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Commons Chamber

Volume 744: debated on Monday 29 January 2024

House of Commons

Monday 29 January 2024

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

New Writ


That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County Constituency of Rochdale, in the room of Sir Anthony Joseph Lloyd, deceased.—(Sir Alan Campbell.)

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Support for Children with SEND

1. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (901183)

6. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (901188)

11. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (901194)

15. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (901199)

There is nothing more important than ensuring that everyone in our country, regardless of need, gets the very best education possible. That is why our special educational needs and alternative provision improvement plan will ensure that all children get the support they need to reach their potential. We have opened 108 special free schools, including 15 since September, and launched a £70 million change programme to test and refine our systemic reforms, benefiting every region in England. Earlier this month I announced an extension to our short breaks programme. We have a plan and we are delivering on it.

Today, many parents of children with special educational needs, including those in my constituency, are at their wits’ end. Either they are fighting to get an education, health and care plan for their child or they are struggling to access the right support when they get one. That is a waste of public money, a waste of parental energy and too often a waste of their child’s precious potential. Does the Secretary of State agree with my constituents, who feel that the system is broken?

I would agree that there has been an absolute increase in special educational needs in the past five, six or seven years, largely because we know more, but also because covid has added some pressure on the system. We have expanded the system and want to ensure that all children with special educational needs, even more than before, get the help they need. We have an improvement plan in place, which was published in March 2023 and focuses on early identification and improved support all the way through the journey. We are training many more people and putting more support in place for the hon. Lady’s constituents.

In smaller and rural communities such as mine in West Lancashire, populations and services are often very sparsely distributed and SEND students often have to either travel upwards of an hour to reach any provision, or go without. What is the Government’s plan to address that issue?

We have been trying to increase the number of places within both mainstream and special educational needs and alternative provision settings. As I say, we have 108 more special educational needs schools already built and 76 more approved. We have worked with many local authorities, including in rural areas, to make sure they get the provision they need.

Every child with special educational needs or disabilities should receive the high-quality support they deserve, but schools and councils do not have the necessary resources to meet increasing demand and rising costs. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the funding and powers available to councils to improve SEND provision?

That is one reason the high-needs budget is up by over 60% in the past four years, and will reach £10.5 billion in 2024-25. We are also supporting local authorities with financial deficits through the safety valve and delivering better- value programmes. In most constituencies, including in the hon. Lady’s area, the funding has gone up by 25% to 35%.[Official Report, 29 February 2024, Vol. 746, c. 1MC.] (Correction)

I also have several cases in my constituency, where children and young people can wait months, if not years, not just for assessment but for a plan to address their needs. Sense has reported that less than half of local authorities have multi-sensory impairment teachers, and the National Autistic Society reports that three in four parents say that their children’s schools do not fully cover their needs. What are the Government doing about that?

Our plan to introduce national consistency and standards will be published in 2025. We will deliver it through local partnerships and inclusion, digitise records, and make it much more transparent so that parents can see what is happening. In terms of mainstream support, we will improve early language support, we are working with integrated care boards to improve support for neurodiversity in schools, and 100,000 teachers have received autism training. There is additional special educational needs co-ordinator training as well as vital early language support.

My office operates a regular advice surgery for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, in conjunction with the University of Liverpool law clinic, to which I pay tribute. There are simply not enough places in mainstream schools or special schools. Children with SEND from the most deprived areas are less likely to be identified compared with similar children from more affluent areas. What are the Government doing to ensure that children in constituencies such as mine are identified early and can get the help they require?

The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. Early identification is absolutely key in providing support and ensuring that it impacts the child as early as possible. I am very happy to understand more about places. Local authorities have made lots of bids, and that is why many more special educational needs schools have been, or are being, built—I announced 15 recently. Although I do not know whether his local area bid into them, we have many schemes to ensure that local authorities have financing to improve the number of places in mainstream schools and special educational needs schools.

What work is being done to support local authorities in addressing the placing of children with special educational needs and disabilities out of their own counties and localities to receive the essential support they need? In Essex, the problem is ongoing and affects all our Essex colleagues. I pay tribute to our county council, which is doing incredible work—it is well rated—but frankly it needs help, assistance and support from central Government.

There are a number of things there. We have put £2.6 billion into increasing the number of places—Members across the House will have heard of additional school places in their areas—and we have a £70 million change programme to ensure, through work with local authorities, that the improvement plan that we published in March 2023 goes from being a piece of paper to being implemented on the ground and felt by all our constituencies and all families with children with special educational needs.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the provision of training in SEND during initial teacher training to ensure that more teachers are aware of the support that children might need, and on the recruitment of specialists, such as educational psychologists and speech and language therapists?

We are implementing a gold thread of high-quality teacher training reforms to ensure that teachers have the skills they need. The Department has been exploring opportunities to build expertise, through a review of the initial teacher training core content framework and the early career framework, to identify how we can equip new teachers to be more confident in meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND. There will be more investment in educational psychologists, of which there will be another 400, and more investment in early years SENCOs, of which there will be another 7,000.[Official Report, 29 February 2024, Vol. 746, c. 2MC.] (Correction)

Similarly to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), I welcome the introduction of a new SENCO national professional qualification—I declare an interest, as my wife is a SENCO—but to create a truly inclusive school environment, all teachers need the knowledge, skills and practical training to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. What steps is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State taking to ensure that initial teacher training gives them that support and training?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and also for all the work he has done in this area. We worked together when he was Minister for children and families and I was working in the Department of Health and Social Care, and it is something that we both care deeply about.

As I said in answer to the earlier question, there is a golden thread of high-quality teacher training reforms. We will be looking at a revised framework and working with providers so that they can ensure that the contracts deliver the very best support for teachers. What will be vital, and something that Members will feel, is the additional 7,000 SENCOs that will be trained in the coming years.[Official Report, 29 February 2024, Vol. 746, c. 2MC.] (Correction)

Worcestershire County Council has some welcome plans to set up a new autism free school in Malvern. Recently, I visited Our Place—an independent provider—in West Worcestershire, which provides specialist education, mainly for children with autism. Is it the Secretary of State’s understanding that such independent provision would be affected by taxation should the Opposition bring in a tax on independent schools across this country?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point: there are 2,408 independent schools across our country, many of which provide special educational needs support and excellent education in particular specialties. If those schools were subject to increased taxation, that would make provision more difficult. We will have to assess what that would mean.

A number of colleagues have mentioned initial teacher training. Perhaps they and the Secretary of State should look no further than tomorrow, when my ten-minute rule Bill comes before Parliament—a Bill that aims to increase and ensure there is autism training for all teachers. Will the Secretary of State back it?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s work in this area. Initial teacher training courses must equip trainees to meet all the teachers’ standards, including standard 5: that teachers must

“have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils”,

including pupils with autism. Through the delivery of our improvement plan, we will develop new practitioner standards to support frontline professionals, including a standard on autism. I look forward to my hon. Friend’s working with us.

Postgraduate Research Applications: Visa Changes

2. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of changes to visa fees and conditions on the number of applications for postgraduate research. (901184)

19. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of changes to visa fees and conditions on the number of applications for postgraduate research. (901204)

Our visa changes strike the right balance, ensuring we have a fair and robust migration policy but maintaining the UK’s place as a top destination for the best and brightest from around the world. The hon. and learned Lady will be pleased to know that we continue to attract the best scientists from across the world: we have over 46,000 postgraduate research students from overseas, 41% of the total, producing groundbreaking and collaborative research.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but I am afraid the evidence does not entirely bear out what he is saying, because UCAS figures reveal a notable fall in accepted applications from international students. Both Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Napier universities in my constituency of Edinburgh South West are highly sought after destinations for international PhD students. Both carry out vital scientific research, with strong links to commercial and industrial needs—not just in Scotland, but across the United Kingdom and, indeed, across Europe and the world—but the Government’s visa rules are making those universities far less attractive destinations for international students. Is the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), the former science Minister, not right when he says that the UK

“will never be a science superpower behind a visa paywall”?

I know that the hon. and learned Lady is a stickler for data. Our target was for over 600,000 international students every year, and we are well over that target. As I say, our visa changes strike the right balance, being fair to the taxpayer while ensuring that we have good international students coming to our country.

The minimum salary requirement for a skilled worker visa is set to increase by 48%, from £26,200 to £38,700, jeopardising the prospects of early-career researchers and academics coming to the UK. Can the Minister answer the question from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) that he did not answer: how will the UK be a science superpower behind that visa paywall?

I think I have set that out. We have 36% of university researchers coming from outside the UK, and over 46,000 postgraduate students from overseas—41% of the total. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the real cost of the SNP’s tuition fee policy is that Scottish universities are unable to provide places for local students, who are 13% less likely to take a place at a university in Scotland than English students are to take a place in England.

Will the Minister be investigating the discovery, exposed by The Sunday Times yesterday, of Russell Group universities taking students with much lower academic qualifications for undergraduate degrees, and when he does so, will he check that the same is not happening in the postgraduate field, given the much higher fees that can be charged for overseas students?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He will know that, while I am a strong supporter of international students, I am absolutely clear that I want a level playing field for all domestic students as well. I met vice-chancellors only yesterday afternoon, as soon I had seen the report in The Sunday Times, and I have asked the Department for Education to carry out an urgent investigation into bad practice by agents where it occurs, as I was very disturbed by what I saw. We want absolute fairness of entry for domestic students as much as for international students.

