Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 1 February 2024

House of Commons

Thursday 1 February 2024

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Animal Welfare Standards: Imports and Exports

We are committed to maintaining high animal welfare and food standards. Since leaving the EU, we have put in place strong controls on imports, and we are using Brexit freedoms to strengthen animal welfare standards even further by banning the export of live animals for slaughter. [Interruption.]

Order. Can I say to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) that we are in the middle of a question, and he has just walked right in front of the Member asking it?

Yesterday, the UK Government implemented a border target operating model in which a veterinarian must provide a health certificate for meat imports from the EU. Meanwhile, the UK-Australia free trade agreement, which came into effect six months ago, is likely to lead to increased imports of low-cost products produced in Australia using pesticides that are not permitted in the UK and in the absence of veterinary checks. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Australia has lower welfare standards in many sectors, such as eggs, pigmeat production and chicken. Does the Secretary of State accept that this asymmetry on standards of animal welfare is incoherent and poses a significant risk of contaminating the food chain with banned pesticides?

The hon. Gentleman is mixing up two issues. He mentioned Australia, and specifically eggs. If he actually looked at the agreement with Australia, he would see that eggs are excluded, as are pork and poultry. He is mixing that up with the issue of food standards for imports from Europe. Of course, if we did what his party would advocate and were still in the EU, there would be no checks at all.

This week, Ian Perks, a constituent of mine, had his entire shipment seized in France by over-zealous French officials because he missed out a single word on the export health certificate. Can the Secretary of State please reassure me that we will find arbitration methods to speed up the process of challenging these completely ridiculous situations?

I know my hon. Friend champions very strongly the farming and food sector in his constituency, and that he has raised this issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, who is actively engaged on it. Of course, a proportionate approach should always be taken on these issues.

Food Sector: Profits

2. Whether his Department is taking steps to help ensure profits in the food sector are fairly distributed. (901269)

Powers in the Agriculture Act 2020 allow us to introduce statutory codes of practice to improve market transparency and ensure fairness in the supply chain. We will use these powers whenever we find clear evidence of unfair practices, so that all farmers get a fair price for their products.

When will the Minister wake up to the fact that, since Brexit, food prices have rocketed? My constituents cannot afford to buy staple foods. Is it not the truth that farmers are struggling? They are getting almost nothing for their milk, their potatoes and the ordinary things that men and women buy in this country. Where is the money from these higher prices going, because it is not to the farmers?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman where the higher prices are: they are in France and Germany. If we look at the value of a basket of goods, we see that in the UK they are lower than they are in the European Union. If we had followed his model or his advice, we would still be in the EU. Our retailers, our farmers and our processors are working together, and we want to see fairness in the supply chain. We want fairness for the consumer, and also for the farmer, the retailer and the processor.

Ynys Môn farmers and the farming community are important to food production, and their profits are vital to our Anglesey island economy. Does the Minister agree with Aled Jones, the president of National Farmers Union Cymru, that Welsh Government sustainable farming schemes will have “damaging consequences”, including the potential loss of 5,500 jobs in the sector?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for how she campaigns on behalf of her constituents. I know that Welsh farmers are very concerned about the Welsh Government’s approach to Welsh agriculture. Here in England, we are trying to support farmers in producing top-quality food and looking after the environment, and I think the Welsh Government need to reflect on how they should influence their farmers to do exactly the same.


I know what a blight litter and fly-tipping can be on local communities, which is why we have provided nearly £1 million to help councils purchase new bins and almost £1.2 million to combat fly-tipping, while a further £1 million will be awarded in the spring. We have more than doubled the maximum fines that councils can issue, with all income from fly-tipping fines to be reinvested in enforcement and cleaning up our streets from April, to ensure that councils can invest in cracking down on crime.

My constituents’ anger and frustration with litter and fly-tipping has grown as £390 million-worth of Government cuts to Newcastle City Council’s budget has impacted on services. Children in particular complain to me about having to play in rubbish. My 15-point plan for rubbish sets out some of the additional powers councils need to address the scourge. Will the Minister meet me to discuss it, and will he back Labour’s plan for fixed penalty notices for fly-tippers?

This Government are taking tough action on fly-tipping, which is why we have specifically allowed councils to collect those fines and ringfence them for prosecution and cleaning up the streets. It is important to note that it is Conservative councils that are going above and beyond in dealing with the issue; Labour councils are three times worse than Conservative councils at dealing with fly-tipping crime.

Residents living in Cobham Road, Friar Park, in my constituency have recently experienced fly-tipping in the alleyway behind their properties. Despite this being reported by councillors four months ago, Sandwell Council has still not removed that rubbish. Apart from telling my constituents to vote Conservative in May, what further steps can the Minister take to ensure that councils fulfil their duty to remove rubbish quickly? My constituents in West Bromwich East deserve better.

I am disappointed to hear once again about the fly-tipping that my hon. Friend’s constituents are experiencing for the first time in Friar Park. We are giving councils extra powers to crack down on fly-tipping, but of course it is up to councils to use the powers we are giving them, and it is important to note that the Labour administration at Sandwell Council is once again the worst performing council in the country, with zero prosecutions for fly-tipping last year. That is despite this Conservative Government raising fixed penalty notices for fly-tipping from £400 to £1,000, and the Government enabling those councils—

Hounslow Borough is plagued by fly-tipping. Despite the council using all the powers it can to address the problem, spending large amounts of money to do so, and having a good rate of recycling, fly-tipping continues. What is the Government’s timetable for responding to the Public Accounts Committee report on the Government’s programme for waste reforms?

We are giving councils more powers than ever before to deal with fly-tipping. We have raised the minimum penalty fine from £400 to £1,000, and are allowing councils to ringfence that money for prosecutions and cleaning up their streets. It is disappointing to see from the stats that Labour councils are not using the powers we are giving them as much as they should.

The penalties are insufficient. If offenders were garrotted with their own intestines, there would be fewer of them.

It is important to note that councils can use the power that we are giving them to apply increased penalty fines of £1,000. The Government want those penalties to be used, so that we can drive down fly- tipping in all council areas.

Horticultural Peat

This Government are absolutely clear about the need to end the use of peat products in horticulture in England. The use of peat has halved since we signalled that in 2020, and in August 2022 we announced that we would ban the sale of peat for use in amateur gardening. We remain committed to legislating for that when parliamentary time allows. In the meantime, we are continuing to work with the industry to explore ways to help it transition completely to peat-free working.

UK peatlands store over 3 billion tonnes of carbon, which is more than all the forests in the UK, France and Germany combined. The Government were right to bring in proposals for a ban, but that was back in 2022 and we have had no primary legislation yet. The Royal Horticultural Society, which is committed to being 100% peat-free, says that 40% of the industry is waiting for the legislation, so it can get on with a ban across the whole sector. The industry wants to do it, but it needs the legislation urgently.

I too have met the RHS, and went to see its wonderful experiments on peat-free products very recently, some of which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs put money into. This Government are committed to ending the use of peat in horticulture in England, and we will legislate as soon as parliamentary time allows. I can assure my hon. Friend that in the meantime we are working closely with those who want peat-free mediums, as well as the businesses supplying those growing mediums. A wide variety of work is going on, including research and experiments. As I have said, peat use has halved, and my hon. Friend might be interested to know that the Forestry Commission promises to go peat free—

I thank the Minister for that very long response. Peatlands in Northern Ireland are extremely important. They absorb water and moisture and improve the habitat. This question is as important in this House as it is to us in Northern Ireland. Given that the Northern Ireland Assembly will hopefully be up and running again, will the Minister have discussions with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, to ensure that we can work together for the betterment of all?

Peatlands are such an important habitat, so it is important that we work together. That is why we are putting huge amounts of money into restoring peatlands in the uplands and the lowlands, and we have just increased our sustainable farming incentive payments for that. Farmers can get more than £900 a hectare to start to re-wet peat.

I agree entirely with what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said. We welcome the Government’s intentions on peatland, but the idea that this Government, after 14 years, is so fizzing with new ideas that they do not quite have the parliamentary time to get on with acting on those intentions is, candidly, laughable. Will the Minister tell us what is actually happening? We were expecting legislation in this year’s King’s Speech, but it is not there. There is an urgent need for it, and it is supported by industry. Will the Government just get on with implementing one of the few popular policies they have left?

The hon. Gentleman should look at what we are doing on peatland; I have just mentioned it. There is all the work to restore peatlands, both upland and lowland, and all the work on pilot projects so that farmers can transition to new crops to grow on peatland. We have committed to banning the use of peat when parliamentary time allows.

Dog Attacks

We have taken quick and decisive action following the concerning rise in fatalities; there have been nine recent fatalities. We have now seen 30,000 dog owners registered as part of the balanced approach we are taking.

Following the ban on XL bully dogs, owners will have applied for a certificate of exemption, so that they can keep their dog, and as part of that, the dog has to be neutered. The British Veterinary Association has put forward a prudent neutering suggestion: given the evidence that neutering large-breed dogs before they are 18 months old can increase the risk of developmental orthopaedic disorders and other medical conditions, will the Government take the reasonable, small step of extending the neutering deadline to the end of June 2025 for those dogs under seven months of age at 31 January 2024?

Given my hon. Friend’s expertise on this issue as Parliament’s only vet, I listen closely to what he proposes. As he knows, neutering is a necessary population control, and we have already responded to the greater risks to dogs of a young age by taking action to extend the deadline. I am happy to take away the proposal that he raises and look at the issue again.

