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Commons Chamber

Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2024

House of Commons

Wednesday 28 February 2024

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Troubles: Legacy and Reconciliation

1. What his Department’s planned timetable is for when the Independent Commission on Reconciliation and Information Recovery will be operational. (901645)

7. What progress his Department has made on implementing the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023. (901651)

I start by welcoming the return of the devolved institutions to Northern Ireland, following the publication of the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper earlier this month and the Windsor framework, which was agreed exactly a year ago yesterday. Let me also take this opportunity to mention that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland will celebrate their 25th anniversaries on Friday.

The Government are doing all that we can to support the Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery in delivering effectively for victims and families. Significant progress has been made since the ICRIR was established in December last year, and I expect the commission’s doors to open on 1 May.

In the light of this morning’s High Court ruling, does the Secretary of State still think that after 1 May the citizens of Northern Ireland should be the only people in the UK denied the right to seek justice for crimes committed during the troubles, through civil cases and inquests?

Mr Justice Colton handed down his judgment at 10.15 this morning. It is a very complex case. I am told that the judgment runs to over 200 pages, and I am yet to see it. It will take some time to consider, but we will consider Mr Justice Colton’s findings very carefully. We remain committed to implementing the legacy Act.

It is deeply concerning that the Government’s own imposed 1 May deadline means that inquests will be unable to conclude as they otherwise would. We have heard reports that there was only one specialist in the Ministry of Defence dealing with these inquiries, and that possibly MOD delays in providing material have caused additional hold-ups. We really need to understand what the Government are doing to ensure that inquests can conclude by the Government’s self-imposed deadline.

I humbly remind the hon. Lady that the original deadline, before we tabled amendments to the Act, then a Bill, in the House of Lords, was 1 May 2023, so there has been an extra year. The Government continue to assist the Northern Ireland courts in good faith on legacy matters. There is no question of the Government deliberately seeking to frustrate inquests. The Act allows a coroner to request a review of a death by the independent commission, led by chief commissioner Sir Declan Morgan, if the inquest has not been concluded via the coronial process by 1 May 2024.

The Government’s legacy Act is opposed by victims groups, all the political parties in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and others. This morning, the Belfast High Court found that the Act’s immunity provisions are not compliant with articles 2 and 3 of the European convention on human rights. Given that immunity has always been presented as the central foundation of the legacy Act, what do Ministers intend to do about the judgment, and how can the commission become operational when one of its central powers has just been struck down?

As I say, this is a very complex case. The judgment runs to over 200 pages, which were first being reported on less than 90 minutes ago, so it will take some time to consider, but we remain committed to implementing the legacy Act, including delivering the ICRIR.

Recognising that the issues raised in today’s judgment will take some time to be conclusively determined by the higher courts—assuming that the Government appeal—does the Secretary of State agree that it would be quite wrong to close the door on inquests and civil cases from 1 May? That will deny citizens in Northern Ireland rights that citizens in the rest of the UK take for granted. Will he therefore extend the deadline, not least to ensure that inquests that would otherwise be stopped on 1 May can continue, so that a decision can be reached?

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that this is a complex case that is likely to head to further action in the higher courts, but I want to consider the judgment carefully, look at all 200 pages, and take the legal advice that he would expect me to take in such circumstances. We remain committed to implementing the legacy Act, including delivering the ICRIR.

The Union

3. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901647)

5. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901649)

13. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901657)

The Government are fully committed to protecting and upholding Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, a commitment we reaffirmed recently in the Command Paper “Safeguarding the Union”. That included proposals for new measures in domestic legislation to protect unfettered access to the UK internal market, and to affirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This Government are convinced that that is the best way we can safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

What action has my right hon. Friend taken to ensure that no new regulatory borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland can emerge from future agreements with the European Union?

We have ended the presumption of automatic alignment with EU law by making it clear that the very narrow set of goods rules that apply in Northern Ireland are subject to the democratic oversight of Stormont, including the Stormont brake. Once the brake is triggered for a rule, or where an entirely new rule is brought forward, it will be for the UK to determine at the Joint Ministerial Committee whether that provision should apply in Northern Ireland. Here again, the Government have established the protections available through statute. We believe that there are very strong reasons for saying that we have ended the presumption of automatic alignment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Minister of State on their very impressive achievement in restoring the Northern Ireland Executive. Does the Secretary of State agree that good cross-border transport links are vital to safeguarding all parts of our Union? In my border constituency of Clwyd South, Iusb think of the electrification of the north Wales main line, which links to north-west England, and improved road links, such as the proposed Pant-Llanymynech bypass between Wales and north Shropshire.

I have to congratulate my hon. Friend on making some excellent constituency points as well as highlighting the importance of good transport links across our Union. The need for those links was recognised in the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper, and more recently, earlier this week, when we talked about the reinvestment of money that would have been spent on the northern sections of High Speed 2 into ensuring good connections across our country. Those connections include the A75, which is a vital connection between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Union is strongest when people can see and feel its benefits to their daily life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a prosperous Northern Ireland, with a stable, devolved Government, is the surest way to safeguard the Union’s integral place in the United Kingdom?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I absolutely, 100% agree with his sentiment. It is a real pleasure to see the devolved institutions at Stormont up and running. You, Mr Speaker, have a new colleague there: the former Speaker was desperate to retire for two years—tributes were paid to Speaker Maskey at the time—but Speaker Poots is now in place. It has been wonderful, too, to see the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister working together to achieve good solutions, on public services and a whole host of other things, for the people of Northern Ireland. The Union is best served by devolved institutions working. I very much welcome everyone’s commitment to that cause.

This morning’s High Court ruling confirms what every fair observer knows: that the Government’s legacy legislation is not compatible with human rights. It puts the needs of perpetrators ahead of the needs of victims, and it is not supported by any party in Northern Ireland or across the island of Ireland. The Secretary of State cannot truly believe that it serves the rule of law or our shared future in any constitutional arrangement. When will the Government repeal that completely unacceptable legislation?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I am afraid that she will have to refer to the answer I gave earlier. The Court judgment was handed down only earlier this morning; it is a complex case and we have more than 200 pages of judgment to consider. I do not even believe that the Government KC has gone through the ruling yet in any great detail. We were not given any notice beforehand of what might be in it, but obviously I pledge that we will consider Mr Justice Colton’s findings carefully. As I will continue to say, we remain committed to implementing the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, including delivery of the ICRIR.

The recent “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper claimed to

“copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional place in the Union,”

yet the British-Irish agreement makes it clear that the agreed position is

“for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination”.

How does the Secretary of State square that clear contradiction in the UK Government’s commitments to all the people of Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. First, getting the devolved institutions in strand 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement running is of vital importance, because it means that the strand 2 institutions can work properly for everyone in all communities, and it also allows the strand 3 institutions to work in a better way, because they can include representatives such as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and bodies such as the British-Irish Council, so there is a whole host of things involved. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland obviously requires the consent of a simple majority of its people. All the provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement still stand.

One thing of great importance to this place is our education system, including the trips that people make to Parliament. We want to safeguard the Union, so what steps are being taken to ensure that students in Northern Ireland have equal access to educational tours of Westminster? Bearing in mind that students in Northern Ireland should have the same access to them as those in England, but that the cost of flying over can be prohibitive, will consideration be given to additional funding to allow some sort of subsidisation?

Northern Ireland, being across the Irish sea, is in a geographic location that makes travel difficult to other areas of the United Kingdom. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s keenness to help Northern Ireland students benefit from learning across the Union. We put in place a £3.3 billion financial package for the incoming Executive that helps us to achieve some of those objectives by providing support for Northern Ireland, given its unique challenges. However, if he has individual cases in mind, I would be interested to hear about them, and will consider what we might do in future.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the fact that the new UK East-West Council will have its first meeting next month in Belfast? One of its key objectives is to encourage greater educational co-operation across the United Kingdom, as well as binding Northern Ireland more closely into the wider economy and the UK internal market.

I am happy to join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the new East-West Council and its situation, and I also look forward to seeing the North South Ministerial Council functioning. The UK East-West Council will bring together a wealth of experience and knowledge from representatives of the United Kingdom Government, the devolved Administrations, business and the culture sector, and educational leaders. We are committed to getting it working in March and doing good things.

The Secretary of State referred earlier to the financial package that the Treasury has put in place to support our public services in Northern Ireland, but our commitments on public sector pay mean that there remains a significant gap in the next two financial years. Will he work with us to seek further support from the Treasury, so that we can ensure that the Executive lives within its budget and that we can pay our public sector workers a decent wage for the vital work they do?

Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for all his work to ensure that the devolved institutions—the Executive and Stormont—can come back together. He has achieved an amazingly good, historic piece of work. It is good to see the Executive back up and running, making choices and opening negotiations with the unions to get the public sector in Northern Ireland back on track, on pay and work. I believe that there is a meeting today between the Finance Minister and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I will always happily work with the right hon. Gentleman on all those agendas.

Economic Growth

The Government are committed to the economic growth of Northern Ireland, working closely with other UK Departments, the newly formed Executive and NI businesses. Our plan includes boosting trade and investment, building on the success of the Northern Ireland investment summit last year; levelling up Northern Ireland’s economy, including through our city and growth deals worth £617 million; and implementing the key deliverables of the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper. Only last night, I attended Retail NI’s supplier showcase, and I am very grateful to have made it back first thing this morning.

I thank the Minister for that very full answer. Given that the rest of the United Kingdom—the internal market—is the biggest market for Northern Ireland, what role does he see for the new InterTrade UK, particularly with respect to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about Northern Ireland’s most important economic relationship being with Great Britain. As set out in the Command Paper, the Government are working to establish InterTrade UK, fulfilling our pledge to grow the economy by ensuring that businesses large and small can maximise the full range of east-west trading opportunities. Implementing the Windsor framework and the Command Paper are, of course, Government priorities, and I am pleased that I am responsible for them. We will update the House in greater detail at an early opportunity.

The “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper states that

“there will be no checks when goods move within the UK internal market system save those conducted by UK authorities as part of a risk-based or intelligence-led approach”.

Regulation 13 of the Windsor Framework (Retail Movement Scheme) Regulations 2023 requires officials to check the ID numbers on the seals of all retail consignments entering Northern Ireland, and break open 5% to 10% for visual inspection. Is my right hon. Friend now able to confirm when, or if, that regulation will be removed?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his insightful and well-rehearsed question—well-researched question. [Laughter.] Perhaps I should not have got that early flight after all, Mr Speaker.