I listened to the Minister’s response to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), but in December I was also assured by the Minister that he was committed to the target of 600,000 international students. However, recent research from IDP has found 45% of its August and September applicants to study in the UK would consider changing their study destination if post-study work visa lengths are shortened. What is his assessment of the impact that any changes to the postgraduate work visa could have on the international education strategy and the sustainability of the sector?

The hon. Gentleman, the Opposition spokesman, knows that visa matters are for the Home Office. The Migration Advisory Committee is looking at the postgraduate international student visa route and will come to its conclusions. However, as I keep saying to him, our target was for over 600,000 international students a year, and we have well surpassed that.

Persistent Pupil Absence

Tackling persistent absence is my top priority, as indeed it was last year. I pay tribute to our incredible teachers and heads who have gone above and beyond to get children back to school. We are more than doubling the number of attendance hubs to support 2,000 schools, we are investing £15 million to expand one-to-one mentoring to help 10,000 children and we will be requiring all schools to share data to support earlier intervention. Our plan is starting to work, with 380,000 fewer children persistently absent or not attending last year, and numbers continue to fall.

But by 2026, 2,435 children in Manchester, 907 in Tameside and 937 in Stockport are set to miss half their time at school if current trends continue. Labour has a plan to fix this crisis, backed by Sir Kevan Collins, the Government’s own former education recovery commissioner. If this is the Secretary of State’s top priority, why is her plan not working?

It is working. It is not going to stick on the trajectory, because we have already turned around the trajectory. Since the pandemic, it is already falling in England. There is no better example of the Labour party having no plan and just sniping from the sidelines than on the question of attendance. I suggest that Labour Members look at other countries around the world because this is a global phenomenon. We have daily data that is almost unique, which is why we are now reducing the figures. If we look at Wales—Labour-run Wales—we see that attendance in school is much worse, at nearly eight days lower per pupil.

The Secretary of State says that keeping children in school is her top priority, but since 2016 persistent absence in Newcastle has more than doubled and severe absence is up 282%. She says it is a global phenomenon, but what matters is what happens in schools in Newcastle. Labour’s plan for schools is supported by Sir Kevan Collins. Why will she not support it? What is she going to do about this, because we need to see change now?

The hon. Lady may have mixed up a couple of things there, but the plan to get children back into school is to have daily attendance data, which we introduced and sent out to every local authority. Some local authorities do not perform as well—perhaps the hon. Lady’s is one of those—but we send out daily data so that they can identify exactly where the schools are. We are working with attendance hubs, which we are introducing across the country. For individual one-to-one attention we have attendance mentors. We have a national campaign and a cross-Government action alliance, all of which has meant that England has a 7.5% absence rate, compared with 11.5% in Wales, and it is much higher in most countries around the world. We have a plan, and we are delivering on it.

I worked as a teacher and as head of year with overall responsibility for school attendance. Labour Members seem to forget that there is also a role for parental responsibility in all of this. In my time, I encountered a large cohort of parents who found that it was still cheaper to pay the fines they were given and save the money by going on holiday during term time. Is it not time to ramp up the cost of fines for parents who choose needlessly to withdraw their children from their education, harming the child’s outcomes?

Every moment matters in school, and we have improved and increased our school standards. The most important thing is that children are now there. Thanks to our data, we can now see patterns and those who are taking a week off outside term time, or those who perhaps have a pattern of behaviour of taking particular days off. We can go into the data—we are about the only country in the world that can do that, so we are uniquely positioned to tackle the problem. We can go down into the data and work at school level and local authority level, to ensure that we put into action everything we can to improve attendance.

Attendance matters, and we know that some schools and local authorities have higher attendance rates than others. That is why the Education Committee, the Children’s Commissioners and others all say that their top priority is to ensure that all schools and local authorities follow best practice guidelines. My private Member’s Bill, the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill, will make that mandatory. I know that the Government support it, so will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to ensure that all colleagues across the House back the Bill, and no one objects to it on Second Reading this Friday, so that we can make best practice mandatory and get our kids back to school?

I thank my right hon. Friend for all her work in this area. She is right; the first thing to do is ensure that we understand best practice, and that it is rolled out everywhere. A lot of work is being done in that area. I very much appreciate the initiatives that she has introduced, and I urge colleagues across the House to support her endeavours.

The millions of children persistently absent from school is a national scandal, yet last week Government MPs joined together to vote against Labour’s long-term plan to deal with that issue, putting party above country and children. So far the Government have only announced sticking plaster policies. Will the Secretary of State come forward with a long-term plan to address that properly, or do schools and families have to wait for a Labour Government to finally give all children the education they deserve?

Certainly not. Under a Labour Government, school standards would plummet back to where they were the last time Labour had education under their control—27th in the world for maths and 28th for English, if I remember correctly. Standards fall under Labour, and it has absolutely no plans to get children back into school. As I said, this Government have uniquely put in place daily data to enable us to get down and implement lots of different plans. We are also planning to legislate for children who are not in school, which I think was about the only thing Labour actually put in its plan. We are committed to doing that, and we warmly welcome the private Member’s Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), the Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill, and look forward to working with her when it progresses to Second Reading on 15 March. I urge all hon. Members to support the Bill.

Falling Pupil Rolls

I recognise the challenge from falling rolls when there is demographic change. That is why we are changing how the growth and falling rolls funding is allocated to local authorities—it is now based on decreases as well as increases in pupil numbers. We are also giving greater flexibility to allocate funding to meet the revenue costs of reducing surplus places.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Declining school rolls in London is a big issue that I have raised in the House on a number of occasions. We are seeing families with young children being driven out of London because of the affordability of housing and the cost of living crisis, and a new report out today by London Councils shows that the situation is getting even worse. In Lambeth we are seeing a 17.5% drop in demand for reception places over the next five years. Archbishop Tenison’s School, opposite the Oval cricket ground in my constituency, closed last year. We need urgent action from the Government. The falling rolls funding is helping, but that is just for the short term. Will the Minister look at how we can protect our vital education assets? Will the Government finally address the cost of living crisis?

It is true that a period of change is coming as the bulge in primary school numbers starts to move into secondary schools, and it is important to plan ahead for that. We want to work with local authorities, and I know that the hon. Member’s local authority, Lambeth, is being proactive in looking at amalgamations where necessary. We also have pupil place planning advisers in each region working with local authorities and academy trusts, and school resource management advisers working directly with schools. There will also be some repurposing of some space in schools—I am not speaking specifically about her constituency—with opportunities for more early years provision in some cases, and more special educational needs provision. We will have to be agile and ensure that there is still sufficient space for parental choice.

As the Secretary of State knows—we share a local authority—when it comes to calculating demand for secondary school places, West Sussex gets a D-minus. One of my districts is oversubscribed and last year more than 50 children—almost all from one school—were taken out of district to a school that none of them had applied for and some of them had not heard of. Next year, it could be even worse. Despite help from my noble Friend Baroness Barran and the regional schools commissioner, West Sussex has still done absolutely nothing to address the shortage of secondary school places. Will the Minister intervene?

As I said to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), it is true that there is change as numbers move from primary into secondary, and it is important to try to plan ahead. On the specifics of West Sussex, I will be pleased to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it further.

School Attendance

Attendance did decline through covid. It is now improving, but there is a lot more to do. We are expanding attendance hubs to support nearly 2,000 schools and we have launched the “moments matter” campaign to remind parents of the importance of every single day in school.

In Hartlepool, we have seen a rising number of parents and guardians opting for home-school education. As of November, that number had increased to 186, more than tripling in four years. In addition, we have a huge number of children who simply do not turn up at school. Will my right hon. Friend please share the steps that he is taking alongside Hartlepool Borough Council to ensure that those children are receiving a fair and decent education?

I will. Local authorities have duties towards those children to ensure that all are receiving a suitable education and act if not. The consultation we held on revised guidance to help fulfil that responsibility recently closed, and we will publish the response in due course. We remain committed to legislation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) said, to create statutory registers of children not in school in order to help local authorities identify those eligible children.

I know from speaking to schools in Wimbledon that access to mental health support can get pupils back into school or keep them in school. What plans does the Department have to roll out more access to that mental health support so that we can see that trend increase?

Of course, there are multiple layers to mental health support. The mental health support teams programme, which we are rolling out gradually across the country, continues to expand. At the end of March 2023, 35% of pupils in school or further education were covered by that, including 47% at secondary. When the figures for this year come out, I expect them to be higher. Unlike the Opposition, we are putting mental health support not only into secondary schools but into primary schools, where it can make a big difference.

The reality for mental health support teams in schools is that funding is not guaranteed beyond 2025, and the coverage is patchy. Earlier this month I heard about a teenager in a secondary school in my constituency who has not attended for four months because of mental ill health. The school is convinced that if there were dedicated, qualified mental health practitioners in secondary and primary schools, attendance would improve. Will the Minister back my ten-minute rule Bill to commit to exactly that duty, to be paid for by trebling the tax on social media companies, which so often are at the root of those problems?

The hon. Member identifies important problems. There are important links between mental ill health prevalence and non-attendance. We will see benefits from the offer to all state schools and colleges of a grant to train a senior mental health lead, as well as the wider mental health support teams that I mentioned.

