys today are actually an awful lot better than they were about five, 10 or 15 years ago. It just would not have been practical for many of them to come and enjoy being a student in my constituency at all.

Since May 2019, we have had a half-hourly service between Plymouth and Penzance, which has greatly boosted passenger numbers and had a positive impact on the Cornish economy. GWR has also worked to improve reliability with its new rolling stock of inter-city express trains. There is also the Night Riviera Sleeper service, which I have used many times. The sleeper lounge at Truro station in my constituency has encouraged more people to travel to London by train rather than plane. We have seen an exponential rise in passengers since covid. Many people have now moved to Cornwall and can commute to London for a couple of days a week using the Riviera service. I believe it is out of service for refurbishment at the moment, but it is very popular.

I know that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), will come on to this in greater detail, but I am proud that the Government are working with Cornwall Council, and its delivery partners GWR and Network Rail, to build the Mid Cornwall Metro. It will do exactly what it says on the tin: ensure that people can commute from Newquay via Par and Truro down to Falmouth, so that students do not have to live close to the university; we can all spread out and enjoy both coasts. We will see £50 million of levelling-up funding injected directly into Cornwall’s rail links. Hopefully, we can expect to see that up and running in 2025-26.

Our communities in Truro and Falmouth are incredibly mixed, with a large number of car owners. It is incumbent on the railways to recognise that we are dualling the A30 all the way through my constituency. That means that at the moment, with the service unreliability that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) has just set out, more people will choose to use their cars, which is not the direction of travel that we want. The dualling project will be completed early spring, and we want to ensure that the railways remain competitive. Getting the Mid Cornwall Metro over the line will transform connectivity for the groups—students, tourists and communities alike—who are most reliant on public transport, and hopefully alleviate pressure on parking in our town centres, particularly during the summer months.

I will not go on for too long, but changing our infrastructure for the better and levelling up our communities in the south-west is always going to take time. However, if we do not do it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) said, we will get cut off. The sheer amount of investment from the Government, Cornwall Council and Network Rail into the railway lines in the south-west has given us a real leg-up in the last few years. It is our job now to continue to work with those partners to keep the current projects on track, and to promote other value-for-money schemes that can help our towns and villages get that little bit closer. We are very precarious, and if we do not keep investing, it is easy for Cornwall to fall off the map.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on bringing the debate to this Chamber. I will concentrate on green transport because I am the climate change spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats. Talking about transport and climate change together is what I always do. To meet our net zero targets, we must make it easier to travel by train. Rail should be a lifeline for our communities that connects every part of the country through green public transport.

Before I discuss issues with our rail lines, I will mention that in November, I joined members of the Bath community and representatives from the armed forces and emergency services at Bath Spa station to hand over poppy wreaths, which were transported by train to the war memorial at Paddington station. The “poppy trains” began during covid lockdowns when local memorial ceremonies were not always possible. The initiative has been so well supported that GWR has now made it an annual tradition. It allows those who cannot make a long journey to London to be part of the commemoration, and it shows the benefits that the railway can bring to communities well beyond our regular services. I commend GWR for that wonderful event, and I echo that it is important for all of us as MPs to work well and have good working relationships with GWR. I am looking forward to doing so in the future.

However, public confidence in the railways and our net zero targets are linked. Transport is the larger emitting sector in the UK. Rail produces over 70% fewer carbon dioxide omissions than the equivalent road journeys, yet the current state of our railways is having the opposite effect because people have been dissatisfied with the service for a very long time.

I regularly use the train from Bath to London on Sundays, and there is not a single journey where there is not an issue. It affects anybody who uses the railway to get to work. The number of delay repay claims for GWR train journeys more than doubled between November 2022 and November 2023, and passenger rail performance is on the decline. Over 40% of trains were not on time between January and June last year. I hear constantly from rightfully angry constituents whose trains are late or cancelled, and the constant disruption impacts on people’s daily lives. Why should people feel confident about using the railway if every journey is a gamble? As we have already heard today, if people cannot rely on the railway, they will go and use other forms of transport, particularly their cars.