As we set out in the Command Paper, as we transition to the UK internal market system, we will provide clear legal direction to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and other UK Government authorities, through our risk management approach, to eliminate any physical checks when goods move within the UK internal market system, except those conducted by UK authorities and required as part of a risk-based or intelligence-led approach to managing the risk of criminality, abuse of the scheme, smuggling and disease risks. I recognise the importance of my hon. Friend’s question, and I will update the House on our plans in greater detail at the earliest reasonable opportunity, which I hope and intend will be before we break for the Easter recess.

It is good news that the Executive are back up and running. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the new Executive take full advantage of all the devolved capability they have, particularly on taxation, to encourage the private sector to grow and thrive in Northern Ireland?

I will certainly give the Executive every support, while of course respecting the devolution settlement. To give my hon. Friend one example, the reason I was in Northern Ireland last night with Retail NI was to promote the Department for Business and Trade’s terrific offering in Northern Ireland, which includes a trade and investment hub that covers the UK Export Academy and the export support service. There are now 16 DBT export champions, which includes in-person support. If anyone wishes to learn greater detail, I recommend that they go to the website.

Will the Minister liaise with the relevant Departments in Northern Ireland to maximise the benefits of promoting and developing the only enterprise zone in Northern Ireland, which is in my constituency, as are excellent broadband facilities—the best in these islands? That way, we can promote our economy, bring inward investment and create prosperity.

The hon. Gentleman makes a great case for his constituency, and I would certainly like to see terrific levels of investment into it. However, I would like us to go further: I would like to see that investment zone reach right across the whole of Northern Ireland. I hope and expect that together, the UK Government and the restored Executive will make the most of that opportunity.

Why do the UK Government think it is good thing for Northern Ireland to have access to parts of the EU single market, but not for other parts of the United Kingdom to have such access, particularly those parts of the United Kingdom that voted to remain in the EU and the single market?

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for his question, but he will know two things. First, the word “access” is somewhat contested. I would encourage him to go and look at the figures for trade between the United Kingdom and the EU, and satisfy himself of the effect of our leaving the European Union. Secondly, in all seriousness, we should all reflect carefully on the status and circumstances, not only of geography but of history, of Northern Ireland. It is because of the unique status of Northern Ireland that we have been able to agree unique arrangements, and I do not imagine the European Union would have agreed those unique arrangements for any other territory.

According to a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, Northern Ireland received proportionately less than Scotland, Wales and England in the first round of levelling-up funding. In the latest round of funding in November, not a penny was allocated to Northern Ireland, and the Government said this was because the Executive were not sitting. Is there good news for the people of Northern Ireland today? Now that power sharing has been restored, will the Secretary of State update the House on any discussions he has had about ensuing that a fair share of levelling-up funding goes to Northern Ireland?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point, and I will be glad to continue such conversations with the Executive. As she knows, we have made available a generous package of £3.3 billion overall. We are having conversations on the detail of those areas of funding that have been repurposed, and those conversations will continue. When we can update the House in fuller detail, we will of course be glad to do so.

East-West Business Council

The Government are working to establish an east-west business council, as set out in the Command Paper, fulfilling our pledge to establish a unique forum—for key representatives across the United Kingdom from Government, business and the education sector—to identify opportunities for deepening connections between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in important areas such as trade, transport, education and culture. I shall be in regular contact with other Ministers across Government to ensure the timely delivery of this commitment.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence has estimated that 80% of Northern Irish freight exports to England come through Scotland, while a considerable proportion of NI trade with Britain is direct trade between the north of Ireland and Scotland. Given this, what concrete role does he see, or propose, for the Scottish Government on the new East-West Council?

Of course, the Government of Scotland have their rights and are entitled to be part of these arrangements, and we shall be respectful in engaging with the Scottish Government to ensure they play a full part, fully respecting the devolution settlement.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Northern Ireland Members of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, including the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), play a very important role in improving understanding between the EU and the UK about the way in which the trade and co-operation agreement should work, and in easing the way for a better relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union?

I do agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. I pay tribute to him for the leading role he plays in that forum, and I am most grateful to him. A large number of colleagues, whatever their view on exiting the European Union, have put a great deal of effort into building up the bonds of friendship that are so important as we go forward under the trade and co-operation agreement. I am most grateful to him for highlighting the important work of that forum, and I again pay tribute to him for his leading role.

The East-West Council, as proposed, is something that I am personally very enthusiastic about, because it potentially opens up a space in which Scotland and Northern Ireland can co-operate, along with other parts of the UK, on all that they have in common economically, socially and culturally, and that we will continue to have in common irrespective of whatever constitutional arrangements may be in place in future. Will the ministerial team at the Northern Ireland Office agree to meet me, so we can discuss how Scotland could play a positive role in that and to get the engagement with other parts right?

We now come to Prime Minister’s questions. We are joined in the Gallery today by Dr Andreas Norlén, the Speaker of the Swedish Parliament, and his delegation.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I know the thoughts of the whole House will be with the friends and families of Lord Cormack and Ronnie Campbell. They were dedicated parliamentarians.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I will have further such meetings later today.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I am certain that everyone in this Chamber will agree, whatever their political standpoint, that we should be able to think, speak and vote without fear or favour, but today I need to ask about the painful subject of dental care in Clacton, which is in crisis. Our integrated care system has found the money, and a private firm has found the students, to massively increase dental appointments in my patch, but paper-pushers in NHS England keep citing spurious reasons to prevent this groundbreaking initiative from being deployed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that is scandalous, should be dealt with and those people blocking it held to account?

Our dentistry recovery plan will make dental services faster, simpler and fairer for patients, including in Clacton, and will fund around 2.5 million more appointments. The matter that my hon. Friend raises, as he will know, is a local matter, so the integrated care board will determine whether it wishes to support the pilot proposal in Clacton, but I know that the Minister for Public Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) has written to my hon. Friend about the proposal, and I hope that her letter addresses his concerns.

May I join the Prime Minister in his remarks about Lord Cormack and Ronnie Campbell?

Tory MPs spent last week claiming that Britain is run by a shadowy cabal made up of activists, the deep state and, most chillingly of all, the Financial Times. At what point did his party give up on governing and become the political wing of the Flat Earth Society?

This is another week when the right hon. and learned Gentleman just snipes from the sidelines, because he has absolutely nothing he can say about what he will do. We are getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities: the number of small boats is down by a third; NHS performance is improving; inflation is continuing to fall; and while we are delivering a significant tax cut for millions of working Britons, his incoherent energy plans would put taxes up for everyone across the country.

The Prime Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), spent last week in America trying to flog her new book. In search of fame and wealth, she has taken to slagging off—[Interruption.] They made her Prime Minister, now they cannot bear talking about her. In search of fame and wealth, she has taken to slagging off and undermining Britain at every opportunity. She claimed that, as Prime Minister, she was sabotaged by the deep state. She also remained silent as Tommy Robinson, that right-wing thug, was described as a hero. Why is the Prime Minister allowing her to stand as a Tory MP at the next election?

I do not believe that a single Member of this House supports Tommy Robinson, but if the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to talk about former leaders and predecessors, the whole country knows his record: he sat there while antisemitism ran rife in his party; and he backed not once but twice a man who called Hamas “friends”. To their credit, the shadow Chancellor, the shadow Home Secretary and, indeed, the shadow Foreign Secretary refused to back the former Labour leader, but he did not, because he is spineless, hopeless and utterly shameless.

I have changed my party for the better; the Prime Minister is being changed by his party. He is letting the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk stand because he is too weak to do anything about it. It is the story of his leadership. When the Tories refuse to accept any blame for the ruin of the past 14 years, one wonders who they think has been running the country all this time. Thankfully, the former Prime Minister is on hand again to help: it turns out that it is all the fault of the media, the corporate world and—bizarrely—the President of the United States.

Winston Churchill once said:

“The price of greatness is responsibility.”

Now, the British public are not expecting greatness from this Prime Minister, just a bit of accountability. Does he not think it would be great if, just for once, the Tories took some responsibility?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about leadership, and about change, but when I learnt of something that I did not agree with, I suspended one of my MPs straightaway. When he learnt of vile antisemitic remarks made by a Labour candidate, what did he do? He instructed his team to defend him, he sent a shadow Cabinet Minister to campaign for him, and he personally backed him for days. That is the difference between us: I act on my principles; he has not got any.

I cannot believe the Prime Minister said that with a straight face. The former Prime Minister continued on her American odyssey—this journey into the wild west of her mind—and claimed that Nigel Farage is the man to restore the Tory party. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether he, too, would welcome Mr Farage back into the Tory fold?

In our party, we have a proud tradition of diversity and accepting everyone from every background—indeed, it is a proud record that puts Labour to shame. This is the party that delivered the first Jewish Prime Minister, the first female Prime Minister, the first black Chancellor and the first Muslim Home Secretary, and it is now led by the first British-Asian Prime Minister. While it seems that the right hon. and learned Gentleman can only champion men from north London, it is the Conservatives who represent modern Britain.

So this diverse Tory party does welcome Nigel Farage. Two months ago, the Prime Minister said that

“the Tory party is a broad church. I welcome lots of people who want to subscribe to our ideals, to our values.”

That is the same Nigel Farage who said he agreed with the basic premise of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of blood” speech and bemoaned the influence of the Jewish lobby. Is the Prime Minister simply too scared to stand up to the gaggle of Tory MPs who moonlight as GB News presenters, or does he genuinely think that Nigel Farage shares the ideals and values of the Tory party?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to talk about values, but tomorrow in Rochdale the people will have a choice of three former Labour candidates, two of whom are antisemites. The truth is, his party is so mired in hate that despite three ex-Labour candidates standing, he cannot back a single one of them. We expel antisemites—he makes them Labour candidates.

The truth is that these are no longer the Tories your parents voted for, and the public can see it. The Prime Minister has lost control of his party to the hordes of redcoats and malcontents. The tin-foil hat brigade on his Benches and the extremists who wrecked the economy are all lining up to undermine him, humiliate him and eventually get rid of him. When will he ever stand up to them and end the pathetic spectacle of a Tory party that used to try to beat Nigel Farage now giving up and dancing to his tune instead?

That is utterly shameless from someone who stood by while antisemitism ran rife in his party, oversaw the appalling situation in Rochdale and twice backed the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). In the last few weeks, we have seen Members of Parliament’s homes surrounded, their events disrupted and council meetings threatened. Just last week, we saw the very rules that govern this place abused because of intimidation. While the right hon. and learned Gentleman might want to bend to mob rule, we will face down the extremists and stand up for British values.