Early intervention is key. We need to look at what more can be done at primary school level because, although not entirely, often the signs are already there by the time children get to secondary school. Could the Minister say more on that? The transition from primary to secondary is also key, and we need to look at that.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. It is important to consider the role of mental health in primary as well as secondary school. We put mental health education on the curriculum through relationships, sex and health education, and we are investing in the mental health support teams that I mentioned, as well as the training grants. Of course, some schools do the transition from primary to secondary very well. It can be an unsettling time for children, but also an exciting one, and it is important that we maximise those benefits. There is a lot of good practice out there.

In England, school attendance is impacted by off-rolling—a practice that does not exist in Scotland. Now, we hear in a report that schools are actively removing GCSE students, not for any behavioural issues but because they are struggling academically and the school wants to protect its place in the league tables. What steps is the Minister taking to address what the Centre for Social Justice has called

“a system which effectively rewards schools for exiting academically underperforming students”?

Let me be abundantly clear: off-rolling—removing a pupil from a school without using a permanent exclusion—is unacceptable and unlawful. That is in the Ofsted framework, and it is strengthened in the revised framework that came out in 2019 to look at that. That can be seen in Ofsted’s report. It is also looked at by the Teacher Regulation Agency. We must be abundantly clear that being involved in off-rolling is not consistent with the conduct we expect of a teacher. In serious cases, it could result in action.

SEND Places: Gloucestershire

7. What recent estimate she has made of the number of school places available for pupils with special educational needs in Gloucestershire. (901189)

Places for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities have increased in Gloucestershire since 2015. We estimate that there are 1,700 places, and the local authority opened two additional settings in 2022-23.

At the moment, 120 pupils have been assessed as needing special school places, but those places are not available. Over the next couple of years it looks like at least 200 more special school places will be needed in Gloucestershire. Can the Minister look at the situation urgently to see what he can do to help?

We are working closely with local authorities on this issue. We have allocated more than £1.5 billion of high needs capital allocations in the last two years for local authorities to create additional places. Gloucestershire County Council has announced a 200-place moderate and additional learning difficulties school for four to 16-year-olds, to be delivered through our free school presumption route in early 2026.

Just as in Gloucestershire, we are short of specialist schools—two of our three are rated as inadequate and need improving. The most vulnerable children are unable to go to school because need is not being met. Will the Minister look at what can be done in Shropshire to provide places for the most seriously affected children?

In addition to working with Gloucestershire, we work with Shropshire on its capacity. We have already announced 41 new special free schools with a further 38 in the pipeline.

Cost of Living Support: Devolved Administrations

8. Whether she has had recent discussions with her counterparts in the devolved Administrations on the potential merits of providing additional financial support for school pupils in the context of increases in the cost of living. (901190)

I agree that, given all that the UK has in common, it is vital that we talk about policy issues frequently, including on devolved matters. The UK Education Ministers Council last met in June last year, when it was hosted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in Liverpool. I understand it is for the Scottish Government to issue the invitation for the next one—we await their missive with anticipation.

Expanding free school meals has a direct impact on children’s health, promoting cognitive development and improving test scores and concentration. The Scottish Government are rolling out universal free school meals for primary school children. What additional financial efforts will the Minister make to address educational inequality, such as supporting and following the example of the Scottish Government to improve outcomes for all pupils?

We await the Scottish Government’s full programme, but I will say that, in recognition of the benefits of free school meals and targeting them where they can have most effect, one in every three pupils in England are now eligible for free school meals, compared with one in six when Labour was in Government.

To be clear, the UK Government will not even extend free school meals to children in households receiving universal credit. Speaking in Parliament two weeks ago, the Children’s Commissioner for England urged the UK Government to expand free school meals, saying that children with an empty belly cannot learn. When will this Government follow Scotland’s lead in addressing child poverty by rolling out free school meals to all primary school children?

We have extended eligibility for free school meals on three occasions, mainly with universal infant free school meals, the extension of further education students and, most recently, by extending the protections for people in transition on universal credit. I say gently to the hon. Lady that we think it is important to target free school meals, but that it is just as important for children in secondary school as in primary.

Early Years Education

This Government are rolling out the largest expansion of childcare in England’s history, doubling the amount we spend now. This will enable more children to benefit from higher-quality early years education and childcare more of the time, building strong foundations for every child and enabling more parents to work.

Why has it taken 14 years for the Government to get around to having a plan? They got rid of children’s centres and Sure Start centres, and they have not replaced them with anything until now. Now we see chaos: people cannot get the code; they do not know what money they are getting from local government; the National Day Nurseries Association says it is a mess. What is the Minister going to do to clear up this mess?

There was a lot in that question. On the Sure Start point, we are rolling out family hubs, which will be a lot broader than the Sure Start centres were and will cover children with special educational needs up to the age of 25. As for the codes issue, as the hon. Gentleman will already know, we have worked with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to provide a solution to that issue for all parents so that no parent will miss out as a result.

I very much welcome the fact that this Government are doubling investment in early years and childcare. As the Secretary of State said earlier with regard to special educational needs, early identification of need is absolutely key. From that perspective, will the Minister meet me to discuss the urgent need for a specialist assessment centre in Worcester, after the loss of the one in Fort Royal? It has gone out for commissioning, but unfortunately we have not had any bids to host the new one, and we need to get on with delivering one for next September.

I do not know the details of my hon. Friend’s specific case, but I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further.

With just over two months to go until the start of the expanded offer for two-year-olds, the Government’s plans for early years education and childcare are in complete chaos, with nurseries and childminders across the country still waiting to have their funding rates for April confirmed. How can the Minister expect providers to confirm places with parents when they do not even know what they will be paid? Does he agree with the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance that this is yet another example from this Government of announce first and do the thinking afterwards?

I think the hon. Lady knows that the reason providers do not have their rates at the moment is that local authorities have not informed them of their rates. We published the rates in November and it is up to local authorities to tell their providers. Where they do not have those rates, that is the reason. It is yet another example of where the Labour party hopes that if it snipes enough from the sidelines, no one will notice that it has no plan whatever for childcare.

Mental Health Support: Secondary Schools

10. What steps her Department is taking to increase the availability of mental health support in secondary schools. (901192)

We are rolling out mental health support teams to schools and colleges, supporting young people to access early intervention for mental health. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools said, as of March 2023 there were 398 teams covering 47% of secondary school pupils. That will increase to around 600 teams by spring 2025.

When I was a young person, we had a counsellor in our school. It helped many people, not for the long term but through short-term interventions that put people on the right track and meant that they did not need more expensive interventions down the line. Unfortunately, those counsellors have gone in many schools. Labour will reintroduce them. Will the Minister commit to reintroducing a counsellor in every school to ensure that we spend now to save later?

Counsellors have a role, but we believe that a combination of rolling out mental health support teams and giving every state school and college in the country a grant to train a senior mental health lead is a better approach to take.

Degree-level Apprenticeships

The Government have built one of the most powerful apprenticeship systems in the world, reaching nearly 700 different occupations, from level 2 through to master’s degree level 7. It is great that there have been over 5.7 million starts since 2010. There are now over 170 employer-designed degree-level apprenticeships available, including for occupations such as medical doctors, space engineers, midwives, social workers—pretty much whatever. We are providing an additional £40 million in the next two financial years to support providers in expanding their offers to make sure more people can access them.

The Conservatives have transformed apprenticeships since 2010, with local education providers, employers and Bexley Council all helping to make Bexley one of the top boroughs in London for apprenticeships. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that apprenticeships have a key role to play in our economy and in social mobility, and that while Labour wants to focus on teaching divisive ideas such as white privilege in schools, the Conservatives want to support people from all backgrounds to get on in life?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Bexley’s apprenticeship event on 5 February will be a fantastic opportunity for local people to learn about the apprenticeships on offer in his constituency. We have transformed our apprenticeship system. People around the world look at us and say, “How on earth have you done that?” I am very happy to work with anybody, but all that is at risk. The Labour party would halve the number of apprenticeships, taking us back to square one.

Sadly, the Government did not intervene to save Cumbria’s agricultural college. However, will they decide to invest in agricultural degree apprenticeships, working with the University of Cumbria and Cumbria’s further education colleges, to make sure we have a pipeline of new leaders who can feed us and care for our environment through farming?

When I was apprenticeships and skills Minister, we worked together to ensure we had the right college offer in the area that was sustainable. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education will be very happy to work on that. We are looking to expand degree apprenticeships. We have provision in place to work with providers to offer many opportunities, including in agriculture.

Next week is National Apprenticeship Week, and I look forward to celebrating apprenticeships across the country. As the Secretary of State knows, small and medium-sized enterprises are crucial to delivering high-quality apprenticeships at every level throughout our economy, but the number of SME apprenticeships has plummeted by 49% since 2016, and research shows that the levy is failing to reverse the decline in employer training more widely. The Secretary of State pretends that everything is fine, but is not the real answer to back our businesses, giving them greater flexibility to enable them to deliver the training that we need to get our economy growing again?

Absolutely. Obviously, one reason for the reduction in some of the SME numbers is the fact that we made improvements to ensure that every single apprenticeship was of high quality. I want to make sure that all young people who embark on an apprenticeship, as I did, put their trust in the system and get what they deserve. We have removed the limit on caps on SMEs, and we are working on reducing the number of steps to make it easier for them to access the system. We are also looking at what more we can do: we are focusing on a number of ways in which to ensure that apprenticeships work well for SMEs, which account for 70% of employment.[Official Report, 29 February 2024, Vol. 746, c. 4MC.] (Correction)

f40 Local Authorities: Funding

We are committed to funding all schools fairly and equitably, wherever they are. The national funding formula replaces an unjust system whereby schools received different levels of funding for no reason.