This debate comes as the Government oversees the largest increase in rail fares for a generation. The UK already has some of the highest rail fares in Europe, and fares are still set to rise by nearly 5% in March. The public are paying more for less on our rail network, and commuters are particularly affected. The short journey between Bath and Bristol was previously the most expensive rail journey per mile in the world, and Ministers cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these issues. I recognise that a lot of what we are talking about this afternoon is not just GWR’s problem, but a Government problem, and we have the Minister here to answer some of our concerns.

Ticketing is also complicated. Last year, GWR charged £46 for a peak return from Bath to London on 17 November. For the same journey on 30 November, the cost shot up to £94—more than double. We need a fares and ticketing system that makes taking the train simpler and more affordable, and I hope that we can get some answers from the Minister this afternoon. We in Bath are lucky to welcome so many foreign visitors, but it can be particularly confusing for tourists to use unfamiliar apps or ticket machines, and it needs to be a lot easier for them.

We also need to make our trains greener, and electrifying our railways is an essential step. I know that this is not GWR’s problem; it is basically about having a commitment from the Government, and I would like to hear more on that. However, the overall pace of electrification is lagging. Bath has a big air pollution problem. The electrification of the line through Bath has been on hold for years, and dirty diesel trains are still going through the city. Air pollution kills. Not getting on with electrification is a complete dereliction of duty not just to our net zero plans, but to public health.

The Treasury blocked a £30 billion plan to electrify Britain’s railways over the next 30 years. I have an ally in GWR who wants to see that happen. The Government said that Great British Railways would produce a 30-year plan to electrify the railways. However, that organisation is not expected to be fully up and running until later in the year at the earliest. I would like to know about the plans to finally establish Great British Railways, which has had cross-party support. Why the delay?

Strong public transport will take us to net zero and connect our country. Passengers deserve to feel confident in their railways, and people need access to clean, green and affordable trains. Only then will we build the sustainable, modern and affordable railway that we are all looking forward to.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Vaz. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Great Western main line to Cornwall. It is one of our absolutely critical transport links to the rest of the country, and I regularly travel to and fro London on it. Overall, the service is very good, although I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) about some of the problems over the last month or so. Many constituents have been in touch with me about that, and I have experienced the unreliability myself. However, we have seen significant investment in the railway in Cornwall in recent years, particularly the upgrade to a modern signalling system, which has enabled us to increase capacity on the train line. That has resulted in the new half-hourly trains between Plymouth and Penzance, which have been really welcomed and greatly used. Passenger numbers have grown as a result.

GWR also operates the Night Riviera Sleeper that, again, is really important to the Cornish economy, enabling people to travel overnight for work and for business. I know there have been questions over its future recently, and I put on the record just how important that service is to Cornwall; we really must do everything we can to maintain it.

We have seen some great investment, but there is still more to do. The one thing constituents often raise with me is that they would like to see better and more reliable mobile and wi-fi signals on the train to enable them to work. If we could do more to improve the reliability of the wi-fi signal particularly, that would be very welcome.

In the time I have left, I want to refer to the significant and exciting Mid Cornwall Metro project, which I have been working on since 2018. It will connect the middle part of Cornwall: from Newquay, through Par, St Austell, Truro and down into Falmouth. It will use the capacity on the existing main line, but will also utilise the two branch lines between Newquay and Falmouth to connect four of the biggest towns in Cornwall. Around a third of the Cornish population will be connected, offering direct trains from Newquay right through to Falmouth. About 50% of the economic activity of Cornwall will be able to utilise this line.

It is a really exciting opportunity that will see investment into Newquay itself: a second platform will be built that will open up more investment to improve that part of the town, and that will be really welcome. One of the things most exciting to me is the linking up of many of the smaller villages through what we in Mid Cornwall call the clay country—the china clay villages—with the four biggest towns in Mid Cornwall, and the opportunities that will bring for education, training and work, particularly to young people who do not have a car. I can imagine a young person living in the village of Roche being able to get to Falmouth to go to university, or an apprenticeship at the docks there, or being able to get to Truro for a job. This will open up such opportunity for young people, and that is what excites me about this project.