The deadline for registering XL bullies was 12 o’clock yesterday. I have been contacted by a constituent who missed the deadline for financial and personal health reasons. Many people up and down the country will genuinely have not been able to meet the deadline. According to the legislation, they could face up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine and the destruction of that XL bully pet. Can the Secretary of State advise me what steps people in that position—people who genuinely wanted to register—might take to remedy this awful position?

Across the House, we all want to ensure that a proportionate approach is taken, and that people register as quickly as possible. We all see the risks, in terms of the harm and the attacks that the House has been united in addressing. I am happy to look at any specific constituency case that the hon. Gentleman raises, but the clear message is that people need to register as quickly as possible.

Environmental Land Management Schemes

This year, we are increasing payment rates under environmental land management schemes, through a 10% average uplift, and we are adding about 50 new actions, so that farmers can access the most comprehensive offer yet. The sustainable farming incentive and countryside stewardship mid-tier application process will be streamlined, making it easier for schemes to slot into farm businesses.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Farming Minister for meeting my farmers in Wasdale last year. I am sure that sure the journey through the English Lake district was inspiration to provide those payments for stone walls.

I have continued that conversation in a succession of farming policy information suppers. There is a keen desire among farmers to take advantage of ELMs; what they are overwhelmingly asking for, though, is clarity about what to go for and when to go for it to achieve the most successful, sustainable and profitable farm business.

My hon. Friend is truly privileged to represent such a beautiful part of England. We are collaborating with stakeholders to ensure that our schemes work for them. We regularly communicate with them through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affair’s farming blog, by meeting them at trade shows, through ministerial visits, and through stakeholder organisations such as the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Tenant Farmers Association. We are also providing free business support to farmers and land managers in England through the future farming resilience fund. Grants and schemes for farmers are published through our single funding page.

Last week’s report from the Government’s environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, was a damning indictment of the Government’s record. It said they were “largely off track”, with just four of the 40 targets being achieved. When it comes to the environmental land management schemes, can the Minister tell the House just how much environmental improvement they have helped farmers to deliver so far?

I think that two months into a 25-year plan is probably too soon to judge that plan. We are making huge strides with our stakeholders and farmers, who are working up and down the country to improve the environment. They have spent generations creating that environment. We should celebrate what they have achieved, and we should encourage them to do more. That is what the sustainable farming incentive is designed to do, and what the scheme is delivering.

The Minister doesn’t know, does he? The Government are spending large amounts of public money, but they did not set up a system to measure it. The new Secretary of State is generally on the money, so I am sure he has asked this question: what we are getting for the money? Let me try a simpler version of the question. With ELMs so far, has there been environmental improvement or environmental degradation, or is it simply “Don’t know”?

These things are actually quite easy to see and to measure. If we look at the hedgerows planted in England in the last decade, we see that thousands of kilometres of hedgerow have been planted. Large areas are being dedicated to biodiversity and creating food for wild bird populations. That is what the SFI is delivering; it is there to see. All the hon. Member needs to do is get out of Cambridgeshire and look at some of those farms.

Windsor Framework: Horticulture

8. Whether he has had recent discussions with horticultural businesses on the operation of the Windsor framework. (901275)

DEFRA officials met Kings Seeds on 19 January. The Department regularly meets a range of businesses, including through the working group established with the Horticultural Trades Association, which met most recently on 18 January.

The Minister will know that Kings Seeds is what is known as a well established local business, having been based in Kelvedon since 1888. It trades in horticultural seeds and is known for its sweet peas, but as he will be aware, it cannot send its products to Northern Ireland, which it says is because of barriers related to the Windsor framework. Will he clarify whether the announcements made earlier this week—we will discuss the statutory instruments relating to them later today—will resolve the issue? If not, will he work with me and teams across Government to ensure that we deal with the issue? Perhaps he would like to come to Kelvedon to meet the company.

As I said, DEFRA officials met Kings Seeds on 19 January. I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend and the company to discuss its concerns and see how we can support it in all its excellent work in her constituency.

We appreciate the concerns of Kings Seeds. We are inviting it to the new horticulture working group announced in yesterday’s Command Paper, along with industry representatives. The Government will ask the group to address the movement of seeds to consumers in Northern Ireland as a priority. I look forward to hearing its recommendations.

I apologise for my earlier misdemeanour, Mr Speaker.

Now that we have significant progress towards the restoration of devolution, will the Minister agree to work with DUP Members and his ministerial colleagues to ensure that issues such as the horticultural one continue to be resolved, so that we have maximum efficiency across the North channel?

I am delighted to work with the hon. Gentleman. We have a track record of working with our DUP friends to solve the challenges that we face. That conversation can continue, and I look forward to working with him to continue to solve those challenges.

Biodiversity Loss

This Government have created a whole framework for restoring nature through our legally binding Environment Act 2021 targets, which include our world-leading commitment to halt the decline of species by 2030. We are accelerating action towards that through our environmental improvement plan. It is a shame I was not asked about this by the shadow Minister, but we have restored an area of wildlife habitats the size of Dorset, we have a network of marine protected areas, 5 million trees were planted last year, we have 55-plus landscape—

Order. It was the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) who asked the question. Let’s not have a personal battle across the Chamber.

Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner is home to many incredibly important sites for biodiversity, as are many of our London suburbs. Does my hon. Friend agree that the new Riverside park delivered by Harrow council in partnership with the Hatch End Association is a good example of projects that support biodiversity in our suburbs?

My hon. Friend is a great champion for his local area. He is absolutely right; we are working with a range of local partners and people to put nature at the heart of what we do. I cannot commend Harrow council and the Hatch End Association enough for their work—they are putting in an apple orchard, wetlands and wildflower meadows, which are a superb addition to his already beautiful constituency.

Environmentalists such as those at Chester zoo were shocked to see that the Government have ignored the advice of their own experts and authorised the use of neonicotinoid pesticides for the fourth year in a row. Will the Minister tell me how that is line with our national and international obligations to reduce the overall risk from pesticides, and how it reduces our biodiversity loss?

The hon. Lady will know from reading the details of the derogation that those pesticides will be used only if they hit the criterion; in many cases, they never do.

Environment Agency Funding

10. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of Environment Agency funding levels in the context of recent storms. (901277)

The Environment Agency’s budget this year is £1.96 billion, so around £2 billion, which is an increase of more than £700 million since 2015. We closely monitor the quantum and how we ensure we get value for money.

Following the 2014 flooding, the current Foreign Secretary—the then Prime Minister—stated that money was no object as he agreed a £100 million plan to protect the Somerset levels. Ten years on, we are experiencing devastating floods with increased regularity. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to protect homes in Somerset from flooding and to ensure that floodwater is efficiently and effectively pumped away from farmland?

The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. Flooding is devastating to homeowners, businesses and farmers. That is why in her part of the country we set up the Somerset Rivers Authority partnership and secured an extra £80 million of targeted funding for Somerset. That targeted action is enabling the area to be more resilient, but there is further work to do.

Severe winter storms drive many seabirds inland, and most leave after a few days, but not cormorants. The number of cormorants roosting permanently inland has risen from 4,000 30 years ago to about 65,000 now. They are having a huge impact on freshwater silver fish. Will the Secretary of State meet me and representatives of the Angling Trust, an organisation I used to chair, and other interested parties to discuss this issue?

It is always a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend. He mentioned the important issue of seabirds. He will have noticed yesterday’s announcement of two major positive steps. The No. 1 issue of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for the last 25 years has been tightening up the overfishing of sand eels. We are closing English waters to sand eel fishing, which is hugely important to seabirds, particularly the puffin. Secondly, we announced 13 marine designated areas—to put that into context, that is an area equivalent to the size of Suffolk. It is a huge step forward in protecting seabirds, on which the UK has a leading position globally.

I recently met with farmer Henry Ward, who showed me the extensive and damaging flooding right across his farmland caused by two breaches in the river after a storm. The Environment Agency is unable to tell him when it will have the resources to repair those breaches. This means that Henry not only lost all the crop that was flooded, but will be unable to plant a new crop in spring. He is not the only farmer to be impacted. When will the Government realise that their failure to be decisive and get ahead of the problem of weak defences is costing farmers their livelihoods and—

Order. We only get until 10 o’clock—to take advantage is just not fair. We must have briefer questions from the Front Bench.

Not only has the water Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), been decisive; he has met the individual farmer the hon. Lady mentions on his farm. We are taking action to look at how we can better empower the internal drainage boards—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady chunters from a sedentary position. I actually represent, in the fens, one of the areas where internal drainage boards are most important. I have worked with them for 14 years, and the ministerial team is working actively with them now.

Veterinary Medicines: Northern Ireland

11. Whether he has had recent discussions with his EU counterparts on access to veterinary medicines in Northern Ireland. (901278)

Arrangements are in place through to the end of 2025 to support the continuity of the supply of veterinary medicines into Northern Ireland. We are clear that we must also ensure a long-term solution to safeguard those supplies on an ongoing basis, and we will continue to engage with the EU on all aspects of the operation of the Windsor framework.