It is welcome that funding for all schools has risen, but does the Minister accept that there is deprivation in market towns and villages where transport costs are higher, and that the difference between the sums for the highest funded local authorities and those for the lowest funded, such as Central Bedfordshire, is thousands of pounds per child? What can he do to close the gap more quickly?

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of deprivation factors and, indeed, transport costs. We are increasing the amount under the formula that relates to deprivation, and there is also the sparsity factor. Of course, all schools are benefiting from increases in funding, which will total £59.6 billion in 2024-25.

When it comes to the funding of schools, should not the Government just follow the money? Amber Infrastructure, which owns Newman College in Chadderton, has paid out £80 million of shareholder dividends during the time for which it has owned that PFI school. The heating system does not work, the roof is leaking—which is affecting 30 classrooms— and now two temporary classrooms must be built to accommodate the pupils. Will the Government intervene and point out to the provider that if the money is there to be taken in dividends, it is there to fix a roof as well?

I would be happy to follow up the matter of the private finance initiative contract at that college, and perhaps have some discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education.

Topical Questions

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), next week is National Apprenticeship Week. When I did my apprenticeship I benefited from brilliant training and opportunities, thanks to General Motors, which got me where I am today, and I want to spread those opportunities to everyone, everywhere.

This Conservative Government have built a new high-quality apprenticeship system from the ground up. Nearly 70% of occupations are now accessible via apprenticeships, and we have delivered 5.7 million apprenticeship starts since 2010. A week from today, we will kick off National Apprenticeship Week. I ask all Members to go on a visit to meet apprentices and talk about the opportunities that are available throughout the country—a real example of levelling up. All my Ministers and I will be out, across the country, celebrating different industries and providers, and with hundreds of apprentices. This is why Labour’s policy to halve the number of apprenticeships is so dangerous: it would remove opportunities from people like me, taking us back to square one.

I look forward to Fact Check’s assessment of the Secretary of State’s comments. Given that 2,730 children in Hull are waiting more than 12 weeks for their first mental health appointment, is it pride or inattentiveness that prevents the Secretary of State from adopting Labour’s plan for a mental health professional in every school?

If I may “fact check” the hon. Lady, I think that the plan is for a mental health professional in every secondary school. The plan that we have is to introduce mental health support teams in every primary and secondary school. As usual, our plans, on which we are delivering, are better thought through, cover more people, and solve the problem that they are intended to solve.

T2. Very welcome remediation work on reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—is now under way at Kingsdown School in Leigh-on-Sea, meaning that parts of the school will be open from half term. However, the school has still not had confirmation, given the extent of the RAAC, on whether there will be a rebuild of the school. This uncertainty is affecting remediation, expansion and recruitment plans. Please could we have that confirmation for the school as soon as possible? (901209)

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned tirelessly for Kingsdown School. Our questionnaire programme is 100% complete, all schools have been told if it is suspected that they might have RAAC and 100% of those have been surveyed. I can confirm we will be removing RAAC from our schools for good, either through the school rebuilding programme or through grant funding, and we will inform schools shortly, once our assessments have concluded. I know that my hon. Friend has met Baroness Barran to discuss Kingsdown School and is meeting again this week.

Students at St Leonard’s School in Durham are working hard for their exams, but they are facing sustained and ongoing disruption, including challenges to doing practical coursework, off-site teaching and being bussed around the city, all because of RAAC. There is no firm date for the rebuilding to commence, and that is just not good enough. It is putting young people’s futures at risk. Will the Secretary of State now work with the regulator and the exam boards on mitigations for the small number of young people whose life chances are being put at risk by Government failure?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have been working closely with St Leonard’s School, and actually with all schools that were impacted by RAAC. I would like to take this moment to thank the headteachers and all the teachers who have done an amazing job to keep 100% of children in face-to-face education. We have spoken to the award bodies. They have been working with schools and have offered some support in terms of assessments and making sure that they can look at what more needs to be done, but exams are there to assess—

Order. We are having this problem every time. Topicals are meant to be short and punchy. I have to get all these Members in, but all you are doing is stopping them getting in. If that is the ploy, it is not going to work.

T6. My right hon. Friend has already mentioned the article in The Sunday Times, but is she aware that it is comparing apples and oranges? British students go straight into a degree course in the first year, but these overseas students referred to are foundation year students who are not on the degree course. They are doing the equivalent of A-level exams. (901213)

Of course I agree that, on entry requirements, we should ensure that we are comparing like for like and being fair to our brilliant domestic students. I was appalled to see the reporting over the weekend, which clearly showed bad practice in the use of agents. That is not acceptable. As I have said, I met Universities UK and the vice-chancellors yesterday and we are going to sort this out. There is an investigation by the Department for Education.

“It’s not our fault” always seems to be this Government’s catchphrase, and now it applies to childcare too: it is not the Secretary of State’s fault but that of local authorities; it is not her responsibility to deliver on her Government’s own pledge. Even her own civil servants are saying that some parents just will not get their places. Does she agree with the Children’s Minister that no parents will lose out? Will she give that guarantee to the House today—yes or no?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has asked about childcare, because it is yet another illustration of how this Conservative Government are delivering for working parents while the Labour party still does not have a plan. I know what it takes to deliver complex projects. I have delivered many over three decades working in industry all around the world. Given the hon. Lady’s limited experience outside politics, she should focus on not playing party politics and deliver for hard-working parents.

T7.   Educational psychologists are enormously important. What progress are the Government making on their current recruitment drive to increase their number? (901214)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a highly competitive training scheme. Between 2017 and 2019 the Department filled all 160 of its funded training places per year, and since 2020 it has filled all 200 of the funded places each year. We have now committed to training a further 400 educational psychologists.[Official Report, 8 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 6MC.] (Correction)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need highly qualified, excellent teachers in every school? Is she worried, as I am, that so many highly qualified, gifted teachers are leaving the profession after just a few years?

Of course I agree, which is why I am delighted that we have 27,000 more teachers in our schools than we had in 2010. We have a retention and recruitment plan with many different facets to make sure that we retain our excellent teachers.

T10. Working with one of my secondary schools, John Whitgift Academy, we have created a pilot scheme called “Opportunity Grimsby”, in which year 8 students and their parents are linked with local businesses. That will form part of a scheme in which the student is a workplace mentee until year 11. Will my right hon. Friend commit to coming to Grimsby to see how well the scheme is doing? (901217)

I would be delighted to come to Grimsby. I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming the apprenticeship diversity champion. She is a skills champion, and what she is doing on careers and mentoring in Grimsby is a model example of what should be done across the country.

T4. This month’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report sets out how childhood poverty impacts on educational attainment, and how the consequences last a lifetime, entrenching intergenerational poverty. Forty-two per cent of children in Newcastle are growing up in poverty. Will the Secretary of State support Labour’s call for free breakfast clubs in every primary school, to give those children the best start in life? (901211)

We are investing very heavily in breakfast clubs. This is another area in which we think that targeting support matters. That includes secondary schools, not just primary schools, as the Labour party suggests.

Is it not a disgrace that young children are told to cover up their badges so that people do not know which school they attend, and are told to remove outward signs that they are Jewish? Security is provided once they get to school, but what will my right hon. Friend do to make sure that children are educated on the evils of antisemitism, so that we spread this message across all schools, rather than just Jewish schools?

My hon. Friend is right. After Holocaust Memorial Day, we are acutely conscious of the continuing need to act against antisemitism. One of the things we are doing is launching a new fund for both schools and higher education, to try to address antisemitism effectively at its root.

T5. Each year, students have to apply for the Turing international mobility scheme before the Easter deadline, but those from widening participation backgrounds need to know that they have the money before they apply, and universities are getting confirmation of funding some months later, in June and July. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that Turing should be open to all, so will she press Treasury colleagues for a multi-year funding settlement? (901212)

I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman, and I listen carefully to what he says. We are working to smooth out any issues with the Turing scheme. However, it is worth noting that we have increased the proportion of disadvantaged students taking part in it from 50% to 60%. I am proud that we are embedding social justice in the scheme.

Will students affected by RAAC, such as those at Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton, receive special dispensation in their GCSEs and A-levels? I recently met the college’s exceptional headteacher, Mrs O’Callaghan, and I take this opportunity to wish her all the best on her well deserved retirement at the end of the year.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating, commending and thanking Mrs O’Callaghan on her life’s work. I appreciate that the RAAC situation in schools has been very difficult, which is why we are trying to work with them on things like coursework assessment. They should be in touch with awarding bodies. We are also making sure that we reimburse all reasonable revenue costs.

T8. I recently met headteachers in West Derby, who shared with me their serious concerns that the current Ofsted inspection model is not fit for purpose, is deeply unfair and is driving teachers out of a profession they love. In the light of today’s Education Committee report, will the Secretary of State meet me and the experienced educators in Liverpool, West Derby, to discuss their concerns and what they feel needs to change? (901215)

I pay tribute to the headteachers in Liverpool, West Derby. We think it is important to have an independent inspectorate, and we think it is important that assessments are clear. In the wake of the tragedy of Ruth Perry, it is right that we think about all the aspects, some of which have already changed. To be clear, we think it continues to be important that there be a clear external assessment for parents.