I know we are close to being able to announce the final funding agreement, and I ask the Minister to do all he can to make sure that the announcement comes forward as quickly as possible, because I know that GWR and Network Rail are desperate to start work. They want to start work next month so that we can deliver this project by 2025. I ask him to do all he can just to get that final push, so we are able to make that announcement. I know he came down to Cornwall last year, but perhaps he would like to come to see work begin on this new project. I genuinely believe it is a really exciting opportunity to improve the rail connectivity through Cornwall, and all the benefits that will bring.

Finally, I want to place on record my thanks to the Minister, the Department for Transport, Network Rail, GWR and Cornwall Council—we have all worked incredibly well together. It has been difficult at times, but the amount of work and collaboration that has gone on to get us to this point has been a real example of working together for the good of Cornwall. Thank you to everyone who has been involved, and I look forward to that positive announcement as soon as possible.

Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this debate, Ms Vaz. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), a constituency neighbour, for securing this debate. I am glad to see that Gloucestershire is extremely well represented in this debate—the premier county well represented.

The Great Western main line serves two directions in my constituency: it serves the north Cotswold line from Oxford to Hereford via Moreton-in-Marsh, and it also serves the south Cotswold line from Kemble, through my constituency and through my neighbour’s constituency, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), eventually to Swindon with some direct trains to Paddington. Rail travel did drop over covid, but it is coming back quite nicely now. I therefore welcome the Government’s investment of £5 billion into the Great Western route, including £2.8 billion to continue improvements on routes, as passengers return to travelling by train in their millions.

The service provided by train lines and train stations is important. I welcomed the news that the Government have scrapped their proposals to close all ticket offices; I received a considerable number of objections from constituents to this proposal. More and more people these days do use websites and apps to plan and book their journeys, but having someone who is able to help on the platforms and at ticket office can often make a huge difference to a journey, especially for elderly constituents and those with additional needs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester alluded to, we are trying to encourage more people to use trains where they can. Many have no choice: only one in four of our under-21s and fewer than two thirds of our under-30s have a driving licence. For those reliant on the Great Western line for work, school, hospital and appointments, the reliability of the service is essential. Since the end of the pandemic, regrettably, train cancellations have been at the highest level since records began 12 years ago. More than 30% of trains were cancelled late last year.

The performance and reliability data from National Rail, the independent website that automatically processes data from the rail network and the Association of Train Operating Companies, shows the following: 90% of trains were on time in 2017, compared with 78.8% last month; 8% were late in 2017, compared with 11.3% last month; and—the worst statistic—just 2% were very late or cancelled in 2017, compared with 9.9% last month. That shows a significant deterioration.

I have to tell the Rail Minister that up until recently I always regarded GWR’s service as being among the best, but in the last month or so it seems to have deteriorated significantly. If one relies on the railway to get to an appointment, it is really quite a difficult thing for it to be late or cancelled. Problems on the Great Western line have included extremely delayed or cancelled trains due to flooding, signalling issues, trains waiting at Reading station, which have caused issues further up the line, and a broken rail crossing. We have heard all that in the debate. That should have been avoided by a proper preventive maintenance programme. They surely ought to be fairly easy issues to fix. A particularly easy issue to fix is that Kemble station has a Rolls-Royce of a waiting room and Rolls-Royce facilities, but they are permanently closed. That causes annoyance to my constituents.

The rail line dualling that I initiated some years ago on both Kemble to Swindon and at Moreton-in-Marsh cut journey times significantly. If we could resurrect proposals to dual more of the railway from Oxford to Hereford, we could cut the journey time considerably.