Continued restrictions to veterinary medicines remain a very real threat to local agriculture. The British Veterinary Association Northern Ireland Branch president has said that a serious risk is posed to public health and animal welfare if a permanent solution for access to veterinary medicines in Northern Ireland is not found. While the Command Paper signals a welcome focus on this issue, with a working group to deal with it, can the Minister confirm that the Government will act unilaterally by spring if it is not resolved?

We will continue to work with the EU to try to find a long-term solution. Of course, we have to find that solution. Those negotiations are ongoing, and I do not want to pre-empt any of those discussions from the Dispatch Box, but we do recognise that we need a long-term solution to solve this challenge.

Topical Questions

Since I last updated the House, the Government have been delivering on their plan to back British farmers. We are now seeing an average increase of 10% in our environmental farming payments so that farmers can protect our environment and continue to grow the food that we need. Recent storms have threatened the livelihoods of many farmers, which is why, alongside the wider flood recovery framework, I announced financial support of up to £25,000 for farmers who have suffered uninsurable damage to their land.

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of our environmental improvement plan; I will not repeat the announcements we touched on earlier, Mr Speaker, given your steer on brevity. Finally, it is worth reminding the House that we have passed Second Reading of the Pet Abduction Bill, which introduces stricter sentences for those who steal dogs and cats. Pet abduction causes huge trauma to families and to pets, and we are taking decisive action to address those crimes.

Flooding has caused repeated damage to homes across rural Fylde. Last week, I held a multi-agency meeting with Fylde’s flood authorities, which updated me on the work carried out since our initial meeting last July. From blocked culverts to overflows from highways and apparently insufficient drainage on newly built estates, the causes are wide-ranging. At the meeting’s conclusion, I asked the agencies to provide a written breakdown of their action plan. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the plan and how his Department can assist?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am familiar with the Fylde and the issues there. I am always happy to meet him to discuss the issues he mentions. I am in contact with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about new developments and some of the wider issues that my hon. Friend has been raising.

The UK ended the year as the only rich nation with food price inflation of more than 10%, and families buying food still face persistent price increases. New Brexit red tape affecting European food imports poses a further risk of rising inflation in the prices of items such as bread, milk and even baby formula. May I again ask the Secretary of State to commit himself to implementing food price controls if further Brexit red tape leads to the food price hikes that are being anticipated?

Such is the obsession with Brexit in the SNP that we hear no mention of the impact of the war in Ukraine, no mention of the farmers who are striking across the EU, and no recognition of the huge amount of work on supply chains that is being done by my right hon. Friend the Farming Minister. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman seems not to have noticed the rapid review of labelling that we are conducting, which is about empowering consumers and ensuring that the high animal welfare standards that we have in England are better reflected.

T3.   I am sure the Secretary of State has seen reports in Farmers Weekly that about a third of the UK wheat crop has either rotted in the ground because of the wet conditions, or was not drilled at all. Supplies of spring seed are very tight, with many varieties already sold out, and while it is possible for some farmers to use farm-saved seed, it is illegal for it to be traded between farms. Many farmers did not grow spring crops this year or, indeed, sell their crops at harvest. Is there a solution to the problem? (901290)

I am very alive to this matter, both because of the very good work that Farmers Weekly has done to highlight it and because my right hon. Friend, as Chair of the Select Committee, has discussed it with me and my right hon. Friend the Farming Minister, who is also discussing it with plant breeders. We need to look at what we can do constructively, working with them, to deal with what is an entirely legitimate issue.

T2.   According to the recent report from the Office for Environmental Protection, the Government are off track when it comes to hitting environmental targets, which include restoring our waterways to health. What will the Government do to get back on track? (901288)

As was mentioned earlier, that report was based on two months of data within a 25-year plan, and was therefore somewhat premature in its judgment. This is the first Government in the world to put legally binding targets to reverse nature decline into law. Yesterday, we marked the first anniversary of those targets at Kew, and set out further proposals which have already been touched on. We have also provided international leadership by putting nature at the heart of tackling climate change at COP26, which was strongly reflected at COP28.

T4. The Select Committee has been consistently holding water companies and regulators to account for the inexcusable levels of sewage being illegally dumped in our precious waterways, but more can be done. Does my right hon. Friend agree that given our plan for water, our record levels of investment in monitoring and improving water quality, and the unlimited fines imposed on water companies, while the Opposition parties have no affordable plan and just throw muck from the sidelines, it is this Government who are actually getting on with and dealing with the issue? (901291)

My hon. Friend is right in saying that we have a plan and that a great deal has been done. He is also right that more can be done, and I reassure the House that I am entirely committed to doing it. We will hold the water companies to account—that is my absolute intention.

Springwater park in my constituency suffers from regular flooding during storms, which causes landslip and movement approaching the highway. Unfortunately, it falls outside established funding pots from schemes such as Bellwin, so we keep being bounced between the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and DEFRA. Will the Minister meet me, along with representatives of Bury Council, to see what we can do to address the problem?

The Government are investing in ongoing projects in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, including the Radcliffe and Redvales flood risk management scheme, and we are doubling our investment in flood alleviation schemes from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion over the next six-year funding round. However, I am of course happy to meet him.

T5. My constituency is home to many international food and drink manufacturers, including General Mills and Coca-Cola, both of which are seeking to expand their operations here in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the work being done to help such manufacturers to expand and grow for the benefit of our local and national economies? (901293)

We have regular meetings with the food and drink sector to ensure that we are in tune with its concerns and aspirations. Those discussions will continue, and we will continue to support great businesses such as Coca-Cola in my hon. Friend’s constituency, support British jobs and generate benefit for the UK economy.

Towns and villages such as Maulden and Shefford in my constituency have seen their flood risk profile change dramatically over the years, partly owing to housing growth. How will the Minister ensure that funding for the Environment Agency and internal drainage boards adequately reflects the way in which that risk has evolved?

Improving our flood alleviation schemes and our flood resilience is incredibly important, which is why the Government are recognising the amount of investment we need to put into it. We are doubling that investment from £2.6 billion to £5.2 billion over the next six-year period. The sorts of schemes we are helping will assist projects across the country to deal with those problems.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that drift net fishing for bass is more sustainable, targeted and efficient than fishing with set nets? Will he reconsider the ban, which was introduced as a temporary measure, in order to allow those with an existing bass entitlement to undertake drift net fishing?

Bass stocks are still recovering from poor spawning periods and overfishing. The bass fisheries management plan commits to review existing commercial access, including gear types such as drift nets, which pose a higher risk to sensitive species and bass fishes. A careful balance must be struck between increasing fishing opportunities and protecting vulnerable bass stocks, but I assure my right hon. Friend that these matters will remain open.

Since April last year, thousands of homes in my constituency have suffered from a fly infestation assumed to originate from a recycling plant. Will the Minister meet me and the Environment Agency to get this resolved?

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to try to deal with these issues, because for this Government dealing with waste and recycling is incredibly important. If the challenges are having an impact on householders, we need to get on top of this, and I am to meet him to discuss it.

Walleys Quarry, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell), is stinking again, with monitoring stations showing high levels of hydrogen sulphide and with complaints soaring. The site is blighting my constituents too, and the Environment Agency now says the owner is no longer working towards compliance. It is long past time that the permit was revoked and the company prosecuted. Will the Minister come to Staffordshire to witness the stink and see the sorry sight for himself?

I always listen closely to your steer, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend raises an extremely important issue, which I know is very troubling to those affected. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore) is going there in the coming days, and I can assure her that this is being discussed and actively followed up.

Food price inflation remains twice as high as general inflation in the UK, and the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit warns that it could rise even higher next year. What assessment has the Secretary of State made, with his colleagues, of the impact of soaring food prices on those we represent?

Of course, we continue to monitor food price inflation and work with the sector to reduce it as much as possible. We co-operate with not only farmers, processors and retailers, but all those involved in the sector to try to make sure that we provide a reasonably priced food basket for our constituents. The good news is that the cost of our food basket in the UK is lower than that found in many parts of the European Union.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In response to Question 1, the Secretary of State attributed another party’s position on Europe to my party. The Alba party’s position on Europe is to opt for the European Free Trade Association, thus maintaining sovereignty over fisheries and farming. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State would correct the record.

Such is the confusion within the Scottish National party that I hope the House forgives me for the mistake. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has changed his party and now is an Alba Member. I am happy to correct the record.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like your advice on the scheduling of business today. A number of people—

Sorry, but that is not relevant to the questions we have just had. The only way the hon. Gentleman can raise that as a point of order is by doing it after we have done all the questions. We now have questions to the Attorney General.

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Fraud and Economic Crime: Prosecution

1. What steps she is taking to help ensure effective prosecution of perpetrators of fraud and economic crime. (901309)

4. What steps she is taking to help ensure effective prosecution of perpetrators of fraud and economic crime. (901312)

9. What recent steps her Department has taken to increase prosecution rates for fraud and economic crime. (901320)

The Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office play a crucial role in bringing economic criminals to justice. Indeed, this month the SFO charged two company directors with fraud in relation to a car lease scheme into which hundreds of British savers paid about £88 million.

The Horizon Post Office scandal has appalled the nation. Hundreds of sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted and convicted, and many were jailed, although they were entirely innocent of any fraud. On the other hand, covid-19 fraud is known and real. Estimates put it as high £16 billion, yet we have not clawed back a fraction of what has been stolen. Why were the innocent left to rot for so long, while the guilty go free to enjoy the fruits of their covid crime?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the appalling miscarriage of justice; I agree entirely with everything she said about Horizon and the Post Office. As she knows, steps are being taken to address that and work is ongoing. On covid crime, the Attorney General and I meet regularly with the Serious Fraud Office and the Crown Prosecution Service to press for action on whatever is the pressing issue of the day. The CPS has charged a number of individuals in relation to precisely the fraud activities she refers to.