Families across Tipton and Wednesbury are still struggling to get an initial assessment for children with SEND. What work is my right hon. Friend doing to hold organisations such as child and adolescent mental health services to account, so that we ensure that these assessments are done quickly?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We are working with all local authorities, through our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, to make sure that assessments happen a lot quicker, and that children get the support they need.

T9.     School exclusions and suspensions are on the rise. Children who have experienced trauma are at the greatest risk of exclusion, which only adds to the overall negative outcome for children with adverse childhood experiences, yet the Department’s behaviour guidance makes no reference to childhood trauma. Will the Minister meet the all-party group on childhood trauma to discuss how we can develop better guidance to take account of childhood trauma? (901216)

We want to see schools not excluding children where that is at all possible. There is no right number for exclusions; they have to be determined in the light of the circumstances at the school, but we expect people to look at the matter as a whole. I will, of course, be happy to talk to the hon. Lady.

I thank the Secretary of State for her earlier answers about RAAC. Will she give priority for a complete rebuild to St Edward’s Catholic Academy in my constituency, following the adjudication that more than 80% of it is affected by RAAC? Can the plans start very soon, please?

Yes, I can give an assurance that we are going through all the details and assessing each instance on a case-by-case basis. I know that all hon. Members are keen to know what will happen, and they will have the answers very shortly.

The changes in the visa rules for international students and their dependants are having a significant impact, not only on the number of students coming to universities such as the University of York, a Russell Group university, but on these universities’ finances. Universities will have to make significant cuts if this visa programme reaches fruition. Will the Minister meet vice-chancellors and the Home Office, together, to talk about the impact this is having?

We have regular conversations with vice-chancellors and the Home Office on this issue. However, as I say, our target has been more than 600,000 students and we have well surpassed that, and 36% of university researchers come from outside the UK. We have a proud record on international students and that will continue.

St Peter’s Church of England Primary School in Budleigh Salterton is an excellent school, but it is being let down by temporary classrooms that are way past their best. Temporary classrooms should be just that: temporary, not a permanent solution. Further to my letter, which is winding its way through the Department, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss this matter further?

Children’s services are struggling, and in too many parts of England, outcomes for children are just not good enough. What conversations has the children’s Minister had with those in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about both resources and capacity for children’s services? What measures will he take where councils underperform, and thus let children down?

We have very regular conversations with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on that issue, as part of our “Stable homes, built on love” reforms to transform the children’s social care system, and we take strict action where local authorities are not meeting the requirements.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council is, bizarrely, taking parents to court to challenge their legal right to secure special educational support for their children. With the council losing 90% of those cases and this costing £100,000 every three months, will the Secretary of State join me in asking the council to think again? Will she agree to meet me to discuss special educational needs provision for Bournemouth?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are concerned by any local authority spending too much money taking parents to court. Children need to get the right support, in the right setting, at the right time, and I would be happy to have a discussion with him about that.

Post Office Ltd

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business and Trade if she will make a statement on the removal of Henry Staunton as Post Office Ltd chair and wider governance issues within the organisation.

Following a conversation with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade over the weekend, Henry Staunton agreed to step down as chairman of the Post Office. An interim chair will be appointed shortly, and a recruitment process for a new chair will be launched in due course, in accordance with the governance code for public appointments. I will update the House when we have further details.

The current chairmanship was not proving effective, and we had a difficult decision: change course, or wait and hope that it improves. Given the challenging context for the Post Office and the importance of the role of chair, the Business Secretary took decisive action. I understand that Members would like more details around the decision, especially considering that the Post Office is rightly under heightened scrutiny at this time. I can confirm that there were issues beyond the handling of the Horizon scandal, but as hon. Members would expect, I am not able to comment on the specifics of individual human resources cases.

As the Business Secretary has said, Post Office governance is a priority for the Government. The Post Office is a public corporation; as such, the Post Office board has responsibility for the strategic direction of the company. While there was a clear need for new leadership of the board, we continue to have confidence in the other board members, who are experienced executives with a range of business expertise across the legal, financial, insurance, asset management and pensions sectors; there are two elected postmaster non-executive directors, too.

The Post Office faces unprecedented challenges. It needs to work at pace to deliver compensation to the thousands of postmasters who fell victim to a faulty IT system, as well as to continue the essential work to implement the necessary operational and cultural changes needed in the business. As such, strong and effective leadership of Post Office Ltd is a necessity.

I thank the Minister for his response. It is concerning that the Secretary of State’s move towards clarity and better governance at Post Office Ltd begins with the Government being on a different page from Post Office Ltd on whether Staunton was fired or left by mutual consent. Will the Minister clarify that? Is it possible that Mr Staunton is being made a scapegoat to take the heat away from this Government, and those who came before, the Government being the sole shareholder in Post Office Ltd?

Back in July, the Minister for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business said in a debate on POL’s management culture:

“Through the shareholder’s representative on the board, the Government oversee the Post Office’s corporate governance, strategy, performance and stewardship of its financial and other resources.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2023; Vol. 736, c. 180WH.]

That is not the same as the chairperson. Are the Government satisfied that the UK Government Investments board representative has adequately fulfilled his oversight role? Indeed, has Tom Cooper, who stood down in May, been replaced? That is not clear from Post Office Ltd’s website.

It is clear that the governance model simply has not worked. The arm’s length approach used by successive Governments has allowed scandal after scandal to fester. The post office network is in disarray. Financial redress to postmasters is far too slow and, in some cases, wholly inadequate. The remuneration package for sub-postmasters means that many are working for below the minimum wage, and services are continuously being stripped away. Does the Minister have confidence that the removal of Mr Staunton will speed up financial redress for victims and bring about change in the management culture of Post Office Ltd?

Back in July, Mr Staunton appeared in front of the Business and Trade Committee over the bonusgate scandal. In a debate at the same time, I asked the Minister if he had confidence in the current management of Post Office Ltd. I received no meaningful answer, so has it taken a TV drama for the Government to take action? How is that acceptable?

I thank the hon. Lady for her work; the all-party parliamentary group on post offices does a tremendous job. The phrase used in the statement was “mutual consent”, but it is fair to say that the Government exercised their right to remove the chairman; the hon. Lady can deduce from that what she will. This is not a case of allocating responsibility for the past problems of the Post Office; we are simply saying that we need new leadership going forward. There were specific circumstances around the chairman that meant that we felt that he was not the right person to lead the organisation of the board at this time.

The shareholder representative on UKGI, as the hon. Lady was right to say, is not the chair; it was Tom Cooper, but is now Lorna Gratton. Do I have confidence in her? Yes, I do. I meet her regularly and have a high degree of confidence in her.

Compensation is too slow—we accept that. A number of measures were introduced prior to the TV drama, as the hon. Lady puts it, including the fixed-sum award of £600,000 for overturned convictions. We have also introduced a fixed-sum award for the group litigation order to expedite compensation. That is something on which I am absolutely focused on a daily basis.

I accept what the hon. Lady says about the remuneration of sub-postmasters around the country. Part of that, of course, is about consumer habits—where we shop on the high street. We are keen to identify new sources of revenue, including through the banking framework, which is a potential lucrative opportunity, and parcel hubs.

On the issue of confidence in the individuals, let me say that, having been a board director myself for 30 years, you are only as good as your last game, so it is fair to say that, at this point in time, we did not feel that Henry Staunton was the right person to lead the board.

Given the Government’s role as the sole shareholder in the Post Office, and the associated liabilities and responsibilities that go with that, when will the Secretary of State for Business and Trade make public all the associated papers related to Horizon and this entire scandal, so that the victims as well as the country can see where the responsibility for all this lies? By doing so, the Government will be able to take the right kind of action and support the victims as they seek compensation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question and the work that she has done on this. We set up the inquiry in 2021 to undertake that work. Those documents are public and subject to public scrutiny. She may have watched some of the inquiry sessions, which were very revealing about some of the conduct that happened at the Post Office. That inquiry is due to conclude by the end of this year and then report probably sometime next year. We will have a much clearer understanding then of who is responsible, and, as is often said at this Dispatch Box, that is the time to hold those individuals to account.

The Post Office Horizon scandal is one of the most insidious injustices in our country. It has robbed innocent people of their livelihoods, their liberty and, all too sadly, their lives. At least 60 postmasters have died without seeing justice or receiving compensation and at least four have taken their lives. Twenty years on, sub-postmasters and their families are still suffering from the consequences and the trauma of all that they have been put through.

The scale of the scandal is so vast that getting the right leadership in place at the Post Office is of paramount importance. However, to decide to eject the chair during the weekend with no real opportunity to get the details of the decision on the public record is unusual, to say the least. People need to know that removing Henry Staunton was a substantive, evidence-based decision if we are to have confidence in that decision. Can the Minister assure us that this decision was, indeed, substantive and not just the result of a personal falling out between Mr Staunton and the Secretary of State?

The Minister has talked about setting a timeline “in due course” for replacing Mr Staunton. In the context of what has happened in the Horizon scandal and the big challenges facing the Post Office, strong leadership is vital at this point in the process. I hope that he will be able to share as quickly as possible further information about the timeline and when the post will be filled.