Q2. Two years ago last Saturday, Russian forces launched their heinous attack on Ukraine. The response of the British Government and the British people has been magnificent. I pay tribute to all those who have done so much, not least in my own constituency of Bracknell, where Ukrainian people have been so warmly welcomed. We must never bow to tyranny, so could the Prime Minister please assure the House that our support for Ukraine and all our NATO allies will continue to be unwavering? (901696)

I join my hon. Friend in thanking people up and down the country, including the people of Bracknell, for welcoming Ukrainian families into their homes and communities. During my visit to Ukraine in January I announced a major new package of support, including £2.5 billion of military assistance. Last week, we announced 50 new sanctions that target individuals and businesses that are sustaining Putin’s illegal war machine. Our support to Ukraine will never waver.

Some 30,000 people dead; 70,000 injured; 1.5 million sheltering in Rafah; 300,000 living in feral conditions in northern Gaza; and, of course, 100 hostages still tragically held by Hamas. The horror of those numbers demands that this House have its say, just as it shows that this House should demand an immediate ceasefire. President Biden has indicated that the ceasefire may take place from Monday. Does the Prime Minister share his confidence?

We have consistently called for an immediate humanitarian pause, which would allow for the safe release of hostages—including British nationals—and more aid to Gaza. We welcome progress on a deal. As the hon. Gentleman said, there has been progress, and we urge everyone on all sides to seize the opportunity. I have been clear that we must seize the momentum from this terrible tragedy to find a lasting resolution to this conflict that delivers on the promise of a two-state solution, and ensures that Israelis and Palestinians can live in dignity and security.

We are approaching five months since this conflict began. In that time, this House has equivocated and, on three occasions at the United Nations, this Government have abstained when they could have voted for a ceasefire. Abstentionism is not leadership. Should this matter now come before the United Nations, with a ceasefire potentially in sight, will the Prime Minister use his Government’s vote to deliver that ceasefire?

We support the United States’ draft resolution that was discussed with colleagues at the United Nations last week. But just calling for an immediate, full ceasefire now, which collapses back into fighting within days or weeks and does not include the release of hostages, including British ones, is not in anyone’s interests. We must work towards a permanent ceasefire. That starts with an immediate humanitarian pause, to get aid in and hostages out. I agree about the suffering of the people in Gaza; in this country we should be proud of everything we are doing to help them and to provide them with the lifesaving aid they deserve.

Q3. I am sure that we are all proud of our open Government, the availability of information and our open data, but with machine learning and artificial intelligence becoming more prevalent, does the Prime Minister agree that now is the time to look at licensing this information where it is to be used for commercial gain and to inform intelligence that will disrupt society and our economy? (901697)

I join my hon. Friend in his passion for AI. Like him, I am proud of our record at the forefront of the AI revolution, having created one of the world’s first AI safety institutes, established the “State of AI” report and hosted the world’s first ever global AI safety summit. I will ensure that he meets the relevant Minister to discuss his proposals to ensure that we can harness the opportunities of AI and protect ourselves against the risk that it poses.

Plaid Cymru has signed Full Fact’s pledge for an honest general election campaign. One of Full Fact’s four asks is to renounce deceptive campaigning tactics. There is evidence of egregious, misleading campaigning in Wales and elsewhere by the Conservatives in recent weeks. We all have a responsibility to campaign honestly, because the alternative is to be complicit in dismantling democracy. Therefore, will the Prime Minister sign Full Fact’s pledge for an honest election?

I was pleased to be in Wales just last week, and these are the facts on the ground: the Labour-run Welsh NHS is performing the worst in the United Kingdom; small Welsh businesses, including pubs and restaurants, are facing a crippling rise in their business rates; and Welsh farmers are being decimated by the plans of the Welsh Labour Government. Those are the facts in Wales and we will continue to point them out at every opportunity.

Q4. There are 4,000 patients in Carshalton and Wallington facing uncertainty after landlords pulled out of discussions the day before their GP practice’s lease expired and then issued notice that it was trespassing. The local integrated care board has issued a very weak statement, and the local Liberal Democrat-run council is refusing to meet the practice and me. Those 4,000 patients are now unsure whether they will have a surgery to go to. Can the Prime Minister assure me that when such decisions are taken by landlords, there is appropriate infrastructure in place to support NHS patients before they are cast out to try to find somewhere else to go? (901698)

As my hon. Friend will know, GP leases are commercial agreements between landlords and tenants, but he is right that everything that can be done should be done to ensure that GP surgeries do not have to close. That is why, in March last year, we commissioned a review into legislation governing these leases. The review will create a new framework that will make leasing to tenants, such as GP surgeries and other groups, easier and more accessible. But I know that his local residents will want this to be sorted as soon as possible, in order to take advantage of the extra appointments that we are creating so that people can get access to the primary care they need.

Q6. One of the few good things to come out of Wednesday’s stramash last week was that the House united around a call for an immediate ceasefire. Now, I welcome that—that is progress. The Prime Minister was just given an opportunity by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) to commit to the UK’s representatives in the United Nations and elsewhere articulating that position of this House. If they are not going to do that, what will he say to those of us who say this place really is just a sick pantomime? (901700)

As I outlined previously, it is not right to call for an immediate ceasefire that would collapse instantly into more fighting and not do anything to get more aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering that people are experiencing, or to make sure that we can safely remove hostages, including British hostages. That has been our consistent position. We have been calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire which will provide the conditions for a lasting and sustainable peace, but just calling for something that will collapse back into fighting is not in anyone’s interests. All our diplomatic efforts, at the United Nations and elsewhere, are targeted at bringing that about. I am pleased that in recent days progress has been made. We should keep pressure on all parties to come to a resolution.

Q5. Does my right hon. Friend share my enthusiasm about Monday’s announcement of 27 new potential bathing water sites across the country, including three in Shropshire: two on the River Severn at Ironbridge and Shrewsbury, and one on the River Teme at Ludlow? How will those very welcome designations improve the quality of rivers in Shropshire and in the other areas under consideration? (901699)

On Monday we launched a consultation on the largest ever roll-out of new bathing water sites: 27 potential new bathing waters in England, including an extra one on the River Teme in Ludlow in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. He is right that substantial improvements have been made in recent years. Almost 90% of designated bathing waters in England now meet the higher standards of good or excellent, up from just 76% in 2010; all part of our plan for water which, alongside those on the Conservative Benches voting for the strictest storm overflow targets and plans for unlimited penalties for polluting water companies, was opposed by the Labour party.

Q9. The parent of a two-year-old in the UK is currently spending more than £14,000 a year on a full-time nursery place. Last year the Prime Minister promised parents that in April 2024 there would be a new free childcare offer. With only a month to go, parents do not know whether they can access that offer, because of staff shortages and the lack of childcare spaces. Will the parents to whom the Prime Minister made that promise be able to accept the offer that he talked about last year, or is this another example of a broken Tory promise? (901703)

We are delivering on what we said, which is 30 hours of free childcare a week for working parents of children from when they are nine months old until they start school. That is the largest ever expansion of childcare in our country’s history. Perhaps the hon. Lady might want to have a conversation with her Welsh Labour colleagues, who were given the funding to deliver childcare expansion in Wales, and what have they done? They have pocketed the money instead of matching our plans to support parents in England.

Q7. The notorious crossroads between Ulley Lane and Treeton Lane, just outside Aughton in my constituency, is just one of several major road safety and highway issues that have been ignored for decades by Labour-controlled Rotherham Council. I will be presenting a petition to this place telling the council to end this chaotic mismanagement, but may I also ask for the Prime Minister’s support in urging both the Labour council and the Labour Mayor to listen to residents and get the junction sorted—to stop the huge tailbacks, save lives, get Rother Valley moving, and end this war against cars in my constituency? (901701)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and he is right to champion his constituents in this way. When Labour runs things, it does just run them badly. He can be assured that we have provided Rotherham Council with three quarters of a million pounds for safety improvements to local roads, and we are continuing to provide for his constituents with a further £1 billion allocated to his local area in the second round of the city region sustainable transport settlement. Because of the decision that we made on HS2, communities, towns and cities across the north and the midlands will receive billions of pounds for transport projects that will make a difference to him and his constituents far quicker than anything else that was planned.

Another 80 victims of the contaminated blood scandal have died since Sir Brian Langstaff made his final recommendations on compensation to the Government in April 2023, which was 321 days ago. Will the Prime Minister join the families who are lobbying Members of Parliament here today to explain why his Government have failed to implement any of those recommendations 11 months on?

I am acutely aware of the strength of feeling on this issue, and the suffering of all those impacted by this dreadful scandal. We have consistently acknowledged that justice should be delivered. I gave evidence to the infected blood public inquiry last year, and the Government have accepted the moral case for compensation, which is why on Monday, in the other place, we committed to bringing forward amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill at Report stage, with the intention of speeding up the implementation of our response to the inquiry.

Q8. I thank the Prime Minister sincerely for the extra £244 million announced this week for transport investment in Shropshire, which comes on top of £300 million for the modernisation of our local accident and emergency services, levelling-up funds to modernise Shrewsbury town centre, and full funding for the north-west relief road, the ring road around Shrewsbury. These infrastructure projects will have a major benefit in Shropshire, and not just for us but for those who follow us. There is, however, one issue that I would like to raise with the Prime Minister: how Shropshire Council is funded to deal with adult social care costs. We have a disproportionately ageing population in Shropshire, and the council is struggling to meet those additional costs. What more can be done to help such councils deal with rising adult social care costs? (901702)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does representing his constituents. He is right about the pressures that are faced, particularly in rural areas, which is why the Government provided £600 million of additional funding for local government across the country, ensuring an increase of around 7.5% in resources available to invest in social care, but also an extra addition to the rural services delivery grant—an acknowledgement of the challenges of providing services in rural areas—with more funding for those rural councils to deliver.

My constituent Lee Haywood in Dalmarnock is on a communal heat network and has seen both his standing charges and his energy bills absolutely soar. The heat network market framework was introduced in 2021, but the Minister in the Lords said in a letter last week that his “ambition” is that price regulation will only start in spring 2026. Is it this Government’s incompetence or Ofgem’s lack of powers that is letting down constituents who cannot afford to put on their heating this winter?

As the hon. Lady will know, standing charges are a matter for the independent regulator, Ofgem, which is currently looking at all those things as part of a consultation. More generally, it is this Government who are providing considerable support to families across the country, including in Scotland, with their energy bills. I am sure she will join me in welcoming the recent announcement about the fall in energy bills, bringing them back to levels that we have not seen in a long time, on top of the cost of living support that the Chancellor has provided so that everyone in our country gets the help that they need.