Is the Solicitor General aware that the Home Affairs Committee is currently looking at the whole issue of fraud and finding a huge problem with everything from romance fraud to fraud financing terrorism? Clearly, there is an urgent need for much better joined-up working between agencies and information sharing in this country, as well as on the international front. What discussions and experience has he had on which nations prosecute fraud more effectively than we do in this country?

My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. I commend him for his work on the Home Affairs Committee and look forward to the results of that work, which we will consider carefully. The Attorney General and I meet regularly with the SFO and the CPS to assess best practice and to see where lessons may be learned, both internally and from abroad. Intelligence sharing goes on between the respective agencies in any event, and we will look at what lessons can be learned from best practice here and abroad to take forward the points he raises.

In the past five years, law enforcement agencies, including the CPS proceeds of crime unit, have confiscated £568 million from criminals. Those agencies get to keep a tiny percentage of recovered assets and virtually no fines to help them continue their work. Why are the Government enfeebling the very organisation it relies on to win the fight against economic crime? Why will they not adopt Labour’s invest-to-save model of enforcement?

I commend the work of the enforcement agencies, which have rightly cracked down on the fraudulent activity the hon. Gentleman refers to. He is right that the Government have tirelessly pursued criminals with a view to recouping money, to prevent those criminals from benefiting from their ill-gotten gains. Among a number of positive outcomes has been £105 million being returned to victims.

I thank the Solicitor General for providing detail about what is happening, but, since the pandemic, fraud has cost the public purse more than £21 billion, much of that related to the Government’s own schemes. Public resentment is understandable, because, at the same time, prosecution for fraud and money laundering has gone down by more than 50% since 2010. Does the Solicitor General agree that the time has come for more action and that we should seriously consider an economic crime fighting fund to reinvest seized assets and profits into improving law enforcement against fraud?

The hon. Lady is right that this is matter of huge public concern, and understandably so. The Government worked very hard during the pandemic to ensure that support was provided, but clearly where people have taken advantage of a system, that must be pursued. That is why we are looking at the fraud strategy, for example, and the economic crime plan part 2. We will continue to drive forward to see what further action can be taken.

Every day, older and vulnerable people are preyed upon by fraudsters and scammers, be it online, by phone or on the doorstep. Will my hon. Friend reassure my constituents and the country that the Conservative Government, the police and the criminal justice system will do all they can to bring those immoral criminals to justice?

Yes, I can. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this, as people being taken advantage of is one of the great issues of our age. It happens to members of society of all kinds, but particularly to those who are elderly and vulnerable. Work continues on a number of sector charters, which have been successful in bringing forward positive outcomes. For example, 870 million scam texts have been blocked. We have taken forward work on the Online Safety Act 2023, as well as the charters I referred to, but I assure my hon. Friend we will continue to see what more can be done.

It is two years since the former anti-fraud Minister, Lord Agnew, resigned in embarrassment over the Government’s oversight of covid business loan schemes, describing it as “nothing less than woeful”. Can the Solicitor General tell us, in the past two years, how much of the missing billions, seemingly written off by the Prime Minister as Chancellor, has been recovered and what the Government are doing now to chase down the covid crooks?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to this. The public quite rightly expect the money that the Government advanced in good faith to help those who were challenged during the pandemic not to be the victim of fraudulent activity. Intelligence sharing goes on between the Serious Fraud Office, which, as he knows, prosecutes the most serious cases, and the Crown Prosecution Service, which has already charged a number of individuals. We will continue to do that both from our perspective and with the law enforcement agencies to make sure that the crooks to whom he refers are pursued.

Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill: ECHR

2. What recent assessment she has made of the compatibility of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill with the European convention on human rights. (901310)

I would like to assure the House that the Government respect their international obligations. The Law Officers convention prevents me from disclosing outside Government whether I have given advice or even what the context of any such advice might be. The Bill to which the hon. Gentleman refers is currently in the other place, and will, I am sure, be discussed very fully there.

Just this week, we heard media reports that four Rwandans had been granted refugee status in the UK in the past four months, citing well- founded fears of persecution. At the same time, the Government would like us to accept that Rwanda is a safe country, despite the Home Office accepting that those individuals face a real threat of persecution. Can the Attorney General tell us how we can send asylum seekers to Rwanda under those circumstances?

We are asking Parliament to look at the matter afresh—not just to look at the facts as they were before the Supreme Court, but to look at new circumstances. Evidence was published on 11 January to assist Parliament in those deliberations. We have assurances from the Government of Rwanda that the implementation of all measures within the treaty will be expedited, and we will ratify the treaty when we are ready to do so.

Journalists and bloggers who criticise the Government are arrested, threatened and put on trial, with allegations of torture, disappearances and suspicious deaths. Those are just some of the issues that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have reported on in Rwanda. When asking Parliament to disregard established legal principles such as the burden of proof and the need for evidence, is the Attorney General genuinely comfortable in passing the Rwanda Bill?

It is constitutionally proper for Parliament to legislate in response to a decision of the Supreme Court. We do it all the time in the finance and tax space. Lord Reed was careful to point out to the Constitution Committee in the other House that we did it following the Burmah oil case in the War Damage Act 1965. In this case, I urge the hon. Lady to look hard at the evidence that the Government put before the House on 11 January. If the Bill passes, everyone must treat Rwanda as generally safe for the transfer of individuals under the treaty.

Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecution

3. What steps she is taking to help increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (901311)

8. What steps she is taking to help increase prosecution rates for cases relating to violence against women and girls. (901319)

We are steadily increasing the number of rape cases sent to the Crown court. We are preparing to launch a joint justice plan, which will transform how the police and the Crown Prosecution Service investigate and prosecute domestic abuse cases.

I will welcome my friend Andriy Kostin, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, who is not quite here yet because his plane has not arrived, in my office after questions. The relevance of that is that a team of UK experts is supporting his office to investigate and prosecute cases of conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine.

Last July, the then Solicitor General, the hon. and learned Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), told the House, in a written answer to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon):

“A new VAWG strategy for 2023-2025 is being developed for publication later this year.”

That year has come and gone, as has that Solicitor General, so can the Attorney General tell us the status of the strategy and its content, who the Government are consulting, and when it will be published?

The hon. Lady takes a long-term interest in these affairs, and she I have discussed them for many years. I reassure her that a great deal of work has been done. The work in the rape sphere, which I referenced earlier, is very commendable. After having a really difficult time in prosecuting rapes for many years, we are back up to 2016 levels, and indeed are exceeding them. The joint justice plan, which will build on the rape work in the domestic abuse sphere, will be ready very shortly—we are saying “in the spring”, but I think she will have to wait only a few weeks.

The Home Affairs Committee carried out an inquiry into the investigation and prosecution of rape. One of our very clear recommendations was that police forces need to have specialist units to investigate rape for cases to proceed to the CPS, and hopefully to court. We know that we get better decision making and communication with victims and the CPS if we have those specialist officers. Is the Attorney General as surprised as I am that not all police forces have those specialist units to deal with rape and sexual assaults?

The right hon. Lady, who does sterling work on the Home Affairs Committee, knows that the police are not directly under my supervision, but I am proud to talk about the very close co-operation between the police and CPS specialists in this field, which has really helped, together with some great granularity and pushing on the statistics to drive up rape prosecutions. She will be glad to know that in her area of Yorkshire and Humberside the number of suspects charged with rape has increased significantly over the last year.

My Newton Aycliffe constituent Zoey McGill suffered from appalling knife crime when her son Jack Woodley was killed in 2021. She is now suffering again, as one of the perpetrators is using social media from custody to glorify himself. Does the Attorney General agree that such actions should be prosecuted, and that the consequences should be publicised to ensure that they become a deterrent against others glorifying themselves from our prisons?

My hon. Friend highlights a horrific case. That is why it is so important that we crack down on mobile phone use, and indeed mobile phone existence, within prisons. The Government have put in £100 million to ensure that prisons have airport-style security, to ensure that it is much more difficult for phones to get in. Incidents such as he raises are very serious, and I commend him for doing so, as well as his constituent Zoey and The Northern Echo, which I understand has been campaigning on the issue.

Prosecution of Fraud: Covid-19

5. How many prosecutions have been brought by the Serious Fraud Office for cases of fraud connected with covid-19 (a) contracts and (b) financial support schemes. (901315)

The Serious Fraud Office has brought no prosecutions for cases of fraud connected with covid-19. The SFO deals only with the most complex and serious economic crime, so the vast majority of such cases would not fall within its remit. The SFO works closely with other law enforcement agencies to ensure that intelligence is shared and the investigations are handled by the most appropriate agency.

It is staggering to hear the Solicitor General refer to this as not serious, or imply that it is not serious. In 2023, the level of fraud reported by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in two covid-19 financial support schemes sat between £3.3 billion and £7.3 billion, with less than £1 billion being recovered. Considering that the UK Government have already written off an alarming £8.7 billion that they spent on protective equipment bought during the pandemic, will he commit to routinely publishing accounts including the number of prosecutions and the cost of recovery for covid-19 contracts and support schemes?