Finally, I praise the staff, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester did. In particular, the staff at Kemble are delightful. One of Kemble’s delightful services is the wonderful coffee and buns that can be purchased there. I congratulate the lady there, who is incredibly nice, always reliable and always there. That makes rail travel a great deal more pleasant.

Thank you, Ms Vaz, for allowing me to participate in the debate. I hope that the Rail Minister will be able to give GWR a bit of a poke, so that we can get the poor service of the last month greatly improved.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Vaz. I thank the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for opening this important debate. As he said, the Great Western main line, engineered by Brunel nearly 200 years ago, continues to play a vital role in linking towns and communities, spurring economic growth and connecting our country.

This has been a good-spirited debate, with speeches and interventions of note on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) never misses an opportunity to speak up for his constituents and rail passengers, and I thank him for his tireless work in trying to improve connectivity between the south-west and Heathrow airport. A number of hon. and right hon. Members have raised a number of issues with regard to the cancellation of services and the delays affecting their constituents, and I thank them for that. It is clear that a key theme of the debate is giving passengers confidence in the reliability of services.

Of course, this is a very timely debate, given the disruption that we have seen on the line of late. It was caused most recently by a broken rail crossing and damaged overhead electric cables between Reading and Paddington. Perhaps more worryingly, there were four incidents of damaged rail found on the Great Western line within just eight days in November. There has been a flurry of incidents that raise concerns about whether enough is being done to ensure that our rail infrastructure is fit not only for the future but for the present.

To add to those concerns, last summer a Network Rail presentation leaked to The Independent revealed that current funding would not let Network Rail operate, maintain and renew its tracks, bridges and earthworks infrastructure. That leaked presentation said that there will be fewer repairs over the next five years and that there could be more obstructions that cause delays and accidents due to an inability to clear them. At a time of record cancellations and delays, as well as rising fares, that is the last thing that passengers deserve to hear.

Across the country in the 12 months up to September 2023, just two in three trains were arriving at their station stops on time. Those poor performance figures are no different from those of the Great Western main line: just 61.7% stops at Great Western railway stations arrived on time. I believe that that lack of reliability is driving people away from the railways at a time when we should be encouraging their use.

I am conscious of time, so I will carry on.

A couple of months ago, I sat in on a focus group made up of young men living near Exeter who were being asked about their use of public transport. It was disappointing but sadly not surprising to hear that they rarely use rail services, as they view them as being too unreliable and too expensive. They said that they were surprised when their train arrived on time, and that longer journeys were impossible to plan because they could not account for the expected length of delays.

As we look to the future, it is vital that the Great Western main line continues to evolve and improve. Key to that is making it fit for the net zero Britain of the future, but sadly successive Conservative Governments since 2010 have failed to deliver on that. According to the Government’s own figures, the 2013 cost estimate for the electrification of the 221 miles of the Great Western main line between Heathrow Junction station and Cardiff was £1.7 billion. The work, which was due to be completed in 2017, was part-finished in 2020 at a cost of £2.8 billion—a whopping £1.1 billion over budget—at a much reduced scope, with the removal of the 45 miles between Cardiff and Swansea, the 30 miles between Chippenham and Bristol Temple Meads via Bath, and the five miles between Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads.

I will carry on, because I am conscious of time.

As we know, coming in over budget and over time, and only partly delivered, has become the norm for rail infrastructure projects under this Government.

We need to ask why Britain has fallen so far behind other European countries when it comes to getting things built. The Government seem to be of the view that the country that created the railways can no longer build them; that other countries can do it, but not us. Labour wholeheartedly rejects that view. We are working with local leaders, mayors, businesses and unions. Labour in government will deliver a credible and transformative programme of rail transport infrastructure by replacing the current Victorian-era infrastructure, and building connectivity and capacity to improve performance, which will reduce congestion and put our railways back on track.