Q10.   Werrington Fields is a much-loved open space cherished by local residents and used by the nearby school as playing fields. Shockingly, Peterborough City Council proposed to fence off almost the entire area, rejecting a compromise that most residents and the school were happy with. Bizarrely, the local council seeks to blame the Secretary of State for Education, myself and even the Prime Minister. Will my right hon. Friend get behind my campaign to save Werrington Fields and make it clear—right here, right now—that this is a matter entirely for the local authority? (901704)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for championing his constituents on this matter. As he knows, last year the Education Secretary rightly rejected Peterborough City Council’s application to change the playing field land at Ken Stimson Community School from educational land to public open space. That decision ensured that children will have access to the open space that they deserve, but I am told by the Department that the council can provide for some of that land to be fenced and that the Department would be comfortable with that, provided that the overall site remains educational land. That is something that I know he wants to see, and the Department is ready to work with him to ensure that happens.

After yesterday’s revelation that Nick Read, the Post Office CEO, is under investigation following an 80-page report written by the former head of HR at the Post Office, do the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary have confidence in Nick Read’s leadership at the Post Office?

It would clearly be inappropriate for me to comment on an investigation before it has been completed. Our focus remains working closely with the Post Office to ensure that it delivers justice for postmasters caught up in this historic scandal, which is why we will imminently bring forward the legislation that we promised.

Q11. A few years ago, there was a proposal to build nearly 7,000 houses in a beautiful part of my constituency near the villages of Castor and Ailsworth, against the wishes of local residents. I worked with the local community, and together we were able to stop the development. However, efforts are now being made to include this land in a revised Peterborough local plan. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is very important that the voice of the local community is heard and that it is unacceptable that developments can take place in this circuitous way, especially when other, more suitable land is available in and around the city of Peterborough? (901705)

My right hon. Friend raises an important issue, and he is right to say that the local community should always have their voice heard. It is important that councils bring forward local plans, but this must be done in close consultation with local communities, because their voices matter. As I understand it, the Peterborough local plan is still under preparation and there are opportunities to provide comments on the draft plan, so I commend him for continuing to support his local community to ensure that their voice is heard.

The Prime Minister talks about things going backwards. The UK is the only western G7 power in recession, with seven consecutive quarters of no growth. That is the worst since records began in 1955. Can the Prime Minister tell the businesses going bust, the families struggling to pay their bills, and the people being made homeless why this recession, which has his name written all over it, is a good thing for our country?

The hon. Lady might want to check some of the facts that she just outlined to the House; they are not quite right. Perhaps she would like to explain to the country why her party is stuck with a completely incoherent energy policy that will saddle working families with £28 billion of higher tax rises and higher energy bills.

Q12. Since 2019, the Prime Minister has had our backs in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, with record funding for our local transport, over £200 million for Stoke and Staffordshire to repair potholes, over £30 million to improve our bus network with cheaper fares and new and extended routes, funding to upgrade Kidsgrove and Stoke-on-Trent railway stations and bringing back the Stoke to Leek line—and this week Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire have seen a tenfold increase in transport funding year in, year out. I know the Opposition like to talk down Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, but isn’t it true that this Prime Minister and this Conservative party are the only ones with a plan to improve and better connect our communities and fix our broken roads and pavements? (901706)

As ever, my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Stoke-on-Trent, and he is right: over the next several years, his area will receive 10 times as much as it currently does to invest in local transport schemes as a result of this Government’s decision on HS2. But he is also right to say that after years of being neglected by the party opposite, it is this Conservative Government that are levelling up across the country and in Stoke-on-Trent, championed by fantastic MPs like him.

The advent of the Cromarty Firth green freeport is most welcome. What discussions has the Prime Minister had with the Scottish Government, who will be responsible for ensuring that there is a robust road network associated with the freeport and that there will be sufficient housing for the influx of workers who we hope will contribute to our dream of the fabrication of offshore renewable structures?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the freeport. We are taking advantage of our Brexit opportunities to deliver two freeports in Scotland to attract jobs and investment in the industries of the future. With regard to infrastructure investment, not only do we provide the tax benefits for a freeport but £25 million of seed funding is available to the freeport, in discussions with the Government, that can be used on local infrastructure improvements that make sense to develop the opportunities that the freeport provides.

Q13. The AUKUS programme is not just a national endeavour designed to keep our nation safe; it is also an international partnership that speaks about our ambitious work across the globe to pursue security and contain threats. I want to personally thank the Prime Minister for his engagement with the Team Barrow initiative, which is bringing together senior civil servants, my council, BAE Systems and myself to drive this programme forward to make sure we can deliver those boats to time and to budget. That means improving and investing in the local area considerably. With that in mind, may I invite the Prime Minister to Barrow to meet not just the fantastic people building the boats of the future but to see how the programme is going to uplift Furness for the future? (901707)

At a time of great instability around the world, with the war in Ukraine and in the Red sea, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that AUKUS is a game-changing defence and security partnership that will keep us safe and create thousands of jobs in the UK shipyards and the supply chain, building on the investment in places such as Barrow and Derby. He is a fantastic champion of what this industry means in his area, and the Team Barrow partnership is a crucial component of ensuring that AUKUS is a success. That is why the Chancellor provided millions of pounds of funding for a delivery board for Barrow. We have recently discussed this at Cabinet and I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend and his community to see the progress for myself when my diary allows.

Last weekend, the Prime Minister posed for photographs with a group that shares extremist conspiracy theories on climate change and campaigns against net zero. Does he share their views?

Q14. My integrated care board tells me that only £2 million of the £120 million of capital that it receives annually is for primary care, which seems an unfairly small amount for our amazing family doctors and practice nurses who are, after all, the front door of the NHS. Can our local general practitioners have a greater share? (901708)

I thank my hon. Friend for his excellent and continued campaigning on health provision for his constituents. On his specific point, integrated care boards have the power to increase their primary care annual capital management budget, so long as they keep within the overall budget. I understand that he met a Health Minister earlier this week to discuss this further, and I will make sure that his proposals are very carefully considered.

The Prime Minister has just told my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that, as a Minister, it is inappropriate for him to comment on the bullying allegations at the Post Office, yet he allows his Business and Trade Secretary to comment freely, loudly and often on Twitter. Is he content with her activities and behaviour in this respect?

The Business and Trade Secretary set out her position explicitly and clearly in the House last week. Since then, and despite some of the claims made by the party opposite, the Department’s permanent secretary has completely refuted the claims that were made. Yesterday, the Post Office’s current CEO and the Department’s director of business resilience also refuted Mr Staunton’s recollection.

Our focus and priority is delivering justice and compensation for those who suffered a historic injustice. We are introducing legislation to right this wrong, and we will make sure that everyone gets the compensation they deserve.

Q15. The £132 million allocated to Cornwall from the shared prosperity fund not only kept our promise to the Cornish people to replace EU funding, but has supported dozens of businesses and funded projects across the duchy. However, the current round of SPF expires next year, so can the Prime Minister confirm that his Government will continue the shared prosperity funding and will continue to provide the support that the Cornish economy needs? (901709)

It was great to visit my hon. Friend in his constituency the other week to see the delights of Cornwall. I wish everyone a happy St Piran’s day for next week.

Cornwall has been awarded over £130 million through the UK shared prosperity fund to deliver, I think, a hundred different projects across the county. Funding is confirmed for this spending review period up to the end of March 2025 but, as with all Government funding, decisions regarding the fund’s future are a matter for the next spending review. I assure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to an ambitious levelling-up agenda in Cornwall and across the country.

Post Office Board and Governance

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business and Trade if she will make a statement on what steps are being taken to restore public confidence in the Post Office board and governance following evidence taken at yesterday’s Business and Trade Committee.

I sat there for five hours listening to all the evidence that was given to the Select Committee yesterday. Several serious allegations have now been made against the Government, my Department and its officials by Henry Staunton. His most recent revelation is that there is an ongoing HR investigation that involves both him and the Post Office CEO Nick Read. I have to say as a former chair that I clearly found that statement to the Select Committee highly unprofessional.

The fact that Nick Read is being investigated is evidence that no one is untouchable and the Post Office culture is changing. An investigation is of course not evidence that allegations are accurate. While Nick Read has co-operated fully, Mr Staunton tried to block the investigations looking at his conduct. It was this action, as well as his attempt to bypass the formal process to appoint a new director to the board, which led the Secretary of State to lose confidence in Mr Staunton. As was said in the Business and Trade Committee yesterday, board members felt so strongly about Mr Staunton’s conduct that they were going to resign. It was right that the Government decided to act.

Mr Staunton has now made a series of allegations which we strongly reject. He is using the Nick Read investigation to divert attention from the issues the Select Committee was discussing about his dismissal. The allegations made are also proving to be a further distraction from the victims of this injustice. His central allegation is that the Government told him to slow down compensation payments. Not a single person backed him up on this claim. My officials are clear that they have never been instructed to do this. Post Office executives are clear that such an instruction was never passed on to them. We have provided a letter from June 2023 from my Department to Mr Staunton telling him the opposite. His only evidence is a note of a conversation which is clearly about operational financing of the Post Office business; this is entirely different from compensation to sub- postmasters. The permanent secretary wrote recently to give her truthful account of what happened. We also released her office’s contemporaneous notes of that meeting.

Mr Staunton alleged that the Secretary of State refused to apologise to him after he learned of his dismissal from Sky News; this was not the case. He claimed there was pressure on Nick Read to send a letter to the Justice Secretary; this was not the case. He claimed the Secretary of State told him that someone has got to take the rap for the Horizon scandal and that was the reason for his dismissal; this was not the case.

The Post Office faces unprecedented challenges and needs to work at pace to deliver compensation to the thousands of postmasters who fell victim to a flawed IT system as well as continue the essential work to implement the necessary operational and cultural changes needed within the business. As we have repeatedly said, Post Office governance is a priority for the Government; that is why we acted swiftly to remove a chair about whom there were serious concerns and allegations and why we are working at pace to appoint an interim chair.

We of course recognise the seriousness of an investigation into individuals at the Post Office. I also recognise parliamentary and public concern and the need to ensure there is confidence in the Post Office leadership. I will therefore ask the Post Office to provide me with the findings of the investigation once it is completed. However, it is right to wait for this investigation to conclude before making any further judgment.

I am really disappointed that the Secretary of State herself is not here, but I thank the Minister the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for everything he does for post offices and am happy to work with him going forward.

Prominent Horizon victims are still saying financial redress is far too slow. Legal representatives of victims said yesterday that redress schemes are not working for victims—too much “lawyering” going on, too much obfuscation. Lawyers say complete claims might have settled for less than they were entitled to and might need to be revisited. Neil Hudgell suggested that August deadline target will not be met and the current compensation impasse could continue for another one or two years.