What confidence can the Minister provide that this change will lead to the wholesale culture change that is desperately needed to make sure that this never happens again? Mr Staunton was not in the Post Office during the Horizon scandal—he has only served in the position since 2022—and this scandal has never been about the actions of one single individual.

Finally, the priority for us all in this House is the fast-tracked exoneration of all remaining convictions and the delivery of rightful redress or compensation to all the affected sub-postmasters as quickly as possible. Will the Minister provide an update on when we will see more progress on those matters to make sure that we take urgent steps to fix the seismic damage of this scandal?

It certainly was not something that we wanted to do on a weekend. There was a chance that it would come into the public domain by other means, which is why a conversation had to take place over the weekend. We did not think that it would be right for the individual to hear about the potential course of action by other means than the Secretary of State speaking to him. I think that was the right thing to do. I do not know why the hon. Lady would feel, or whether she any evidence, that there was some kind of falling out, as she put it; this was about very serious governance issues related to the person who headed the board of the organisation, which are obviously confidential human resources issues.

On the timeline to replace Mr Staunton, as I said, we will do so as quickly as possible. We are looking at recommendations as we speak, and we will report back to the House as soon as possible on an interim and a permanent replacement. This was not about holding somebody responsible for past problems in the Post Office; it was about the governance of the Post Office going forward. That is why a mutual agreement took place for Mr Staunton to step down.

We are working at pace to deliver the blanket overturning of convictions. We are keen to update the House as quickly as possible, and should do so in the coming days.

As a member of the Business and Trade Committee, I was deeply concerned by the inability of Mr Read, the chief executive officer of Post Office Ltd, to answer an array of very simple questions. In fact, he appeared not even to have done his basic homework when it came to looking back at the Horizon scandal. Although he was not the CEO at the time of the scandal, what confidence do the Government have in Mr Read as chief executive officer to turn it around, and has he yet made public the board minutes that show when the matter was brought to the board’s attention for the very first time? If any board member was complicit in hearing that information and not acting upon it, what steps will the Government take with lawyers to ensure that they are held accountable?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on the Select Committee. I was present for his line of questioning during that session. The chief executive committed to providing responses to the Committee; I am not sure whether they have been provided thus far. A number of questions needed to be addressed, and it is right that those answers be provided. As far as the Government are concerned, our primary means of achieving that is through the inquiry, which is hearing important evidence right now, and will conclude its work by the end of the year and report shortly afterwards.

Surely if ever there was a time to consider removing Mr Staunton from his post, it was after it emerged last year that bonuses were being paid to Post Office executives simply for doing what I think we would all expect them to: co-operating fully with the Horizon inquiry. I think that people will be forgiven for having the suspicion that, when it comes to Horizon, Ministers have been a bit like the Japanese moon lander, suddenly bursting to life as soon as a bit of light is shone on them, in this case by an ITV programme.

I have two questions. First, Fujitsu’s representatives told the Business and Trade Committee a fortnight ago that Fujitsu had a “moral obligation” to contribute to the financial redress for the victims. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions yet with Fujitsu about how and when that might happen, as well as about the size of the contribution that it might make? Secondly, with regard to the continued unexplained shortfalls in Horizon, will the Government commit to revealing how much in excess the Post Office claimed back from staff, resorting to forensic accountancy if required?

The bonuses were returned voluntarily by anybody who received them for that sub-metric, and the chief executive returned his bonuses from across the entire inquiry.

On the point about the Government picking up the pace because of the ITV drama, I would say a couple of things. We were putting a number of measures in place already. We had put in place the Horizon compensation advisory board, which has Lord Arbuthnot as one of its key members. A fixed-sum award was introduced last autumn. We were looking at advice on overturning convictions. Things were happening at pace in this area prior to the dramatisation, but of course we are public servants and members of the public. Of course we want to expedite things, and the impetus behind them is at a raised level because of the public outcry.

Conversations are ongoing with Fujitsu. In my view, the best point to negotiate is when we have all the evidence at our disposal, which will not be until the inquiry concludes. We welcome the fact that the company has taken and accepted some moral responsibility to contribute towards the compensation and we will take it at its word, but negotiating at the right point is the right way to deal with that.

The question of any excess moneys that came back from postmasters effectively into Post Office accounts is an important one, which we are asking now, and we hope to get answers in the near future.

I spoke recently to a couple of my constituents whose parents were wronged by the Post Office Horizon scandal. Now they are being asked to provide invoices from more than 20 years ago to prove that they bought the Horizon system—records the Post Office itself admits it does not keep. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is right that we focus on those who have been wronged, and that the benefit of the doubt must be with those postmasters who were completely wronged?

That is absolutely right. It should not be the case that a postmaster has to evidence a document that does not exist. The benefit of the doubt should be with the postmaster. Of course it is fair to ask, “Do you have documentation to support any claim you are making?”, but if the evidence is not there, the benefit of the doubt should be with the postmaster.

Leaving the Post Office rudderless now, when people are literally dying before they get redress, is not a situation we can put up with. The key question for the Minister is this: where is the Bill to expedite redress for those who were wrongfully convicted? Will he commit this afternoon finally to making sure that we have pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill so that it is as strong as it can be, and will he commit to a hard deadline enshrined in law in the Bill to make sure the payments are made as rapidly as possible? Frankly, Mr Bates and the other sub-postmasters who have been wronged for so long should not be made to wait a moment longer.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, but I do not accept his premise that the Post Office is rudderless. The chief executive is still there and I spoke to him a few moments ago, prior to the urgent question. As I have said, we are looking to appoint an interim chair as soon as possible and a permanent replacement shortly after that, and meanwhile the daily work of the board will continue.

On our commitment to overturn convictions on a blanket basis, I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s previous constructive collaboration and engagement with our Department, and I hope that continues. I am keen to engage with him on our approach. These are legal matters that need to be considered carefully and we had a number of meetings last week on this very issue, so I am keen to engage with him, but in a way that does not slow down the process of bringing the legislation forward. He will find us contacting him and knocking at his door in the coming days to talk about how we will go forward with that legislation.

I should point out that Mr Bates’s compensation is not related to the overturning of convictions, because he was never convicted. That is not what is getting in the way of Mr Bates’s compensation, although it is getting in the way for something like 900 other people, and we are keen to resolve that as quickly as possible.

Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to look at the Post Office’s reported practice, under the former chairman, of making payments of just £5,000 under the Horizon shortfall scheme for distress and inconvenience to people it falsely accused of theft, when a similar claim made at an employment tribunal, in the most exceptional cases, is 10 times that amount?

To be clear, those schemes are run independently of the Post Office. There are independent processes all the way through, and an independent panel assesses the loss. I think my hon. Friend is talking about the Horizon shortfall scheme, but it is clear that any tariffs that might go with payments are not a ceiling—they tend to be a floor. People should of course be fully compensated for both their financial and their non-pecuniary loss; that is a principle we have adhered to all the way through the process. We are looking at the recommendations of the advisory board on how to make sure people who have been through those schemes have received fair payments. In the group litigation order scheme, there will effectively be a minimum £75,000 fixed-sum award. We are keen to ensure not only that we get the money out of the door, but that that compensation is fair and seen to be fair.

The Post Office bullied, threatened and lied to sub-postmasters and, as we have heard, there is huge frustration that throughout the entire compensation process it has tried to minimise payments, or used extra-long and complex forms to avoid making payments to them. Is the Minister confident that the compensation programme is truly independent and that sub-postmasters will get the full and fair payments they deserve?

I do not accept that premise. I do not see any evidence of the compensation schemes trying to minimise payments. The independent panel for the Horizon shortfall scheme included Lord Garnier, for example, and seven or eight KCs—very reputable people seeking to do the right thing—so we must be careful in our rhetoric. Of course we want to ensure that people get their full and fair compensation. That is why we implemented the Horizon compensation advisory board, which includes Lord Arbuthnot, the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), Chris Hodges and Professor Moorhead. They are decent people who want to ensure that people get treated fairly, and full and fair compensation is what people will get.

Clearly, in the wake of the Horizon scandal, there is a need for massive change in the culture driving Post Office management, particularly in its relationship with sub-postmasters, who are, after all, running private businesses under contract with—not owned by—the Post Office. Will the Minister ensure that whoever is appointed chairman commits themselves thoroughly to that culture change, and, if necessary, will he change other board members to ensure that we get the change that we all want to see?

That is a good point. In the past, the relationship between Post Office Ltd and sub-postmasters has not been where it should have been. It is important that that changes. There has been much work on this: 100 area managers have been appointed to help build that relationship, and some of the past conduct and culture of the Post Office has changed. However, we know that it needs to change further. That is the job of the board; we need the right leader of the board in order to do that—hence the action that we took over the weekend.

Poor leadership and governance of the Post Office led to the badly designed Horizon shortfall scheme, which other Members have referred to. I have to say to the Minister that there has been massive under-compensation of sub-postmasters, including my constituent Mr Pennington. For 10 years, he was forced to find shortfall amounts totalling a possible £100,000 because of the Horizon system. He and his wife had to use their own savings, sell shares and even jewellery, and remortgage their house twice.