It is clear that there are many issues affecting the Great Western main line. I believe they are emblematic of the issues that are affecting our wider rail network. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will outline what steps he is taking to tackle the chronic delays and cancellations on the line—we have heard about that from many Members this evening—and to confirm whether he agrees with the Network Rail presentation that said that, over the last five years, there were fewer repairs, which led to even more delays for passengers. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s remarks and I would like, once again, to thank the hon. Member for Gloucester for securing this important debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this important debate on the future of the Great Western main line and for his engaging and positive speech this afternoon. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions; if I do not touch on the matters that they asked me about, I will be sure to write to each and every one of them to ensure that they get a full response.

I also applaud my hon. Friend’s positive work campaigning to improve transport infrastructure for his constituents in Gloucester. Like him, this Government are committed to supporting investment in rail. The commitment to the vital role of the railway in connecting communities and supporting the economy is something that we share.

The last decade has seen major transformation across the Wales and western region, culminating in May 2023 in the full roll-out of the Elizabeth line services, a once-in-a-generation investment that now carries one in six rail passengers. However, there is now significant pressure on the Thames valley network and indeed the entire Great Western Railway network, where there are competing demands from commuter traffic, airport passengers, long-distance leisure passengers and freight users.

Performance on the Great Western main line has not been good enough in recent times. Too often, passengers are unable to complete their journey as planned. Hundreds of passengers were caught up in disruption at London Paddington when the overhead lines failed in early December, as many hon. Members mentioned, which forced many members of the public to stay in hotels or make complex alternative travel arrangements.

Last Thursday, flooding and a tragic incident in Pangbourne meant that passengers from London and Reading could not travel further west, once again leaving passengers no option but to stay overnight in Reading. Since then, the railway has seen further disruptions, including an electric line failure on the overheads on Sunday and two track defects yesterday and today, which were mentioned in the debate. Last year, the closure of Nuneham viaduct caused major disruption to passengers in Oxford and the Cotswolds for a prolonged period. This is not good enough. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) asked whether there will be Government support. That will be the case, and that will also be the case with regard to Network Rail.

Between October 2022 and 2023, 67% of delays were attributed to the asset and therefore to Network Rail matters. I am committed to improving performance in the western region. I recently met Andrew Haines, chief executive of Network Rail—we meet regularly—to allow us both to reflect on some of the challenges. He is very straight and open about those challenges—we both are—and I have every confidence in Andrew and his team in their delivery of the required improvements. I am also meeting my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead and other members of the Great Western Railway stakeholder advisory board tomorrow.

Turning to performance, on 29 November, the Office of Rail and Road launched an investigation into poor train punctuality and reliability in the Network Rail Wales and western region, with particular focus on the Thames valley area, which affects all GWR services between London and Reading. Network Rail has committed to work with the Office of Rail and Road to identify causes and take steps to address them. The ORR’s investigation will assess whether Network Rail is complying with its licence obligations in the Wales and western region. There have been several operational and personnel changes on the Network Rail western route in the last year, and I am confident that the new appointments will start to bear fruit. I thought it important to set that out. It demonstrates that we recognise the challenge and that we are going to do something about it.

The Government are investing and re-investing in the network. On my summer rail tour, I visited the south-west of England, and many of the right hon. and hon. Members present today. I had the opportunity to see at first hand the great work delivered as part of the south-west rail resilience programme to complete the £82 million sea wall that protects the coastal Dawlish rail route, which has brought the total investment on that project to £165 million. We have also reallocated funding from HS2 to ensure that the final phases of the programme can be delivered. I also spent time with the managing director of Great Western Railways, his staff and his inspiring apprentices from Oxford, as they joined me on that journey to Devon and Cornwall and all the way back again. As part of the MetroWest programme, the number of services between Bristol and Gloucester doubled to half hourly in May 2023. I thank the West of England Combined Authority, which has worked in partnership with Great Western Railway to make this possible.

Turning to matters in Gloucester, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester was fundamental to initiating the multimillion pound redevelopment of Gloucester station. In addition to the Gloucester local enterprise partnership funding, this Government and GWR provided an additional £1.7 million to take the project forward, and we are committed to working with my hon. Friend to see what can be done to complete the redevelopment. He will be reassured to know that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is also a Gloucestershire representative and therefore has an interest. My hon. Friend made a point about dwell time improvements at Gloucester station. I will investigate and get back to him on that.