Henry Staunton’s claims persist. Why has the Prime Minister refused to back up the Secretary of State, refusing to repeat the claim that Staunton lied? This is the third time we have been here to find out about the circumstances of Mr Staunton’s departure. The last time the Secretary of State mentioned investigations into Staunton but failed to reveal an 80-page investigation into current CEO Nick Read. With all we have seen about the Secretary of State’s past assurances being undermined, how can we trust her firm assurances now?

Does the Secretary of State have faith in the Post Office board, which is clearly in total disarray? There were even claims that the chief executive officer, Nick Read, had threatened to resign over pay. Victims and the public have lost faith in the Post Office board and governance. When more than £1.2 billion of public money is being spent on financial redress, the taxpayer ought to have confidence that costs will not be driven up further by mismanagement. The evidence from yesterday’s Business and Trade Committee shows that the public and victims have no reason to be confident, as incompetence and obfuscation has marred the process until now. Sub-postmasters say that redress schemes are not working. Victims agree. The lawyers say that they are not working and the former chair of the Post Office says that they are not working. Why should we trust the Government, and what will the Minister do to fix this?

I should say that the Secretary of State is abroad at a World Trade Organisation conference.

I thank the hon. Lady once again from this Dispatch Box for all that she does on behalf of postmasters. Interestingly, in his evidence yesterday, Mr Staunton said that he had no concerns over the speed of compensation, which I think astounded both the hon. Lady and me. We have been fighting for years to try to improve the speed of compensation. That is just one more concern that people might have with Mr Staunton’s evidence, but it was clearly stated in one of his responses.

It is right that we constantly seek to improve the speed of compensation and to make sure that it is full and fair and is seen to be so. One reason that I spent all day listening to the evidence yesterday was to make sure that we are doing everything possible to accelerate compensation. I heard some interesting conversations in the evidence session, including ideas from Mr Hudgell and others on how we can accelerate compensation, which we are very keen to do.

The hon. Lady will know that the latest figures were quoted yesterday at the Select Committee hearing. On the group litigation order scheme, for example, 106 full claims have been submitted, 104 offers have been made, and 80 have been accepted without reference to the independent panel, which would tend to indicate that the offers being made are fair. The hon. Lady will also recognise from the announcements that we made on Monday during the statement that we have introduced a £450,000 interim compensation figure for when people submit their full claim for the overturned convictions. When an offer is made, we will provide 80% of that initial offer to claimants in the GLO scheme.

Interestingly, Henry Staunton seemed to think that the biggest concern with the compensation schemes was around the overturned convictions—he clearly said that yesterday—when the hon. Lady and every Member of this House knows that we announced legislation on Monday, and previously, that will overturn the convictions en masse, which is unprecedented. Obviously, that is the key to unlocking compensation. For all those reasons, we should not take Henry Staunton’s evidence at face value.

Mr Staunton continues to insist that he was told to delay compensation for the postmasters, but at the Select Committee hearing yesterday he said that, unlike his own notes, the published notes of the meeting with Sarah Munby were not contemporaneous. Can the Minister undertake to provide a contemporaneous note of that conversation to put this accusation to bed once and for all?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for her work on the Select Committee. It is one thing to criticise Ministers, but entirely another to sully the good name of a civil servant. Sarah Munby has been very clear in her letter that she published on this matter that Mr Staunton is wrong. She has also been very clear that she has contemporaneous notes of that meeting, and we will be publishing those notes that will clarify and back up the fact that Henry Staunton is wrong and that Sarah Munby is right.

What we saw yesterday was unedifying and, at points, a fiasco. Sub-postmasters watching will have rightly been dismayed and will have felt that, if anything, they were moving further away from justice. The ongoing conflict at the top of the Post Office and the failure of the Government to get a grip is helping no one and is only further eroding trust in this process. The Secretary of State should reflect on how her approach to the news of recent weeks has only exacerbated that. We, and especially victims, have all had enough of the “He said, she said”. Does the Minister now recognise that the best way to end this is by fully clarifying what the Government have or have not said, through an independent Cabinet Office investigation?

May I also pick up on some very worrying evidence given yesterday by Carl Creswell, the director of business resilience in the Department for Business and Trade? When talking about the financial provisions set aside for Horizon compensation, he said:

“I personally think we will end up spending more money on compensation overall than that £1 billion figure, which was modelled at an earlier stage.”

That is incredibly serious. Does the Minister share that view held by one of his senior civil servants? If so, what conversations has he had with Government colleagues and will we see that reflected in next week’s Budget?

Will the Minister clarify whether he or the Secretary of State were aware that Nick Read was also under investigation, as was allegedly stated in the 80-page document referred to by Henry Staunton in yesterday’s Select Committee hearing? In response to me during an urgent question on 29 January, the Minister said that Henry Staunton’s sacking was not due to a falling out, but that it was

“about very serious governance issues related to the person who headed the board of the organisation, which are obviously confidential human resources issues.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2024; Vol. 744, c. 612.]

Will the Minister confirm whether he had sight of the confidential human resources report referred to in yesterday’s Select Committee hearing? If so, why was he selective in his update to the House?

Finally, it is very important to make sure that we restore trust, by urgently bringing forward legislation. I hope that, unlike yesterday’s unseemly events, our focus can return to making sure that we exonerate the sub-postmasters and deliver the recompense that they rightly deserve.

When the hon. Lady says that I was “selective” about what I said, is she accusing me of being economical with the truth? If so, I would take exception to that. It would be absolutely wrong for anybody in this House to disclose information about an investigation that has not concluded and where the presumption of innocence must apply for the individuals concerned. If she thinks I should come to this House to talk about those kind of sensitive, confidential matters, she does not understand how the corporate world works.

I did find what happened yesterday unedifying, but that was about one person; everybody else who gave evidence yesterday was clear that there was no sense ever of trying to slow down compensation. Neither do I think the hon. Lady is right to say that postmasters are further away from getting compensation; it is quite the opposite. To imply that and so raise questions about the compensation scheme could lead to people not coming forward. We welcome the fact that 1,000 more people have come forward since the ITV series. People are closer to compensation, not further away, and the actions we are taking, through the compensation advisory board, the overturning of convictions, the Horizon shortfall scheme, which is nearly completed, and the GLO scheme are all moving on. If she wants to end the, “He said, she said”, perhaps she should end it, because we want to move on and pay compensation.

As for the figure of £1 billion, is the hon. Lady saying it is serious if we have no cap on compensation? I do not think that is serious at all; of course we have no cap on compensation. The £1 billion is a maximum budget, but if that needs to be increased, it should be. If she is saying that we should not increase it if people deserve more, she should put that on the record. It would be an entirely irresponsible thing to do. Every time I have dealt with this matter over the Dispatch Box with shadow Ministers, it has been constructive and collaborative, and I resent the tone she has taken in this case.

Let me say, in fairness to the Minister, that he has come here on more occasions than anybody else I have known. He has absolutely ensured that the House has been kept informed—he goes without question on this.

I commend the Minister, not only for the consistent and compassionate approach he has taken to this matter, but for his attendance at yesterday’s session. It lasted for five hours and he was there for the greater part of it. He is right to say that much of what we heard yesterday was a real distraction from the key objective of the Government and the Committee of making sure there is speedy compensation for our postmasters. It was clear that the former chairman and possibly the chief executive exhibited limitations in their roles and were perhaps unsuitable for the roles to which they were appointed, so are there any broader lessons we might deduce on how we go about recruitment for publicly owned organisations such as the Post Office?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his work on the Select Committee. He is a doughty champion in this area and many others relating to the Committee’s work. There are some lessons we need to learn; the Post Office certainly requires the right kind of skills and the right kind of person to turn it around. That is clearly a work in progress and I do not think people will be confident that that is happening until it has actually happened. Words are no longer enough; we need actions, be it on the turnaround of the Post Office or on the compensation schemes.

I am grateful to the Minister for joining us for most of the five hours of hearings yesterday, but he will know as well as I do that what we saw yesterday was complete chaos at the top of the Post Office, when what we needed was a clarity of purpose about paying redress fast and fairly. Not a single witness yesterday said that they were satisfied with the speed of any one of the three processes. In fact, the lawyers for the claimants said that it may now take one to two years in order to complete the payment of redress, and we heard evidence of offers being made that were, frankly, insultingly low. That is true across each of the three schemes.

Most worryingly, we heard that the Post Office chief executive had not had regularly meetings with the Secretary of State or received a clear written instruction to accelerate every one of the three schemes; there were no deadlines and no targets, and there are no incentives to get the redress schemes done and dusted. That is not good enough. Will the Minister again reflect, when he brings his Bill before the House, on the need to eliminate the Post Office from this process to the maximum possible extent and ensure that there are a legally binding set of timescales under which claims are given the information they need and processed, with offers made and offers settled? I say that, because we cannot go on like this.

I do think the chaos was caused by one individual. I sat through the whole session; for the bit I was not in the room with the right hon. Gentleman, I was watching on television. It is right for people to be able to say that they are not satisfied with the speed of compensation. I have said that time and time again from this Dispatch Box, and we are keen to accelerate the process and make sure it is fast and fair.

We are aware of the recommendations from the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on an appeals mechanism for some of the schemes where people feel the compensation is too low. We are looking and will continue to look at that. Every compensation scheme I have dealt with, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland global restructuring group scheme and the Lloyds-HBOS scheme, has been too slow, because of some of the complexity involved. We heard some good suggestions yesterday about how we might remove some of that complexity, which I am very keen to do. We heard some positive remarks from the individuals concerned, for example, from some of the solicitors, and from the Post Office on the fixed-sum awards—the £650,000 for the overturned convictions and the £75,000 for the GLO scheme. We heard how that was reducing the amount of disclosure that was required—that is one of the limiting factors. This should mean that the timescales that some people put on the table of one to two years should be rapidly reduced, and I am very keen to build on that work.

As the CEO confirmed to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) yesterday, I meet him every month, and we speak about the need to accelerate compensation every single time. We have targets for when to pay the compensation by: August for GLO cases, and for all cases ideally by the end of the year. As we heard yesterday, 1,000 new claimants have come forward since the ITV series, which makes it difficult to put deadlines on payment. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman wants a legally binding target. I am happy to discuss that with him, but we have just removed one legally binding target because not everything within the process is within our gift.