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands my point: the SFO deals with the most complex schemes. Not for a second would I have suggested that any such fraud is not serious—of course it is—but the vast majority of the crimes to which he alludes would be dealt with by the CPS. Indeed, the CPS has charged a number of individuals with precisely those sorts of crimes.

Director of Public Prosecutions: Priorities

6. What recent discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on his priorities for the Crown Prosecution Service. (901316)

I have regular meetings with the Director of Public Prosecutions. His priorities align closely with those of the Government—namely, tackling delays, combating violence against women and girls, enhancing our work with victims and driving improvement across the system.

It appears that almost every week on our streets we see hate-filled demonstrations with antisemitism rife, yet no action seems to be taken. The end result is that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) has announced his decision to leave this place because of antisemitism and the threats against his person. Will my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General take up the matter with the CPS, to ensure that that is the last such case and that antisemitism is prosecuted properly in the way it should be?

My hon. Friend raises an important and serious matter. I reassure him that I have been working closely with the CPS, which in turn is extremely close to the police, to deal with these very significant issues. The CPS has been embedded in the control rooms during the most serious of the marches that have taken place.

I also reassure my hon. Friend that a large number of prosecutions have already started. Most of the ones that have come to conclusion are necessarily guilty pleas, because prosecutions take time, but we all saw, sadly, a large uptick in that horrible crime after 7 October last year, and we are just starting to get to the phase when trials are beginning where people have not pleaded guilty. I hope he will take some reassurance from my answer and that he will come and see me so that I can talk him through some of the work we are doing.

Does the Attorney General agree that a key priority for the CPS must be fixing the flawed way that joint enterprise laws are used, and does she agree that no one should ever be convicted of a crime that they made no significant contribution to?

I know the hon. Lady is a long- time campaigner on joint enterprise, and I also know that the Lord Chancellor, my dear friend in this place, has also considered such matters very carefully.

Government: Rule of Law

7. What recent steps she has taken with Cabinet colleagues to ensure the rule of law is upheld within Government. (901317)

I have always been clear that the rule of law is fundamental to our constitution, and it is the duty of the Law Officers to uphold it. As I emphasised in my speech at the Institute for Government last summer and in my appearance before the House of Lords Constitution Committee, I take that duty very seriously indeed. I engage not only with colleagues across Government but with students and other young people, to ensure that the rule of law is protected not just now but for generations to come.

The Horizon scandal has raised many important legal questions, ranging from the reliance on flawed evidence to the slow pace of the justice system in correcting miscarriages of justice. Will the Attorney General now address the implications for the power of organisations such as the Post Office to pursue private prosecutions, and in particular what oversight the Crown Prosecution Service can or should have over the use of those powers?

I thank the hon. Lady for her serious question and would like her to rest assured that these matters are being considered very carefully within Government. The immediate priority is to take bold and novel action to right, in so far as we can, the wrongs that have come about through the Horizon scandal, but a slower-timed but nevertheless urgent piece of work is to make sure that private prosecutions are sufficiently scrutinised and inspected in future.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the leaking of Law Officer advice for political or any other purposes is not only a breach of the very important Law Officers’ convention respecting the confidentiality of legal advice, but damaging to the public interest and contrary to the rule of law?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a characteristically significant intervention. Having served as both Solicitor General and Attorney General, he will know very well the importance of the Law Officers’ convention to the working of Government. Legal professional privilege generally is a very important construct and something on which the client relationship relies. In Government it is, if anything, even more significant, and when Law Officers’ advice is leaked it has a chilling effect on our ability to provide free, frank and honest advice to the rest of Government. That is something I wholeheartedly deplore, and I agree with everything my right hon. and learned Friend said.

We have all read with deep concern last week’s interim ruling from the International Court of Justice regarding the situation in Gaza, and Labour is absolutely clear that Hamas must release all remaining hostages immediately, that Israel must comply with the ICJ’s orders in full, that the judgment of the Court must be treated with respect, and that all parties must comply with international law as part of an immediate humanitarian truce and a sustainable ceasefire. I ask the Attorney General, very simply: does she agree with me on all those points; and is it the official position of the Government to accept the authority of the Court in this matter and, even more importantly, to urge Israel also to accept the authority of the Court and to implement its orders in full as a matter of urgency?

The right hon. Lady is right to call for international humanitarian law to be respected and civilians to be protected in Gaza, and I join her in that call. We are deeply concerned about the impact of what is happening on the civilian population in Gaza; too many have been killed, and we want to see Israel take greater care to limit its operations to military targets. We regularly review Israel’s commitment to IHL, and I believe that we in this House all call for an immediate pause that will allow aid to get in and hostages to come out.

Afghan Relocations: Special Forces

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on Afghan relocation and assistance policy eligibility for Afghan special forces.

I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House on developments relating to the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme, and to answer the specific question raised by the hon. Gentleman in relation to former members of commando force 333 and Afghan territorial force 444.

Many colleagues across the House are passionate advocates for applicants to the ARAP scheme—whether they served shoulder to shoulder with them in Afghanistan, or represent applicants and their family members who are residents in their constituencies. We owe a debt of gratitude to those brave individuals who served for, with, or alongside our armed forces in support of the UK mission in Afghanistan. Defence is determined to honour the commitments we made under the ARAP scheme, which is why we have robust checks in place and regularly review processes and procedures.

Although many former members of the Afghan specialist units have been found eligible under ARAP and safely relocated to the UK with their families, a recent review of processes around eligibility decisions demonstrated instances of inconsistent application of the ARAP criteria in certain cases. The issue relates to a tranche of applications from former members of Afghan specialist units, including members of CF 333 and ATF 444—known as the Triples. Having identified this issue through internal processes, we must now take necessary steps to ensure that the criteria are applied appropriately to all those individuals.

As such, I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence will undertake a reassessment of all eligibility decisions made for applications with credible claims of links to the Afghan specialist units. The reassessment will be done by a team independent of the one that made the initial eligibility decisions on the applications. The team will review each case thoroughly and individually. A written ministerial statement to that effect was tabled this morning, and I commend it to colleagues. A further “Dear colleague” letter will follow by close of business tomorrow.

It is the case, however, that ARAP applications from this cohort present a unique set of challenges for eligibility decision making. Some served in their units more than two decades ago, and some while the Afghan state apparatus was still in its infancy or yet to come into existence all together. It is also the case that they reported directly into the Government of Afghanistan, meaning that we do not hold comprehensive employment or payment records in the same way as we do for other applicants.

I fully understand the depth of feeling that ARAP evokes across this place and beyond. I thank Members from across the House for their ongoing advocacy and support for ARAP. We have that same depth of feeling in the MOD and in Government, and we will now work quickly to make sure that the decisions are reviewed, and changed if that is necessary.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.

The Triples Afghan special forces, trained and funded by the UK, are some of the top targets for Taliban reprisals. Around 200 Triples face imminent deportation from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and at least six members of the Triples are reported to have been murdered by the Taliban since the withdrawal from Kabul. Ministers have allowed media speculation to build for almost a week before setting out to Parliament today the Government’s plan to U-turn and look again at the applications.

The Minister highlighted inconsistencies in processing the applications—failures, flaws. How was that allowed to happen on his watch? How long will the reviews take, and what new information will be factored in? Tragically, today’s decision could be too late for many. Does the Minister know how many of the Triples who were wrongly denied support have already been deported to Afghanistan, tortured or killed? What conversations has he had with Pakistan to halt deportations of those who could now be granted sanctuary? There is no time to waste.

The least the Triples deserve is clarity over ARAP policy, but for months a public spat has played out between the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and the Minister for Armed Forces. We should all remember that the people who matter here are those Afghans who have been left in limbo, fearing for their lives and their futures. That is why clarity matters. Britain’s moral duty to assist Afghans is felt most fiercely by those in the UK forces who served alongside them, many of whom sit on both sides of the House. British personnel who have offered references to former Triples say that they were never even contacted by the Ministry of Defence. Many of their ARAP applications were denied. Will such basic errors happen again, or will that be reviewed properly?

The British public do not understand why Afghan special forces personnel who served and fought alongside our troops and who are eligible for safety have not yet received sanctuary here. Will the Minister now sort this out?

I know that the hon. Gentleman, who has been advocating for some cases and is as passionate about the matter as anybody, will feel aggrieved, as will many colleagues around the House. The responsibility of any Minister is to own any failure of process that happens in their Department, and I accept that responsibility.

The reality is that these are very difficult decisions to make. The hon. Gentleman said that the Triples were funded by the UK Government. That is not entirely accurate; they were funded as a donor alongside many other donors, into the Government of Afghanistan, who funded the units. As he will well know from colleagues on his own Benches who commanded units that worked closely with the Triples, top-up payments were made in order to generate loyalty and, frankly, to avoid the Triples being poached by other coalition partners, which had similar forces of their own.

The records of those top-up payments were very ad hoc. I take my responsibilities for accuracy to the House seriously, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman in all seriousness that we have looked for employment records and none of those ad hoc records of additional payments is available to us. We have spoken to colleagues who have experience of these matters in the House and beyond, to ask for any records that they have, but even then a lot of the records produced are those that are put together by charities advocating for the Triples, rather than contemporary records of those top-up payments.