The stress and worry of finding those shortfalls over 10 years was immense, and Mr Pennington had a mini-stroke shortly after selling the business in 2012 because he could not stand paying the shortfalls any more. Yet the Horizon shortfall scheme has paid out a paltry £1,500 for those 10 years of stress and worry, and has compensated only half the shortfalls. Even the tax top-up promised in November has not yet materialised. I have written to the Minister about that case, but what action can he promise now to ensure that my constituent is finally compensated for those years of distress to him and his wife?

I am very happy to work with the hon. Lady on that particular case. We are clear that people should get full and fair compensation for financial loss and other impacts, including reputational loss—[Interruption.] I am setting out the position as it is. Of course, we are all concerned to hear about people who do not feel that they have been properly compensated. That is why we have the Horizon compensation advisory board, on which Lord Arbuthnot sits and to which I have referred a number of times. We are keen to ensure that all those people get, and can see that they have got, fair compensation. We are looking at the recommendations for an appeal mechanism, for example. I am very happy to look at this particular case in that context. It is absolutely the case that people should be fully compensated for financial loss and other impacts on their lives.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. By taking this action, the Government have accepted by default that the arm’s length body model for the Post Office does not work, so will he look again at the structure of Post Office Ltd, and will he confirm on the record that the former chairman, having left by mutual consent, did not receive or accept any severance payment?

Yes, I can confirm that there was no severance payment. I do not think it is fair to say that we do not think the arm’s length model works. Clearly, we have the right to terminate the chair’s position, which is what we have done.; that is part of the current governance process. Of course, individuals are important, and having the right individual leading the board is very important. We did not think that was the case prior to this weekend, which is why we took the action that we did. We are very keen to appoint the right person to help make the cultural changes within the Post Office that we all want to see.

Diolch yn fawr, Llefarydd. The effects of the Horizon scandal and Post Office business practices are still hurting our communities. The post office in Nefyn closed partly because staff no longer trust the computer systems, which I bet is happening in countless communities. I have asked the Post Office to provide an outreach van in Nefyn if no business at all is willing to provide that service—as appears very likely, because I have asked businesses; last week, the Post Office said no. Will the Minister guarantee the people of Nefyn that this, the oldest and second largest town in Llyn, will again have post services in the town?

I am very happy to take that point up with the right hon. Lady, and to meet her to discuss it. It is very important that our citizens—our consumers—have confidence in the Post Office. That has certainly been the experience in my patch: people have been outraged when there is a closure, so the general public definitely have some confidence in the service. The Horizon system is being replaced. As far as I know, there has never been a case of a customer losing out because of the Horizon system, but I am very happy to meet the right hon. Lady to discuss her case in Nefyn.

Shepherd’s Bush Crown office closed in 2017, and Hammersmith Crown office closed in 2020 after 100 years. Four sub-offices in my constituency have been temporarily closed for up to 10 years. With queues at the remaining offices stretching around the block at times, and a lack of competition thanks to multiple bank closures, will the Minister investigate why Post Office Ltd lacks commercial sense as well as integrity?

I am happy to look into any cases that the hon. Gentleman refers to. There are clear set criteria: the Post Office has to maintain 11,500 branches nationwide, and 99% of the population has to be within three miles of a post office. The Post Office is maintaining its requirements under those criteria, but I am very happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about the issue. Of course, we are looking at how to ensure that the network of individual post offices is sustained over the long term with new revenue streams, including through the access to cash legislation that the Government have put in place and things like parcel hubs. We think there is a bright future for the Post Office, but I am very keen to work with the hon. Gentleman to make sure of that in his particular cases.

I recently raised serious concerns with the Minister that the UK Government are not putting enough effort into making sure that post offices have a sustainable future—something that was of concern before the ITV drama shone a light on this issue. It is a challenge, and I do not feel that I really got an answer, so I am coming back to the topic again: we really need to know that we have a clear, proper plan for ensuring that there is no further deterioration of the network and to help build it back up. People in places like Neilston in my constituency, whose post office closed two weeks ago, or Clarkston, whose post office closed on Saturday, need those services. Those closures are billed as temporary, but they are only temporary if someone has the confidence to take up the opportunity to be a postmaster—who would feel that way now? What is the Minister’s plan to address the issue and make sure we have post office services for all our communities?

I agree with the hon. Lady. We need sustainable post offices, and that is about revenue. There have been changes in consumer habits and business levels, which have caused difficulties for postmasters. As I said, the Government have legislated for access for cash, which is a new opportunity for post offices. The banking framework delivers more revenue into those post office branches; we are keen to see that enhanced and for the Post Office to be more ambitious about that relationship, with that money flowing straight into the profit and loss accounts of individual postmasters’ branches. There are many other opportunities, including parcel hubs and foreign exchange. I am happy to discuss the matter offline, if that would be helpful.

The reputational damage to the brand of the Post Office as a direct consequence of the Horizon scandal has been massive—as the Minister knows, my constituent Della Robinson was one of the 555 litigants who had their convictions quashed a couple of years ago. Looking to the future, what is the Minister’s vision for reinvigorating the Post Office as a great British brand?

I thank the hon. Member, and I thank Della Robinson for her work. She was one of the trailblazers who were so important in getting to where we are today and to our getting compensation to the people affected. As I said in response to earlier questions, I believe the Post Office brand is not damaged; it is the centre of the Post Office—those who ran it from the centre—that is damaged. I think we should all get behind our post offices, and of course support them wherever we can. This is not about the brand itself. As I say, when I hear about any closures from colleagues or in my constituency, I know that the local populations are opposed to them, which identifies the high esteem in which people regard their post offices. I am very happy to have a conversation with the hon. Member, if necessary.

It has been very concerning over the last few days to read that a senior UK Government civil servant colluded with the Post Office to shut down the independent investigation by forensic accountants back in 2014, and that he did so with the full knowledge of the coalition Government. Now that the Metropolitan police are finally investigating possible criminality on the part of the Post Office and high-up employees, does the Minister agree that they should also be looking at the possibility of misfeasance in public office?

That is certainly of concern to the Government as well. The inquiry is there to ascertain exactly who did what, or who did not do anything when they could have done something. The Met police will conduct investigations and take forward prosecutions wherever they choose. That is not something we seek to influence, although as I have said from this Dispatch Box before, I would welcome somebody being charged or criminal charges being brought against somebody for what has happened in this horrendous scandal.

The family members of a terminally ill constituent came to my surgery in Corkerhill on Friday; that person was a shopkeeper in the highlands who, like so many, were caught up with unexplained shortfalls in Horizon totals, and although that did not lead to criminal action, they paid up to avoid trouble—often borrowing from other sources to do so. Can the Minister tell us whether work will be done to ensure that we know exactly how much in excess the Post Office claimed through all Horizon errors? Can he also tell me in general terms how he will ensure that those who are terminally ill get the justice and compensation they richly deserve?

I am sorry to hear about the hon. Member’s particular case. The most important thing we can do is to get compensation to those people as quickly as possible. We have the first scheme that was implemented, which sounds as though that is the right one for his constituent—the historical shortfall scheme. I assume they have made an application to that scheme, and they should be compensated accordingly. About 2,400 people applied on time; 100% have received offers and 84% have accepted those offers. That is a route to compensation. On the excess, we are very keen to find out exactly where that money went, and how it was dealt with when it did appear in some kind of suspense account. That is something we are working on, but we are certainly keen to make sure people are compensated. It is the most important thing we can do right now.

When considering the governance of Post Office Ltd, will the Minister bear in mind the demoralising impact of the Horizon scandal on current and potential sub-postmasters, as well as on the people who were victims of the scandal itself? In our communities, we are fighting to return post offices to Shap and to Hawkshead—as he knows, because he kindly met me to discuss them recently—and to maintain a post office in Staveley, but we are being hampered by apparent inertia and administrative hurdles, in Shap especially, which are the last things we need. We need encouragement, not red tape. Is there a plan to proactively support current and potential postmasters, so that we can maintain and expand our vital post office network in Cumbria’s communities and across the country?

Yes, it was a pleasure to meet the hon. Member, and I am happy to meet him again to try to expedite matters if he is experiencing delays. Of course, checks and balances need to be gone through with any new postmaster application, but it is good to hear that people are coming forward, and I am very happy to work with him to make sure that that situation is resolved as quickly as possible.

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

With permission, I will update the House on the situation in Israel and Gaza.

Last week, my noble Friend the Foreign Secretary visited the region as part of sustained British efforts to end the fighting and build towards a lasting solution. This statement will also cover the International Court of Justice’s decision on provisional measures, and the appalling allegations against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. As we debate these events, I know the whole House shares my horror at the heart-wrenching impact of this conflict.

One hundred and fourteen days on from Hamas’s barbaric attacks, they still hold more than 130 hostages. Innocent Palestinians are suffering, with over 25,000 people having died, and hunger and disease spreading. The Government’s end goal is clear: Israelis should be able to live without fear of Hamas terrorism, and Gazans should be able to rebuild their lives.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has led our engagement in the region and with partners to achieve that goal. Last week, he spoke to President Biden and met families of hostages, while my noble friend Lord Ahmad joined a Security Council debate in New York. The Foreign Secretary visited Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Qatar and Turkey, meeting leaders, Ministers, and other hostage families. The Foreign Secretary called for an immediate pause to get more aid in and to get hostages out, and for that pause to turn into a sustainable, permanent ceasefire, without a return to fighting.