I know that my hon. Friend has a passion to get this right, and to right the wrongs of the past. Does he agree that we must do all that we can to ensure that sub-postmasters who were victims of the awful Horizon scandal are exonerated, and compensated fully, fairly and with haste?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on this issue as one of my predecessors; I know that he was as keen as I am to ensure that full and fair compensation is paid to all individuals. As I said, there is no limit to the amount of compensation that we will set aside to ensure that people are compensated properly for this horrendous scandal.

In the week that we heard that more than 250 postmasters whose lives and reputations were damaged by Post Office Ltd died before they could get justice, yesterday we found another layer of Post Office Ltd’s organisational dysfunction. On 19 February, the Secretary of State informed the House of bullying accusations against Mr Staunton, only for us to find out yesterday that those accusations related to another individual entirely. Could I first ask the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect—not just for the manner in which he goes about his business with regard to the Horizon scandal—whether the Secretary of State misled the House by telling Members that Mr Staunton was under wider investigation for bullying? Secondly, will the Minister now respond positively to requests from the Scottish Government and the Northern Irish Executive to reconsider introducing legislation that could lead to a swift UK-wide exoneration for the postmasters affected?

To be clear, we terminated Mr Staunton’s role as chair of the Post Office not because of bullying accusations. There was an 80-page report, which he referred to yesterday, and which I have not read. He freely admitted in yesterday’s evidence session that he was named in that report. To what extent, I do not—[Interruption.] Well, that is what Mr Staunton said; he said that it was to a very minor extent. I do not know that, I do not think the hon. Gentleman knows that, and I think we should wait for the investigation to conclude before we make a judgment on that. The point was not about the allegation itself; the point was that, as Mr Staunton admitted yesterday, he interfered with the investigation. That is unacceptable, and if we had not acted in the way that we did, I think that the hon. Gentleman and others would be calling us to account for why we did not act when somebody had tried to suspend or interfere with an investigation into his own conduct.

I am aware of the Scottish and Northern Irish Governments’ position on legislation. Of course we will continue to discuss that with them. There are some separate devolved issues around the judicial systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is the reason we have done it differently. We are happy to continue our dialogue on it.

From my time as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department, I know the determination of the Minister and the Secretary of State to get compensation to these wronged postmasters as quickly as possible. In yesterday’s Select Committee session, Mr Staunton spoke about lobbying for a pay rise for Mr Read, which I know must have been quite galling to many of the sub-postmasters. The Minister reportedly refused to grant that pay rise. What sort of pay rise did Mr Staunton think would be a fair, equitable agreement at that time?

I think on two occasions Mr Staunton lobbied for a pay increase for Mr Read. He sought to double the overall package of Mr Read on those occasions.

Yesterday’s Committee meeting was bizarre in many ways. It was five hours long and, as happens only rarely, the people in front of the inquiry had to swear on the Holy Bible. That is how bad it was. The recently dismissed former chairman revealed a number of things that were quite alarming. First, he revealed that the current chief executive is under investigation. Perhaps the Minister can explain why we were not aware of that. Secondly, he revealed that the current chief executive had threatened to resign on more than four occasions, not because of the lack of progress on any financial redress for postmasters and postmistresses, but because he said his wages were too low. The chief executive also said that he was proud that he had a hardship fund for workers in the Post Office. Can the Minister clarify whether there has been an approach by anyone on behalf of the current chief executive for a pay rise, and what the response was?

First, may I correct the record? In response to the Chair of the Business and Trade Committee, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), I said that the fixed sum award was £650,000; it is £600,000.

It would be wrong to disclose an investigation into somebody’s conduct before that investigation had concluded. It would be extraordinary to do that in any work context, be it in the public or private sector. I am happy to have a conversation with the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) about the hardship fund. If he is talking about the Post Office paying salaries to postmasters, most postmasters are self-employed, not paid a salary directly, and have a number of different streams of income into their business. These are businesses in their own right, of course, but there is a hardship fund for certain postmasters in certain situations.

I echo the comments about the Minister and his assiduous work on this issue, both as a Back Bencher and now as the Minister. Does he agree that perhaps it is necessary to look at how many people are working on the compensation scheme on the Post Office’s side? I have raised the matter with him before. A lot of it is expert work, but if anything can be done to build the resource, that would be helpful, particularly for my constituent, whom we have discussed before. On disciplinary and grievance procedures, is it not normal that they are private until the point when a decision is made?

On the last point, my right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right; he clearly understands these situations very well. They should of course be kept confidential, which is why it was highly unprofessional of Mr Staunton to say what he said yesterday. On my right hon. and learned Friend’s first point—I cannot remember what it was now.

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we have the resources available to settle compensation claims quickly. Certainly, a file note that I took away from yesterday’s session was about the number of individuals looking after compensation from Addleshaw Goddard’s end, although it is turning around the offers increasingly quickly. Responses to full claims now happen within 40 days in 85% of cases. There has been an improvement. We are keen to ensure that every part of the process has the resources it needs to pay the compensation fairly and quickly.

Surely what we saw yesterday was a glimpse of senior management in the Post Office who are now completely dysfunctional. As such, it is difficult to see how anyone can have confidence in their administration of the various compensation schemes. Would it not be a sensible first step to restore confidence in that most important national institution—the Post Office—to take all role for them out of the administration of the compensation schemes and appoint an independent commissioner? Nothing starts to get better for the Post Office until the schemes are successfully delivered and wound up.

I think what we actually heard and saw was a dysfunctional former chair of the Post Office; that is what we saw. Interestingly, to the right hon. Gentleman’s point about compensation schemes, the former chair said at one point during his evidence that he had no concerns about the speed of delivery of the HSS—which was extraordinary, because I have many concerns about it.

I hear loud and clear calls from across the House about the role that the Post Office is playing in compensation schemes. These are sensitive matters, because people in the Post Office are employed to manage and administer the compensation schemes. I hear the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) loud and clear. We are looking at it, but I reassure him that all three schemes have independence in them: an independent panel in the HSS; an independent panel and a reviewer, Sir Ross Cranston, on the GLO scheme; and the independence on the overturned convictions in Sir Gary Hickinbottom. Both latter people are retired High Court judges, which should give claimants and the right hon. Gentleman, I hope, some confidence that the schemes will operate properly.

My hon. Friend the Minister has referred to Mr Staunton, who it seems had serious character defects. How was he ever appointed in the first place, and who provided the character references and oversaw that appointment process? May we have an inquiry into that?

Thankfully, not me. I have nothing against Mr Staunton personally. He had a strong track record as the chair of various large organisations, as he said yesterday. I think we would all agree that the Post Office is a specific organisation with specific challenges. Yesterday’s evidence from Ben Tidswell, the senior independent director, was interesting. He felt that Mr Staunton’s behaviour changed in November last year and became far more “erratic”—his word. I do not know the reasons for that specifically, although Mr Tidswell suggested some yesterday. Whatever the reason, Mr Staunton’s recent conduct is not consistent with remaining chair of the Post Office. That is why we decided to act.

I thank the Minister for his work in this area. He has been assiduous in his attention to detail—I cannot say the same of the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, yesterday was unedifying, and we are sick to death of the “He said, she said” business—we are not interested, except that two witnesses yesterday took the oath and spoke to the same issue: as to whether Mr Read had ever tendered his resignation or threatened to. It was totally conflicting evidence from the two people; they both cannot be right, so I suggest that one might have been a little economical with the truth. From Dr Neil Hudgell, though, the message came loud and clear: these schemes are way too “over-engineered” and far too “bureaucratic”, and that has led to the delay in getting the money out of the door. I have to correct the Minister—only 20% of the fund is out of the door as yet. We have to speed it up.

Finally, I ask him to take on board the words of the predecessor Select Committee, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, in February 2022, which said that the best way through this was to remove the Post Office from the system. Now, it may be too late to do that, but my goodness, was not the Committee right to say that? Can we find ways to relegate the role of the Post Office, because that is the only way we will get justice for postmasters? Ultimately, that is what this is about—getting them compensated.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman’s final point, and a number of the points he made. It is fair to say that on the compensation schemes, we could use the old phrase, “If you were going there, you wouldn’t start from here.” I think that Sir Wyn Williams has said that, but the best way now is to say, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” We have to improve the schemes we have got. The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point about the Post Office, and he will have heard what I said earlier. I think the fixed-sum awards do take the Post Office out of the schemes completely, because no disclosure is required for them.

On tendering resignation—again, I thought it was extraordinary that a chair would disclose confidential and private conversations that he has had with the chief executive. I have to say for the record that Mr Read has never tendered his resignation to me or to the Secretary of State. Others would be better than me to comment on the nature of those conversations, but I do not think that it was right for Mr Staunton to comment at all.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State has given me 100% support in everything I have done in trying to address these matters. I accept what Neil Hudgell said—I spoke to him afterwards, and we have spoken before about the schemes being over-engineered—and he suggested some ways to try to accelerate compensation. We are of course looking at those to see what the best way is to ensure that they are not over-engineered, but deliver rapid and fair outcomes as quickly as possible.

My primary interest is in compensation payments being made expeditiously across the entire United Kingdom, and in Northern Ireland in particular, where I have been lobbied directly by a number of the sub-postmasters who have been treated so vilely. After the statement of 10 January, I asked whether the Minister would ensure that no delays would be allowed whatever, and he affirmed from the Dispatch Box that that was exactly the Government’s intention. Will he reaffirm that no delays will be allowed, irrespective of the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland? No devolved Minister or devolved court was involved at that time. Will he reaffirm that the payments will be made, and that our sub-postmasters will not have to wait a day longer than anyone else?

I will be very pleased to ensure that that happens. I met the Northern Ireland Justice Minister virtually a few days ago to discuss these matters. I know that the Northern Ireland Administration’s preference is for UK-wide legislation; we do not think that is the right approach, but we will continue to work with the Administration to ensure that they can deliver the right legislation or process to make sure that the compensation is paid. Clearly, once convictions are overturned anywhere in the United Kingdom, people enter exactly the same compensation scheme—they can get rapid compensation through the fixed-sum award of £600,000, or go through the full assessment process. We are determined to make the process quicker, easier and fairer. I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman to ensure that that is the case.

I thank the Minister for his work on the Horizon scandal, and for answering my letter concerning a constituent. In that answer, he confirmed that former post office clerks and those working for a franchise who lost money, jobs and reputation through the Horizon scandal are not eligible for compensation under the current scheme. Will he look into ways to include them in a compensation scheme?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for representing her constituents so effectively. I am keen to have continued conversation with her. All the schemes that have been established thus far require a contractual relationship between the Post Office and the individual, and I know that was not the case for her constituent. A number of Members of this House have addressed the issue, and we will continue to look at it.