The reality is that whatever the challenges have been, some decisions were made in an inconsistent way. That is why they must be reviewed. We will aim to get the review done as quickly as possible—we anticipate that it will take around 12 weeks. Before that, we need to put in place the people who will do the review, who will be independent of everything that has gone before. In the first instance, it will be a review of the robustness of the decisions themselves, and where it finds that decisions were not robust, we will, of course, seek new information both from the applicant and from colleagues in the House who have advocated for them.

The shadow Minister makes some good points about what this means for people who are in Pakistan. It is impossible to say who, of those who were not already in the pipeline as approved applicants, has been deported. We do not track that, so I cannot answer his specific question but, of course, we will alert the Government of Pakistan to those who are included within the review, so that they can enjoy the same protection from deportation as those who have already been approved and are awaiting their onward move to the UK.

The shadow Minister necessarily points to the politics and the alleged disagreement among Conservative Members —that is the nature of his role—but I am simply not motivated by such things. The reality is that we are trying our best to bring as many people to the UK from Afghanistan as possible. Some decisions are relatively straightforward, because we hold the employment records, but others are far more complicated. Although there have undoubtedly been some decisions that are not robust and need to be reviewed, I put on record that the people involved in making those decisions, across the MOD, have been working their hardest and doing their best. I stand up for their service and for what they have done, and I take responsibility for their shortcomings.

I have been approached by people who were involved in training these soldiers—333, 444 and BOST 170—and they tell me that they are the most loyal, bravest and most effective soldiers who were operating in Afghanistan. As a result, they are the soldiers the Taliban feared the most, which I guess is why the Taliban have been executing them in front of their families whenever they catch them.

The Minister rightly says that we owe them a debt of gratitude, but this is more than that. It is a debt of honour. Can we ensure that, both in our administration and in our relationship with Pakistan, we do everything to deliver on that debt of honour as quickly as possible?

We certainly will. It is important to mention that the Government of Pakistan have often been the subject of questions in relation to ARAP over the past year or so. In my experience, they have been incredibly co-operative. We are hugely grateful to them for that.

The limit on the speed of flow is not any problem with the Government of Pakistan, but the challenge of getting people out of Afghanistan. The reality is that, no matter how many decisions we review and no matter how many additional people we add as eligible for the scheme, there is a limit to how fast we can move people over the border into Pakistan. That will take time.

I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for securing this urgent question.

The Department’s latest numbers show that 11,684 people have been granted entry to the UK, and that 6,377 have been given indefinite leave. What has happened to the remaining individuals? Are they still waiting for a decision? Have any been ejected? As others have said, those who are targeted by the Taliban cannot wait. The Minister indicated to the shadow Minister that we are about to have discussions with Pakistan, but what discussions have already taken place? We are all concerned that Pakistan is ejecting people.

Finally, the fear of persecution due to religion or political beliefs is a qualifying factor under the refugee conventions. What consideration has the MOD given to the compatibility of that qualifying factor with the ARAP scheme?

To take the hon. Gentleman’s last point first, the MOD is not considering asylum claims, which are a separate matter for the Home Office. The MOD is considering the cases of people who claim to have served alongside UK armed forces. Although I do not doubt the seriousness of the right to asylum, the MOD makes no decisions in that regard. We have no responsibility for that part of immigration policy.

Turning to indefinite leave to remain, I will need to write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail, because my understanding of the immigration status of those approved to come to the UK under ARAP is that they have it immediately: they are effectively citizens, in that they have the right to immediately come here, live and work. There is no further immigration phase required after their arrival, because the approval of their visa to come affords them all the rights that indefinite leave affords them in the first place. However, I will write to the hon. Gentleman to confirm that my understanding is correct and that he has not picked up something that I was not aware of.

On Pakistan, I refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier answer. I genuinely could not wish for better engagement from the Pakistan Government with our high commissioner in Islamabad, and I am grateful to the Pakistani high commissioner to London, who has similarly made himself available to me whenever I have needed to speak to him. The issue with people in Pakistan is challenging: Pakistan has a very large cohort of people whom the Pakistan Government regard as illegal migrants and whom they are seeking to deal with. That is their sovereign choice as a nation, and it is not for us to tell them that they must not. However, where we have been able to tell them that people are part of our scheme, those people have been protected from deportation. For that, we are very grateful indeed.

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis), we clearly owe these individuals a debt of honour. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people who are affected and how many families there are? What is the Ministry of Defence doing to reach out to the families of these brave men and women to ensure they can come here, as they should have the right to do?

We think that about 2,000 decisions need to be looked at again. Some of those will be entirely the right decision—they just were not written up and documented particularly well—so it is difficult to say at this moment how many of the cases that we will review will require further scrutiny. What I can say to my hon. Friend is that once we have carried out that initial review of the robustness of the decisions that were taken, we will notify people if their case is up for review and additional information might be required. While I will set out the detail of that process in the “Dear colleague” letter that will follow, my expectation is that we will also reach out at that point to any colleague in the House who has advocated for that case, so that they are aware that it is up for review and can similarly put forward whatever evidence they have.

I am grateful to the Minister for meeting with me recently to discuss this matter, but given the unique nature of the relationship between UK forces and the Triples, and given the commitments that have been made previously, it is beyond bewildering that we have not got to this point sooner. The Minister spoke about instances of inconsistent application of ARAP criteria in certain cases, and has said that he takes responsibility for that, but can he give an assurance today that he will work at pace to put it right, and what does he think it will mean for our international reputation? Will people trust us in the future?

I am grateful for the constructive engagement that the hon. Gentleman has had with the Department ever since the evacuation from Kabul. Our meeting the other day was most instructive, and much of what he said caused us to reflect in the way that we have done. He should take much credit for that.

We are working at pace—the hon. Gentleman has my assurance that we will continue to do so, but we have been doing so all along. This is an incredibly difficult process that is consuming ever larger amounts of horsepower within the Department, and rightly so, because we owe these people a debt. However, as has come up previously at Defence questions, we must be careful not to set the expectation among our partner forces that everywhere that the UK armed forces operate, now and in the future, there will be an immigration angle to such partnering. I accept that there is reputational damage to the MOD and that has an effect on my reputation, too—that is right; that is ministerial accountability—but I push back gently against the idea that it will have an impact on the willingness of partner forces to work with us. I do not think it is helpful if partner forces think the reward for working with us is a visa: that does not work at all.

I appreciate the Minister’s comments and his commitments today, but it is more than two years since the chaos of the collapse of the operation in Afghanistan and this surely has come much too late. There are still many people—not just the Triples, but interpreters and people who worked alongside the forces—trapped in countries that are hostile and threatening them with transportation back to Afghanistan. Can he commit today to ensuring, with some urgency, that all cases are looked at quickly and speedily, and that we get as many people to safety as possible?

The cases are being looked at urgently. In the wider ARAP cohort that the hon. Member described, that process has been much easier. Some time ago, I directed the excellent officials who work on this, instead of working through the pile of applications, to go to the employment records we hold for interpreters and other locally employed civilians, and to focus on finding them in the pile of applications rather than going through all the applications that may be spurious or less credible. We will do so as quickly as we can, but it takes time, and even once eligibility decisions have been taken, if people are undocumented, and many of the ARAP cohort are, it is incredibly challenging to get them out of Afghanistan and into a safe country, and that limits our rate of flow enormously.

On those in other third countries, we do all that we can through the excellent staff in our embassies and high commissions to facilitate their movement out of those countries. However, there are some countries with whom we have quite challenging diplomatic relationships, particularly at the moment, and that makes it particularly difficult. That does not mean that we do not keep trying, and I am very grateful to our ambassadors and high commissioners for their efforts, but, fundamentally, we cannot tell sovereign countries what to do.

Back in September, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs told this House that about 1,000 Afghans were accessing homelessness support, and that was after the Government had evicted 8,000 Afghans, including ARAP personnel, from UK hotels. Could the Minister confirm that there are still 1,000 Afghans accessing homelessness support?

Due to the high number of former Afghani soldiers whose lives are at risk as long as they remain in Afghanistan, what conversations has the Minister had with Cabinet colleagues on the possibility of additional safe routes to the United Kingdom?

These things are discussed regularly, as the hon. Gentleman would imagine. There is an additional route to the United Kingdom in the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. Indeed, our ARAP and ACRS offer covers all Afghan citizens who served alongside our armed forces or worked alongside our diplomatic missions—or who were simply prominent in Afghan Government and society, and for whom we therefore feel that relocation is necessary for their protection—up to a point. ARAP and ACRS are matched, not quite in their generosity but in their scope, by schemes in many other countries that were a part of the NATO force in Afghanistan and/or the wider donor community for Afghanistan, so the opportunities for people to leave Afghanistan and resettle elsewhere are enormous. We should be proud of the UK schemes, which, today’s announcement notwithstanding, are incredibly generous. We are moving at the best pace we can to move people out of a country where that is very difficult.

I think the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis) could not have put it better when he talked about the debt of honour we owe all those who served with our armed forces in Afghanistan. I am sure that Members on all sides of the House will be appalled at the fact that, years later, the situation is still not completely resolved. The Minister rightly highlighted the challenges posed by lack of documentation in some cases, but given that, for those individuals, obtaining documentation will often mean applying to a Taliban-controlled passport office, will the Minister say how the Government are ensuring that those affected have a route to get the necessary documentation in a safe and efficient manner?