The British Government have identified five vital steps for that to happen: a political horizon that provides a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution; forming a new Palestinian Government for the west bank and Gaza, accompanied by an international support package; removing Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel; the release of all Israeli hostages; and key Hamas leaders agreeing to leave Gaza. All those things are intricately linked, and we cannot secure one without all the others. There are also many other elements to consider, such as Arab-Israeli normalisation, security guarantees, and financing the rebuilding of Gaza, but we need to generate momentum now towards a permanent peace. That is why pushing for a pause now is so important, and why we need a Contact Group meeting, bringing together the key players as soon as possible.

I will now turn to the desperate humanitarian situation. The Government are focused on practical solutions to get aid into Gaza. We have trebled our aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 7 October, committing £60 million this financial year. In Israel, the Foreign Secretary pressed for changes to allow unhindered humanitarian access, such as opening more crossing points for longer and permitting deliveries via Ashdod port. He announced work with Qatar to get more aid into Gaza, with our joint consignment containing 17 tonnes of family-sized tents being flown last Thursday. Earlier this month, Royal Fleet Auxiliary Lyme Bay delivered 87 tonnes of aid into Port Said. Crucially, we are supporting the United Nations World Food Programme to deliver a new humanitarian land corridor from Jordan into Gaza, which has already delivered over 1,000 tonnes of aid into Gaza. We know the desperate plight of civilians caught up in this and the suffering they are going through, and we will continue to do all we can with our partners to save lives.

I turn to the ICJ ruling and allegations against UNRWA. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that we had considerable concerns about South Africa’s decision to bring this case. Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas, and we do not believe that Israel’s actions in Gaza can be described as a genocide. Of course, we respect the role and independence of the ICJ, and the Court has now reached a decision on provisional measures. It called for increased aid into Gaza, and measures to ensure basic services, as we have been calling for. It has ordered Israel to preserve evidence relating to allegations of genocide, reporting to the Court on progress within one month. It has also ordered the immediate release of all hostages, and reminded all parties to the conflict that they are bound by international humanitarian law. Those are points that we have been pressing consistently, and we will continue to press them after the Court’s decision. For our part, Britain continues to engage closely with the Israeli Government on the conduct of their military campaign in Gaza. We have said that they must take greater care to avoid harming civilians and civilian infrastructure.

Finally, I turn to the very serious allegations about UNRWA first publicised last week, with further media reporting over the weekend. The agency is critical to delivering humanitarian assistance into Gaza and across the region. It plays a stabilising role at a time when we need focus on de-escalating tensions. The UK is a long-standing donor to UNRWA, as are our closest partners, notably the United States. Since 7 October, we have allocated a further £16 million to it as part of our response to the crisis. UNRWA’s 13,000 staff in Gaza continue their working at great personal risk in the most dangerous circumstances: 152 UNRWA staff members have lost their lives.

The UK is however appalled by allegations that any agency staff were involved in the 7 October atrocities. We welcome the swift action that UNRWA has taken to terminate contracts while it launches an immediate investigation. We and several partners are temporarily pausing future funding until we have reviewed these investigations. We continue to fund vital aid delivery through multiple other partners, including other UN agencies and international and British non-governmental organisations.

This week, the Government’s engagement continues. The Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad will again travel to the region. I am travelling to Qatar next week. We will continue to drive progress towards a lasting solution. As the Government have said, it is only when the prize of peace is more attractive than the potential benefit of continued conflict that there will be the chance of a better future. The time to start is now.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. Last week, the International Court of Justice made an interim ruling under the genocide convention on the situation in Gaza. It was profoundly serious. The ICJ’s interim ruling does not give a verdict on the case, but it sets out urgent provisional measures.

Labour has been clear that Israel must comply with the orders in the ruling in full, and Hamas terrorists must release all the hostages immediately, but I note that the missing Foreign Secretary made no statement. The only response that appeared was from a nameless spokesperson the day after the judgment. It claimed that the Government respect the role and independence of the ICJ, but stated that they had

“considerable concerns about this case”.

Will the Minister give me a clear answer? Do the Government accept the Court’s authority or not? Do they believe that the ruling should be implemented in full? If not, which orders do they disagree with?

While the Government prevaricate, Labour is clear that international law must be upheld, the independence of international courts must be respected and all sides must be accountable for their actions. That is why we will press for all the orders to be implemented alongside an immediate humanitarian truce and a sustainable ceasefire. The dire situation in Gaza must not continue. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of negotiations to secure a truce that will lead to civilians being protected, the immediate release of all hostages and a humanitarian surge in Gaza?

I repeat that aid getting into Gaza must surge, not stop. The allegations that a number of UNRWA employees were involved in the appalling 7 October terror attacks appalled the whole House. Anyone involved should be held to account by the force of the law. It is right that UNRWA has responded quickly by terminating contracts of staff allegedly involved and launching an investigation. Meanwhile, though, the humanitarian emergency in Gaza cannot wait. Twenty-five thousand people are dead, including thousands of women and children, 85% of the population are displaced and millions face the risk of famine. Will the Minister confirm that existing UK aid will continue to flow into Gaza so that current operations can continue? Will he outline a clear and fast path for future funding to return? We cannot let innocent Palestinians lose lifesaving aid because of Hamas terrorists.

Meanwhile, there continues to be a dangerous escalation across the middle east. We totally deplore the attacks on US soldiers. We offer our deep sympathies for those who have lost their lives or have been injured in the attack, as well as to their families. We stand with our US allies at this time of grief. The attacks are totally unjustifiable and raise tensions at an already dangerous time in the region. Iran must cease these attacks and de-escalate immediately. Labour has long recognised the dangers posed by Iran and its proxies. We have supported sanctions against Iran and have said for more than a year that, in government, Labour would proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, either through existing processes or a new mechanism to tackle hostile state actors. What will it take for the Government to finally act?

On behalf of our brave military families who sacrifice so much every day to keep us safe, will the Minister outline what his Government are doing to boost protection for the 2,500 troops stationed across the middle east? I welcome the Government’s efforts towards a permanent peace. The situation in the middle east cannot be more serious. I must note that the Development Minister—as capable as he is—is not the main decision maker in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. When will the Foreign Secretary finally come to this House to answer questions at this most dangerous of times?

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his comments, and I will try to address them all. Let me start by thanking him for his comment about British troops who are deployed in the region, particularly our naval personnel who have been on the frontline in recent days and weeks. I agree that their safety is a paramount duty of the Government, and he may rest assured that we take that extremely seriously.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about my noble friend the Foreign Secretary. He will have seen that over the past week the Foreign Secretary has taken a leading international role in the region to try to move many agendas forward. In my statement I set out what the Foreign Secretary was doing. He has made it clear that he will be ever present and able to answer questions from Members of this House, and the right hon. Gentleman may rest upon that.

Thirdly, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the rising tensions in the region and the importance of de-escalating. He asked me, once again, about the IRGC. His points are noted, but I cannot comment on that on the Floor of the House, as he will understand. He talked about the importance of getting aid back into Gaza. All our efforts are set on that. He talked about the role of UNWRA; I talked to Philippe Lazzarini, the head of UNWRA, about two hours ago, to check its critical assets in Gaza—whether warehouses, vehicles or stores—without which no aid can get in. We all understand that they are essential for aid delivery, but the right hon. Gentleman will equally reflect that, given the very serious nature of the allegations, it is essential that the Government pause to ensure that they cannot happen again.

Finally, on the ICJ, we welcome the Court’s call for the immediate release of hostages and the need to get more aid into Gaza. We are clear that an immediate pause is necessary to get the aid in and the hostages out. On the wider issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised, we regularly call on Israel to uphold its obligations under international humanitarian law, and we will continue to do so.

I welcome the update from the deputy Foreign Secretary about the Contact Group and progress being made. However, I am concerned that on 18 January in Al-Mawasi, a supposed safe zone in Gaza, the UK charity Medical Aid for Palestinians and the International Rescue Committee had their compound bombed by an airstrike from an F-16 jet. Thankfully, the four British doctors living there were only injured, although that itself is a cause for concern. A month before that, on 22 December, it was confirmed via UK defence channels that the IDF had logged the co-ordinates of the humanitarian base and de-conflicted it, marking it as a protected sensitive and humanitarian site. I am gravely concerned that the airstrike still took place. Will my right hon. Friend please share with the House what investigation is being conducted, what the IDF’s response has been and whether His Majesty’s Government have seen the targeting permissions for that airstrike?

I raised with UNRWA the concerns of many colleagues back in November about whether it was doing enough security checks on staff. Is the goal of pausing aid essentially to force it to get its house in order? Is that what we are trying to achieve?

The ICJ’s ruling was quite clear: Israel does have a right to self-defence, but it is not limitless. What are the Government doing to ensure that we are fully in line with the ruling and the six conditions placed on Israel by the ICJ?

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for her comments. On the latter point, as I have said, we continually remind the Israeli Government of their duties under international humanitarian law. The bombing of the compound is an extremely serious matter, which, as she rightly said, needed to be raised at the highest level. It was raised by the Foreign Secretary in his meetings in Israel last week and, as soon as was practical after the details got out, our ambassador in Tel Aviv raised it as well.

On UNRWA, my hon. Friend rightly refers to the fact that the assets it had, which I described in my response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, are vital for the delivery of aid. The inquiry would normally have been carried out by UNRWA, but it will instead be carried out by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, which will conduct an immediate inquiry and report to the Secretary-General. We will obviously look very carefully at what it says.