In 2023, three new stations were opened on the GWR network, all supported by Government funding. Passengers in Reading, Exeter and Bristol have benefited from the new Reading Green Park, Marsh Barton, and Portway stations. In May 2023, GWR introduced 65 new services each week between London Paddington and Carmarthen, thereby strengthening connectivity between England and Wales.

The Minister will know that in my part of the world, in west Wales, the bone of contention is that electrification stops in Cardiff. With the scrapping of HS2’s northern leg, does that free up capital money to electrify to Swansea, and even beyond to Carmarthen and further west?

The projects have been listed in the Network North programme from the Prime Minister, but there is additional funding going to regions, which can then decide how they wish to spend monies. That actually applies to the Filton project mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester.

Let me turn to Cornwall, because it was put to me: will Cornwall fall off the map? Never will Cornwall fall off the GWR map or the map of this Government. The Government allocated £50 million of levelling-up funding for delivery of the Mid Cornwall Metro project, which my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) has worked hard on. The joint venture between Cornwall council, GWR and Network Rail will boost connectivity and the economy in all parts of Cornwall. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who has tirelessly promoted this project. Whether calling me on my phone or chasing me around Parliament, he never ceases to push this matter, and I am grateful to him for bringing everybody together. I will of course come down and visit him and I hope we will have something positive to announce. I can tell him that the Cornish riviera is also a priority for me.

I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester about the need for a truly seven-day railway, and the damage that strikes on the railway cause. Leisure travel at weekends is a huge growth area, and it is disappointing that ASLEF refuses to engage on this issue of having a seven-day railway. Indeed, with Sunday falling on 24 December and 31 December, I found a submission at the beginning of December requiring more money for the workforce if they were going to work Sundays, because Sunday is not part of the seven-day week. Now, we had to comply with that because tickets had been sold and British Transport police were concerned, but we cannot be barrelled over. We need a seven-day railway, and I am committed to delivering that.

I will visit my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) in Stonehouse. She and the town council have done a great job, and when I visit we will look at the business case, because there has been work inside the Department.

I will be perhaps a little more realistic with the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). The UK taxpayer has invested £31 billion during and since the pandemic. Previously, money was put in by the train companies from the franchising process to the tune of a profit of £200 million for the UK taxpayer. We have to be realistic about the funding of the railway, and therefore fare increases, when we are asking the taxpayer to pay such a burden. It should also be noted that only half the fare increases that one would usually expect from inflation have been borne by passengers; the rest has fallen on the UK taxpayer. We have that balance.

To my shadow, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), I gently point out that more than 1,200 miles of railway line has been electrified between 2010 and 2023. I do call that investment in the railway, when I consider that during the 13 years when Labour were in government, it was just over 60 miles.

To wrap up, I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester can see the Government’s ambition to improve journeys for passengers and freight users on the Great Western main line. I am grateful for the work that GWR does, and I recognise that the managing director shows an interest. He is here today, which tells us everything. I am grateful for the work done by Network Rail and for the work to come. I will personally be involved in bringing those matters together to give a better performance to the railway. Those running this railway, and that includes me, recognise that performance must improve. We are committed to ensuring that it does.

This has been a very useful debate. We have heard widespread enthusiasm for railways; recognition of the new services, such as those 174 extra Gloucester-Bristol services a week; reassurance that the Minister shares our views on Sunday services; recognition of the partnerships, perhaps particularly in Cornwall, that do happen between Great Western and other parts of the country; and of course, most importantly, a lot of frustration about reliability of services. I think we are all happy to hear the Minister’s comments on performance and his commitment to improvement. We look forward to seeing that improvement in performance and reliability delivered during 2024, so that all our constituents can enjoy the pleasures of travelling by rail on Great Western Railway.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of the Great Western main line.

Sitting adjourned.