No, I am not going to share that detail with the House, because it is in absolutely nobody’s interests for the Taliban to know how we are doing that.

I think happy birthday is in order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If you are like me, you do not count the years, you just make the years count.

I thank the Minister for his very positive answers. I ask this question simply because I met a gentleman in Pakistan about 12 months ago on this issue. He worked for the British Army alongside those in the special forces, so it is wonderful news that special forces in Afghanistan will have their applications reviewed. I wholly welcome that but want yet again to highlight the need to do the right thing by others as well as those who put their lives on the line in Afghanistan as part of the rebuilding effort and who have found themselves hiding away, out of sight—in Pakistan, for example—because they are not yet safe. I ask the Minister for consideration to be given to reviews of applications for interpreters and those who provided sustained assistance to our forces and who live life in darkness and in fear.

As I said in response to earlier questions, the interpreters and those who worked alongside us in a supporting function are much easier to find within the pilot applications, because we have the employment records and are therefore able to confirm their service easily. If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me about the specific cases raised with him, I will endeavour to get him answers as quickly as I can.

Business of the House

11.1 am

The business for the week commencing 5 February will include:

Monday 5 February—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 6 February—Opposition day (4th allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition, subject to be announced.

Wednesday 7 February—Motions related to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 8 February—General debate on National HIV Testing Week, followed by a general debate on the management culture of the Post Office. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

The House will rise for the February recess at the conclusion of business on Thursday 8 February and return on Monday 19 February.

May I wish you a very happy birthday as well, Madam Deputy Speaker?

I start by expressing our profound regret that the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) has decided to step down due to fears for his safety and that of his family. The recent attack on his office was horrific. That any Member is forced from office due to intimidation, threats and fear is an attack on all of us and what we represent. It is unacceptable and we must do more to protect our freedoms and democracy. We stand together.

Yesterday, Alison Phillips was “banged out” of the newsroom in her last day as editor of the Daily Mirror. Alison broke the mould for female journalists, and she led a number of campaigns that had a direct effect on this place. She leaves a proud legacy.

Last week I asked the Leader of the House about the Procedure Committee report on scrutiny of Lords Secretaries of State. Has she now digested it, and when will she bring forward a motion to make it happen? I will chalk it up as a victory that, after many weeks of asking, Foreign Office Ministers finally came forward with a statement this week on the ongoing conflict in Gaza and Israel. Will the Leader of the House ensure that that happens more often, with the Foreign Secretary himself taking questions? The situation demands it.

The International Court of Justice interim ruling was deeply significant and makes for difficult reading. We are clear that Israel must comply with the orders in the ruling in full, and that Hamas must release all the hostages immediately. International law must be upheld and the independence of international courts respected, with all sides held accountable for their actions. Twenty-five thousand innocent people are dead, including thousands of women and children, and 85% of the population of Gaza have been displaced and millions face the risk of famine. We cannot let innocent Palestinians pay the price. We must redouble our efforts for a sustainable ceasefire and a political process for a two-state solution.

On that, I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s willingness to recognise the state of Palestine, which is a policy we have long supported. We hear this morning that Secretary of State Blinken is moving the US in that direction, too. As the Leader of the Opposition said, it is an

“inalienable right of the Palestinian people”.

Can the Leader of the House clarify, as there is some confusion, the Government’s policy on the recognition of Palestine?

Talking of Secretaries of State being accountable, perhaps the Leader of the House can clear up some of the creative use of language by the Home Secretary in his appearance before the Home Affairs Committee yesterday. Apparently, we no longer have a backlog of asylum claims; it is just “a queue” of 94,000 applicants—some queue, but definitely not a backlog. The 33,000 asylum seekers who have gone missing apparently are not missing, but have simply “disengaged”. Does the Leader of the House recognise that the Government have lost control of the asylum system and that smoke and mirrors cannot hide the truth?

The Business Secretary was not exactly forthcoming with the truth this week either. On Monday, she told this House that negotiations with Canada to save British car imports were “ongoing”, but now we learn that she walked out of those discussions and the entire issue is on pause. Does the Leader of the House want to take this opportunity to correct the record?

Finally, I cannot let business questions go by without referring to the Leader of the House’s rather bizarre, unprompted, over the top, glowing tribute to the Prime Minister in last week’s business questions. I feel the lady does protest too much. It was as if she was at “The Traitors” roundtable, desperately wanting everyone to believe she really is a faithful. It seems that the traitors sit among them still, secretly planning their next kill. The evil plotters are trying to avoid banishment so they can win the prize. Can she reveal herself today, because we all want to know? Perhaps some of her colleagues can, too, or perhaps they should do us all a favour, cut straight to the endgame and let the public decide. Quite honestly, much as I love “The Traitors”, this is not a TV show, and their antics have real-life consequences. As much as we are all sick of watching it, unfortunately, there is no off-switch.

From the Government Benches, I say happy birthday to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

This week I met Ashley, the cousin of 19-year-old hostage Agam Berger. She is the girl that many Members will have seen in video footage, playing her violin in happier times. She volunteered with special educational needs children, and was actively involved in working towards a peaceful solution in her region. I thank the shadow Leader of the House for her remarks about the hostages and all Members who are working hard to keep the spotlight on these people and their families. I hope that they will all be home soon.

I also thank the hon. Lady for her remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who has said that he is going to stand down because of his safety and the wellbeing of his family. Such attacks on elected Members are attacks on democracy itself. I know that many hon. and right hon. Members and their families are enduring such threats. We condemn such actions and those who encourage, incite and excuse them. I thank the hon. Lady for her cross- party support on that matter.

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to Alison, who was “banged out” of the newsroom. I also thank her colleagues who posted that on social media. I think it sends a very positive message for women in particular who want to work in that sector.

The hon. Lady asks about the Procedure Committee, and I again thank the Committee for its report on holding to account the Foreign Secretary on a range of issues. She will know that the recommendations in part rely on the consent of their noble Lords, and I am keen to hear the views of their Procedure Committee on some of the recommendations that our Procedure Committee has made. Since the Foreign Secretary was appointed, there have been 41 sitting days, and in that time Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary, have made 71 appearances in Parliament, responding to parliamentary questions and in Select Committees.

On Gaza, the hon. Lady raised some serious issues. She will know—the Minister for Armed Forces was just at the Dispatch Box—that the Government take compliance with international humanitarian law extremely seriously. We monitor that with our partners. She will know that, as we can see from previous conflicts, the Israel Defence Forces also produces reports after the event. All of that is subject to a great deal of scrutiny, but I will certainly ensure that the Foreign Secretary has heard her concerns.

The hon. Lady talked about the Home Secretary. She will know—indeed, many Opposition Members have acknowledged—that the plan for ending small boat crossings and ensuring that we are speeding up processing in the Home Office is working. I think the latest figures show that the Home Secretary has sped up processing in his Department by 250%. She will know that crossings are down by substantial amounts—I think now just shy of 40%—and returns are up, which is all to be welcomed. That has been helped in great part by the new legislation that the Government have introduced. I am sorry that right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches have not been able to support that.

That brings me to the final topic that the hon. Lady raised. I will make the case that we are faithfuls on the Government side. We have been faithfuls in our obligations to the British public in strengthening our borders. We have brought forward legislation which the Opposition have voted against—over 70 times on one recent Bill.

We have been faithful to the British public in our promises. We have been faithful to them in delivering on their decision to leave the EU, for which we had a landmark anniversary this week. Whatever way people voted in that referendum, we stuck with that democratic result—we did not try to reverse it or campaign for a second referendum—and what the British people want to know is that we are on the right trajectory now. Since we left the EU, we have grown faster than many nations, including Germany, Italy and Japan. Our export services are up at a record high. For goods and services, we are rising through the global rankings—we are up a place since last year. We have overtaken France on manufacturing, and we have simplified tariffs on thousands of goods and removed hundreds of trade barriers.

We have been through tough times, but whether it is our plans to level up communities such as Teesside, which Labour Members seem to be objecting to, or maximising our new-found freedoms to control our destiny and our borders, or opening up more opportunities for the wealth of talent and creativity of our citizens, our plan for Britain is working. Britain is on the right course. We have been faithful to our promises to the British people. Labour has not, and it would turn us back on the EU, union reform, tax hikes and much more.

Further business will be announced in the usual way.

Best wishes on your birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Last week was Neighbourhood Policing Week. I was able to join the local Aldridge and Brownhills neighbourhood teams out in the community. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking our local teams for all they do? Does she agree that central to neighbourhood policing is neighbourhood policing hubs? That is why I continue to campaign against the proposed closure of Aldridge police station—and with only a few months left of the west midlands police and crime commissioner role, there should be a moratorium on any closure.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on getting her concerns on the record. Since 2010, our communities have become safer on roughly the same resources. Taking out online fraud, we have, in effect, halved crime: violent crime is down 51%; neighbourhood crime, including robbery and theft, is down 48%. I shall ensure that the Home Secretary has heard what she has said.

Meal do naidheachd, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We saw a softer side to the Leader of the House last week. “The Prime Minister is a great dad”, she loyally read out from No. 10’s script. “He gives a lot to charity”, she whispered. Then, right on cue, normal service resumed and she was thundering fury at the Scots for not voting Tory. She asked me a question that got quite a response in Scotland: “Why do you think us Tory ‘rotters’”—her word, not mine—“are so desperate to keep Scotland in the Union?” Why, indeed? It is generally though that Conservatives act in their own self-interest. Anyway, Scots have been totting up all the great things about being in the UK: the gift of Brexit making us poorer faster than even the worst forecasts predicted; 14 years of grinding, endless austerity; and a crippling debt burden of more than 100% of GDP, just for starters.