Whether we are talking about my constituent Roger, a former postmaster whose case certainly needs review, constituents in communities such as Clarkston and Neilston, who have experienced the most recent post office closures in East Renfrewshire, or the brilliant postmasters operating locally, none of them deserves this mess. This is turning into a regrettable circus to all looking in from the outside. What assurances can the Minister give me today that that will not be allowed to divert or distract from a genuine focus on the swiftest possible resolution, and on delivering a sustainable future for the Post Office?

I thank the hon. Lady for making that point and for representing her constituents so well. Yes, absolutely, we understand that this is distracting, or could distract, from work to ensure not just that we make right the wrongs of the past, but that the Post Office has a strong future, as she put it. I totally agree. We think that the Post Office does have a strong future. Revenue streams have been affected by changes in how and where people acquire certain things or access certain services, but the banking framework—we encourage the Post Office to be more ambitious in its negotiations with the banks on the remuneration that flows from the framework to postmasters—and the parcel hubs are an opportunity for the future. We believe that the Post Office has a strong brand and strong future. We are keen to support its efforts to ensure that the future is bright for all postmasters.

I declare my interest as a member of the Horizon advisory board. Welcome back to the Minister. He should bring in his sleeping bag—he is here that often. I was at the five-hour marathon yesterday, and I was totally unconvinced by Henry Staunton’s accusations, and his allegations about delaying compensation. Like the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), I wonder why Mr Staunton was appointed in the first place—to any board, for that matter. However, to come to the point, Mr Staunton did raise the point that the chief executive is under investigation, following an 80-page report. I accept that the Minister cannot talk about that individual—that would be wrong—but he knows that the culture at the Post Office is rotten, and it is important that the cloud be lifted quickly. When the Secretary of State came to the House on 19 February, did she and the Minister know that Nick Read was under investigation? Is it true that the former HR director who wrote that report has left the Post Office with a settlement, and does that settlement include a non-disclosure agreement?

I am very happy to come to the Dispatch Box any time I am required to, or feel that there is a need to, which, as the right hon. Gentleman says, is quite often at the moment.

I was aware of the investigation relating to Mr Read and Mr Staunton. That was not the reason why the Secretary of State decided to part company with the chair; that was about interfering with the investigation. The right hon. Gentleman asks about the HR director. I do not know about those matters, but I am happy to look into them and come back to him.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that everything we are seeing and hearing about the Post Office inquiry is further undermining the confidence of those who were affected by the Horizon scandal. As the Minister says, 1,000 more people have come forward; they have no more confidence than anyone else in the governance of the Post Office. One of them, a constituent of mine, had been with the Post Office for almost 20 years, and was about to be offered redundancy. She was asked to take over a sub-post office for two months to make up the 20 years. During those two months, she became embroiled in the Horizon scandal. She was not charged, because her Post Office managers pleaded on her behalf, but she lost her redundancy, and she is now completely confused about where she stands, and has no faith in the governance to fix the problem. Is the Minister prepared to meet me to discuss that case, so that I can assure my constituent that it is being dealt with?

Yes, of course I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituent. Given what the hon. Lady has said, the place for her constituent to go is the Horizon shortfall scheme, which will be happy to look at that particular situation. Of the 2,417 people who applied to the original scheme, 100% have had offers and 84% have accepted those offers, so she can be assured that there will be fairness. We are looking to ensure that the scheme is fair and is seen to be fair.

The other schemes are also delivering outcomes more quickly than they were. There were 106 claims in the group litigation order scheme; 80 offers have been accepted, and compensation for overturned convictions is a fixed-sum award of £600,000. The fact that 1,000 people have come forward for compensation since the ITV series indicates that people do have confidence that they will be compensated fairly, but I absolutely understand that we have work to do to ensure that people feel that way across the board.

The Minister has been incredibly honest and forthright in all his answers, and we have every faith in him, given his conduct and all the information he has brought to the Chamber, for which I thank him. As locally elected representatives, we are accountable to our electorates. How will the Minister ensure that those who are paid from Government funds are accountable in the same way? What more can be done to hold those decision-makers to account?

As ever, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. On the point about Government funds, I guess that he is referring to executives in the Post Office. Clearly, that is the Government’s responsibility as the single shareholder. We have a representative on the board in Lorna Gratton from UKGI, in whom I have a great deal of confidence. I think it fair to say that my Department and its officials have learned a lot from the process and from what has gone on, and that is right. We should be clear that mistakes have happened, and apologise for the way that they have contributed to the scandal.

I am very keen to ensure that there is continued accountability. We have, at significant expense to the taxpayer, set up the public inquiry, which was called for by Members across the House. It will take evidence in public, so that the public can see what is happening, and will conclude by the end of this year and report next year. We will then have a lot more answers to the hon. Gentleman’s question, as well as accountability not just for Post Office executives in future, but for Post Office executives of previous years.

That concludes proceedings on the urgent question. I thank the Minister for his now daily appearance, as well as the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).


Two years ago, Putin thought his tanks would roll easily into Kyiv and Ukraine would fall within days. He did not expect Ukraine’s brave resistance, he did not expect his military to let him down so badly, and he did not expect the west to stand so firmly in support of Ukraine, with unprecedented sanctions and massive aid to help Ukraine to resist.

Today, Ukraine stands strong and united, and we in the international community stand just as firmly in our support. Even now, Putin tries to pretend he is winning this illegal war, even though Ukraine has retaken half the territory seized in 2022 and largely pushed the Black sea fleet out of Crimea; even though he has failed in his attempts to stop Ukraine exporting grain; and even though his actions have united Europe, convincing Sweden and Finland to join NATO and the EU to begin accession talks with Ukraine. It speaks volumes about this neo-imperialist bully that he stubbornly continues, despite the cost to Ukraine and his own people. In recent months, Putin sent around 50,000 young Russians to their deaths in order to take Avdiivka, a town whose pre-war population was just 35,000. We must and will ensure that he fails, for this is the biggest test of our generation. Putin’s brazen violation of the UN charter strikes at the heart of the rules on which our security and prosperity depend, and our adversaries are watching.

Today, we stand at a critical juncture. Putin should be in no doubt of where we stand, or of our resolve. That is why we announced on Thursday 22 February over 50 new sanctions targeting those supporting his war effort. That includes the arms manufacturers, electronics companies and diamond and oil traders that are sustaining Putin’s illegal war. It brings the total number sanctioned under our Russia regime to 2,000, including banks that account for more than 90% of the Russian banking sector, not to mention more than 130 oligarchs, who together were worth around £147 billion at the time of the invasion.

Last month in Kyiv, the Prime Minister and President Zelensky signed a new agreement that builds Ukraine’s military capabilities, and announced a new wide-ranging partnership—an unbreakable alliance, to last 100 years or more. It includes our new £2.5 billion military support package, of which at least £200 million will be spent on a major push to produce thousands of military drones for Ukraine, including surveillance, long-range strike and sea drones. Britain was the first country to sign a long-term bilateral security agreement with Ukraine, as we promised in Vilnius. France, Germany, Italy, Denmark and Canada have now followed suit.

Last week, we witnessed time and again that we and our allies share the same conviction—the same determination—that Ukraine will prevail. At the Munich security conference, the Foreign Secretary made the case for a major uplift in European defence production, so that Ukraine gets all the firepower and equipment necessary to prevail. At the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting, it was clear that there are few illusions about what Russia is doing. At the UN, Britain underlined how dangerous Putin’s actions are for the entire world. To mark the second anniversary of Putin’s barbaric invasion, G7 leaders held a joint call with President Zelensky, renewing our pledge to make Russia pay. On Monday evening in Paris, the Foreign Secretary urged European partners to do more to show Putin that we will not let him win. All these efforts are having a real impact: the European Union has agreed a €50 billion multi-year funding package, Germany has doubled its military aid, and in the coming weeks, we expect several more of our partners to sign bilateral security agreements with Ukraine.

We will keep up and step up the pressure, and there is more that we can do. That means ensuring that we use sanctions to stop businesses funding Putin’s war machine, and engaging other countries to do the same; pursuing all lawful routes to use sanctioned Russian assets across the G7 to support Ukraine, and working with our partners to achieve that aim; and, along with those partners, giving Ukraine more of the munitions and equipment that will make the biggest difference. That is more ammunition at speed, more simple-to-use weapon systems such as drones and Soviet-era kit, more support—including training on F-16s—and more of the systems that have the biggest strategic impact, such as Storm Shadow long-range missiles. Through all this, we are sending an unambiguous message of our enduring support for Ukraine. That message was writ large in blue and yellow last Saturday when we projected the words “Slava Ukraini” on to government buildings up and down the land and our embassies worldwide, telling Ukraine, her people and the world that the United Kingdom, our allies and our people are here for them for as long as it takes.

I cannot end without acknowledging the terrible impact of Putin’s despotism on ordinary Russians as well. More than 300,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Ukraine, many more than in the decade-long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the war is robbing Russians of resources that should be spent on pensions or teachers. Putin’s Kremlin has systemically repressed the freedoms of its own people over the past two decades. We saw that most recently and tragically with the death of Alexei Navalny earlier this month—a man who fought with incredible courage to expose corruption throughout his life, calling for free and fair politics and holding the Kremlin to account. The British Government are calling for a full and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his death, and the Prime Minister has emphasised that we hold the Russian state accountable for its role in his death. We immediately announced sanctions against six individuals heading up the penal colony where Mr Navalny died following years of mistreatment at the hands of the Russian state. Britain was the first nation to introduce sanctions in response to Mr Navalny’s death, and we are working with international partners to co-ordinate the next steps.

I end by reiterating the UK’s call for Russia to release all those imprisoned on political grounds, including the dual British-Russian national Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is serving a 25-year sentence. The Foreign Secretary will meet his wife and his mother on Friday to express our solidarity and support. As the Foreign Secretary stated in New York, Putin tries to portray this as a battle between Russia and the west, but that is the central lie of this war. Our quarrel is not with the Russian people; our dispute is with those within the Russian state who are promoting their aggressive agenda at home and abroad to serve their own personal interests. Britain stands with all those who have fallen victim to Putin’s aggression and cruelty—in Ukraine, and in Russia.

I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, but once again, the shadow Cabinet Minister for international development is updating the House on one of the most important foreign policy issues of our time. I did not get a clear answer yesterday, so I will ask him again: when will the Foreign Secretary take questions from Members on both sides of the House?