However, the Leader of the House is not alone in her desperation to keep Scotland lashed tight to Westminster. She will remember seeing a secret document presented to the Cabinet in July 2020 by her colleague the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The existence of that document was revealed at the covid inquiry this week. Finalised at the height of the pandemic, it was entitled “The State of the Union” and was a blatant attempt by her Government to politicise the pandemic and undermine the Scottish Government when trust in Government messaging was crucial. It asked the Cabinet to endorse some sort of strategy, most details of which sadly are missing from the inquiry’s version. It required polling, research and data analysis, all at a time when Scotland’s First Minister and Government were focused on and doing their damnedest to protect the people of Scotland.

No. 10 was slithering from one scandal to another. We know that a Union strategy committee and a Union operations committee were set up to mimic the strategy and operations committees that helped create the monster of Brexit. The right hon. Lady will agree that considerable resources were required, diverting cash and personnel from fighting the pandemic. It must be made clear to the public who funded that. Will she ask her colleagues to give a statement on the project, laying out why it was an appropriate use of governmental resources, what it did and what it is felt to have achieved—its key performance indicators, let us say—particularly given the times in which it was conceived? Finally, the Leader of the House will recall that the state of the Union report found, among many things, that 82% of young voters in Scotland want independence. Is she surprised?

The hon. Lady talks about normal service, and we have had normal service from the SNP this morning: the full bingo card of textbook, standard nationalist operating procedure. Failure to take responsibility for the things that it is responsible for: tick. Blame others: tick. Demonise opponents: tick. Distract from the indefensible things that we have found about this week: tick. A complete lack of self-awareness: tick.

Only the hon. Lady could come to this House and raise the issue of the covid inquiry this week. Perhaps she should have spent a little more time watching the evidence delivered by her own First Minister. We are having a covid inquiry and we did a lessons learned exercise because we want to ensure that this nation can be resilient in future and we want to learn the lessons. The hon. Lady’s party has been less than forthcoming on a similar ambition for its performance in Scotland. I would ask her to reflect on that. The only thing missing from the hon. Lady’s question is that she has somehow failed to accuse the UK Government of being responsible for an escaped macaque from the Highland zoo.

I also wish you a happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker. Last week Ram Mandir was consecrated in Ayodhya—the birthplace of Lord Ram—in Uttar Pradesh in India. That caused great joy to Hindus across the world. Sadly, the BBC reported that it was the site of the destruction of a mosque, forgetting that it had been a temple for more than 2,000 years before that, and that the Muslims had been allocated a five-acre site adjacent to the town on which to erect a mosque. Will my right hon. Friend allow a debate in Government time on the impartiality of the BBC and its failure to provide a decent record of what is going on all over the world?

My hon. Friend will know that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport recently reported on the BBC review, which raised very important issues. My hon. Friend knows how to apply for a debate, and he will know that the next questions to the Secretary of State are on 22 February. However, he has, I think, achieved his objective today, which was to get his concerns on the record.

Can I too wish you a very happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker?

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business and the Backbench Business debates next Thursday. If we are allocated time on the first Thursday back following the February recess, we will have two debates: on the civil nuclear road map, and on premature deaths from heart and circulatory diseases.

The Committee is very much open for applications, particularly for Westminster Hall debates. Every week, many Members are unsuccessful in ballots for Westminster Hall debates. Some of those who are unsuccessful might think about coming along and applying to the Backbench Business Committee; it is another route. More time is available in Westminster Hall than in the Chamber, which is heavily subscribed to, but we still very much welcome applications for Chamber debates.

I also note the change of business at short notice today. I fundamentally understand the reasons for that, but hope that the Leader of the House will be kind to the Backbench Business Committee in allocating time in future weeks.

I will raise one last matter, speaking for myself. The former Kwik Save supermarket building in Felling, Gateshead, has been lying empty and in disrepair for more than a decade. The owner is resisting all legal attempts by the council to facilitate its demolition. Unfortunately, it has now become a magnet for antisocial behaviour, and local residents are regularly pelted with debris from the site. The owner has used the courts and legal processes to frustrate the council in expediting this much-needed demolition. Can the Leader of the House guide me on how to get this problem sorted out? The owner is causing a blight on many people’s lives in that locality.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his usual helpful advert for the Backbench Business Committee. He mentioned the opportunities that it affords Members, and the topics that I hope we can debate in the week back after recess. That is much appreciated.

The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is focused on precisely the type of situation that the hon. Gentleman describes, and on similar situations in which the landlord, although not an obstacle to development, does not have the capacity to make repairs to the building, and other third-party developers do not wish to buy a building in that condition. He is looking at what bridging finance could be made available to facilitate matters, and has also brought forward the notion of community auctions. I will write to the Secretary of State to ensure that he has heard of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the issue, and will ask his officials to afford the hon. Gentleman some advice.

Happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Cedars roundabout on the edge of Barnstaple is subject to 20 weeks of roadworks, which are supposed to help with congestion. The first week saw up to two hours of delays for students and teachers getting to school and businesses losing huge amounts of trade, with staff also arriving late. The scheme has gone ahead with local councillors’ support, but without adequate traffic management or modelling, either on the site or across the rest of Barnstaple, which has been blighted by road delays for decades. While this is clearly a local issue, can the Leader of the House guide me towards any Government assistance or national schemes that could enable someone to come and help with the road traffic modelling? The fear is that given how bad the traffic management has been to date, even when the scheme is completed, it will barely help the congestion in the way that it should.

I am very sorry to hear about what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I know that elsewhere in the country such schemes have caused massive disruption, particularly to local businesses, and local authorities have compensated those businesses. My hon. Friend can obtain examples of good practice from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. In my patch, we have taxi drivers who model traffic flow and tell us where there are problems with, for instance, traffic light sequencing. There are many innovative ideas out there, and I would encourage my hon. Friend’s local authority to look at them, but I shall also ensure that the Secretary of State has heard about the situation in her constituency.

On 13 June last year, Nottingham was shaken by the horrific stabbings that took the lives of three precious members of our community, Barnaby Webber, Grace O’Malley-Kumar and Ian Coates. The person responsible had numerous interactions with mental health services and police forces in the months and years preceding the attacks, and the families of his victims rightly want answers about missed opportunities to prevent his crimes. Will a Minister make a statement to the House on the various investigations that are taking place, and tell us whether the Government will convene an independent inquiry?

I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying how appalled we were by this terrible tragedy, involving not just the three individuals who lost their lives, but others who were very seriously injured. The nation has been rocked by it, and I thank the hon. Lady for raising it. She will know that the Government Law Officers have commissioned work on the matter, and I am sure that they will want to keep the House up to date. While that work is ongoing, there is probably not much more that can be said at this Dispatch Box, but I will ensure that both the Secretary of State for Justice and the Attorney General hear what the hon. Lady has said, and I shall ask them to keep her informed of progress.

I am proud that under this Conservative Government, the reading ability of children in the United Kingdom continues to improve. The UK is now 14th in the internationally respected test under the programme for international student assessment, run by the OECD. That is up from 25th under the last Labour Government. Given that this is National Storytelling Week and 7 March is World Book Day, would my right hon. Friend consider a debate in Government time highlighting the importance of reading for pleasure, and celebrating British and Irish literature?

My hon. Friend will have heard the support expressed throughout the House for what she has said. Being able to read is a wonderful gift. It is not just about getting an education; it is about an individual’s whole self, and families should be encouraged to read together. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to our nation’s success in climbing the international literacy tables. We should be very proud of that, and place on record our thanks to everyone who has enabled it to happen, including our incredible teachers.

Happy birthday, Madam Deputy Speaker.

On 12 January last year, I asked the Leader of the House how I could pursue my search for a way of putting bereaved children in touch with charities that want to help them, so that the charities know where the children are and can offer them support. It seemed to me a simple matter to come up with a protocol, but since then we have had two debates, I have met two Ministers, and a petition has been presented to 10 Downing Street by bereaved children who want something to be done for others, so that others do not suffer in the way that they did. Many of us who have been through that kind of grief want to see progress. Both the Ministers with whom I discussed the issue were schools Ministers; they talked about the work being done in schools, which is very supportive, and no one has any criticism of it. At the end of both meetings, however, the Ministers said, “Actually, we think that you need to speak to the Home Office”, which is where everything grinds to a halt. We do not seem to be able to make progress and obtain clarity, although what we want is quite simple. It is not a new law, but merely a change in practice. Can the Leader of the House advise me on how we can get clarity and move forward, and perhaps secure that meeting with the Home Office?

I thank the hon. Lady for her continued work in this area. I know that many Members from across the House have been in the situation she described of losing a parent at a young age, and it is so important that people are properly supported. I will write to all relevant Departments. I know from my own experience of dealing with health and work issues that getting the right people from the right Departments in the right room together, and then locking the door until they arrive at a solution that we can take forward, is sometimes the only way of doing things. I thank her for her diligence, and I will talk to all Ministers in the relevant Departments to ask them to put a plan together and to come and talk to her.