Last week marked two years since the start of Putin’s full-scale illegal invasion of Ukraine. The bombed-out cities, the raped civilians, and the children kidnapped to Russia show the barbarity of Putin’s rogue regime. Ukraine’s resilience in the face of hell is testament to the enormous courage of its people. We echo the Minister’s statement that Ukraine’s actions to retake half the territory seized in 2022—pushing back the Black sea fleet—and the unity shown by Europe, have demonstrated the pretence of Putin’s attempt to claim that Russia is winning the war. But we cannot be complacent; the situation requires that our support to Ukraine should remain strong. Labour’s message to Ukraine is simple: whoever is in government, Britain will support Ukraine until it prevails.

We support the further and significant military and financial support that the Conservative Government have announced, as well as the further sanctions. Britain is united on Ukraine, but, as the official Opposition, we have the job of highlighting where more can be done. We commend South Korea on sending more shells to Ukraine than all of Europe combined, but the war must be a wake-up call to all of Europe: there is more that we, along with our allies, must do together.

We welcome the French President bringing world leaders together this week. In that spirit, Labour has outlined plans for a new UK-EU security pact to complement NATO ties and strengthen our whole continent. I ask the Minister what his Government are doing to work more closely with the European Union on our collective security, and whether the Foreign Secretary would attend foreign affairs councils of the European Union if invited to do so. Labour warmly welcomes Sweden’s accession to NATO, which strengthens our whole alliance, but what recent conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with his NATO counterparts regarding a pathway for Ukraine’s membership?

More sanctions are welcome, but enforcement remains the weak link. Last December, an Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation report showed that there had been zero enforcement measures for post-February 2022 sanctions breaches in relation to Russia. Can the Minister confirm whether that is still the case, and can he update the House on the effectiveness of the sanctions being implemented against the Lukashenko regime in Belarus?

One man, Vladimir Putin, holds ultimate responsibility for the death of Alexei Navalny. We welcome the sanctions against six individuals that the UK announced in the wake of Mr Navalny’s death, but they are not enough. Why will the Government not commit to reviewing sanctions on Russia, considering every individual on the full Navalny list? Why will they not back Labour’s calls to support a new international anti-corruption court, and why will they not back our whistleblower reward scheme to crack down on enablers? Following European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s positive statement today, and the passing of 250 days since Labour’s motion to require the Government to bring forward legislation to ensure the seizure and repurposing of Russian state assets, why will the Government not finally turn rhetoric on seizure into action?

Finally, I welcome the Government’s highlighting Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case; tomorrow, I too will meet with his wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza. Over the weekend, there were reports that Members of Parliament were concerned that the Government were not taking the lead on efforts to secure his release from Russian prison. Can the Minister reassure us by outlining the strategy and the steps that Ministers are now taking, before it is too late?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the cross-party support that he has given to what I have said. He is quite right to ask piercing questions, but the fact remains that the House is united on this issue, meaning that Britain speaks with one voice and with great effectiveness.

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman chides me for not being the Foreign Secretary. I am not the shadow Cabinet Minister for development—his hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) occupies that position. He sees the Foreign Secretary often; I think he is about to see him again, and the Foreign Secretary is an ever-present presence at both ends of the House. Of course, he will be available to Members of this House for questioning in the way that has been discussed.

The right hon. Gentleman expressed very strong support for the further military provisions we have supplied and for the further sanctions. He talked about the wake-up call for Europe, and I very much agree with him. He asked about our working with the European Union and other European countries. He, like me, will have been delighted to see the €50 billion that the EU has allocated over the next four years for non-military activity, and there will be further announcements, we believe, in respect of military support. He will also have seen that, along with the £2.5 billion of military support announced by our Prime Minister, President Macron has announced a similar figure and Germany has very significantly increased the amount of military support it is providing for Ukraine. Clearly, there is great co-ordination and a rising recognition across Europe and throughout NATO that this is a struggle in which all of us are involved.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the effectiveness of sanctions. Some 2,000 people or entities have been sanctioned, including 90% of the Russian banking sector. In stepping up sanctions, which are developing all the time, we will be introducing an ability to sanction ships. On the effectiveness of sanctions, Russia would have had an additional $400 billion without the sanctions that have been imposed; money to prosecute the war that it does not now have. Last week, a Turkish company, three Chinese entities and two Belarus entities were sanctioned. Although, as I am sure he would agree, we do not discuss the development of sanctions across the House, I can assure him that this is proving to be very effective and is denying the Russian war machine vital supplies.

I welcome the deputy Foreign Secretary’s focus on the progress that Ukraine has made against overwhelming odds in the face of one of the biggest militaries in the world. I have just returned from Ukraine with the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), and while there, it was my honour to meet some of the soldiers who were gravely injured last summer defending Avdiivka. They shared stories about how those in their units who are still on the frontline and have just had to withdraw were left bleeding out for six to eight hours, sometimes more, because there is not enough ammunition to medevac those who have been hurt. What happened in Avdiivka should shame the international community, not Ukraine, because what it is doing is incredible. Globally, people seem to forget that this is not a Disney movie: the good guys do not just win; it is down to us to make sure that they have the tools to fight. Over the weekend, I put proposals to the Defence Secretary on where I believe we can obtain more ammunition.

Bitterly, it is 80 years since the UK last went to the US to petition it to help defend security in Europe. I urge the deputy Foreign Secretary to help me advise how the UK is battling, as we need to do, some of the pernicious narratives that are arising. First, in the US, people are forgetting the threat of Putin. We must remind them that the threat of Putin is what they are ultimately fighting against. Secondly, in Europe, we see a pernicious narrative about how the Baltics and Nordics will defend themselves in two or three years’ time when Russia rebuilds itself. That cannot be the focus. We have to end Putin now, and we have to stop the ability to invade Ukraine now. What is my right hon. Friend doing to fight these narratives?

I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee very much for her perceptive and wise comments. To take her last point first, she is of course absolutely right that we are hoping Congress will follow the lead by passing the relevant Bills swiftly, following its return from recess. United States’s support is absolutely vital for Ukraine’s success, as she so rightly says. I am very glad that she has been able to see for herself what is happening. Sometimes, we understate the extent to which Putin is being beaten back. Although the Russian advance into Avdiivka did take place, those 2 km cost between 40,000 and 50,000 Russian deaths.

One fifth of the Black sea fleet has been destroyed, Crimea is no longer safe for the Russian military to operate in and grain supplies are moving across the Black sea. Revenues for Ukraine are at pre-conflict levels, and unlike in year one, this winter the lights stayed on and the bombings by Russia were unable to achieve the same effect as they achieved before. This war is not affordable for Russia: 40% of Government spending is now spent on the war, or 6% of GDP. This is all in pursuit of the worst atrocities—unmatched—that we have seen in Europe over the last 80 years. It is important to point out that Britain has supplied not only £2.5 billion of military matériel, announced by the Prime Minister, to be supplied this year, but 300,000 artillery shells. That is a measure of our determination to ensure that Ukraine has everything we can offer it.

I thank the Minister for prior sight of his statement. I want to put on the record, once again, our steadfast and unyielding support for the people of Ukraine in defending themselves, their homes and their country against Putin’s illegal and aggressive war. I share the concern expressed by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), that Putin’s plan appears to be to keep the war going until Ukraine’s democratic allies lose interest and somehow let support slip away. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.

I have spoken to colleagues who have just returned from Kyiv—they were attending events to mark the second anniversary of the war—and they report that, at this critical time, Ukraine needs our help now every bit as much as it did on the day Putin attacked. First and foremost, we must guard against complacency. We cannot let the Ukrainian people down simply because we lose interest, because if Ukraine loses, we all lose.

I very much welcome the UK Government’s financial and military support package and the new €50 billion multi-year funding package from the European Union, as well as the fact that Germany has committed to doubling its military aid. I share the Minister’s hope that many of Ukraine’s allies will now follow that lead, most notably the United States. Its prevarication has surely only emboldened Ukraine’s enemies and depressed the Ukrainian people further.

However, there is still so much we can do. I take the Minister’s point about the sanctions regime, but what about using frozen Russian assets to assist Putin’s war victims, most notably the £2 billion sitting in a London bank two years on from the sale of Chelsea football club? As we look ahead, has the FCDO’s atrocity prevention monitoring body been keeping track of breaches of international law and war crimes being committed by Russia in Ukraine? With a marked increase in the targeting of civilians in Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv and Lviv, are the UK Government preparing a case for the International Criminal Court against Russia for the deliberate targeting and bombardment of civilians in Ukraine?

I want to thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments. As I said to the shadow Foreign Secretary, the fact that the House speaks with one voice on this matter gives Britain much greater authority in the councils of the world.

The hon. Gentleman warns against complacency, and I hope he will agree that Britain has shown no signs of backsliding on this. No country has done more than the UK. We were the first to supply tanks and long-range missiles, we are assisting in scouring the world for Soviet legacy stock, and Britain recently announced £200 million for drones to be made both in the UK and in Ukraine. I can tell him that the European peace facility, which will provide funding for Ukraine’s armed forces, is progressing. He will also know that Britain and the Nordics together have set up the international fund for Ukraine, which has now raised more than £1 billion. So I hope I can satisfy him that there is no complacency whatsoever.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Chelsea fund. I can tell him that there is immense frustration that the Chelsea fund is not out and operating at this time. We are doing everything we can, within significant and irritating levels of difficulty, to get it deployed. We will do that as fast as we possibly can. He ended his comments on war crimes. The Government, along with our allies, are doing everything we can to ensure that there is no question of Putin not being held to account when this dreadful conflict is over.

May I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement? In an interview this week, Ukraine’s national security adviser warned that the Kremlin is better equipped than ever to disrupt elections using artificial intelligence. Can the House get an update on the UK’s readiness to deal with this kind of assault on our democracy?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. He is right to flag up the deep concern that exists about that issue. It is not for me to answer his specific point about the steps the Government are taking to protect us from that, but certainly there are other Ministers more directly associated with it who will be able to give him a full update.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s upbeat tone, in his response to the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), he acknowledged that vital American support is still being held up in Congress because of Trump-supporting Republicans. Does he agree that self-preening British politicians who fawn at Trump do nothing but give succour to Putin and his murderous regime?

We are doing everything we can to ensure that we play our part in persuading our many friends in Congress to support this measure. The right hon. Gentleman will have seen what the Foreign Secretary did when he was there, and he may well have seen the powerful article that was widely available in the United States. I hope he will conclude from that that we are doing everything we can to pursue the result that he and I both want.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that estimates for the cost of restoration and rebuilding of Ukraine are now reaching $1 trillion. I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s suggestion that we start using frozen Russian assets of up to $350 billion for that purpose now. Can my right hon. Friend say what progress is being made to achieve that?

I hope that in due course we will have more to say on the specific provision my right hon. Friend asks about. He will recall the Ukraine reconstruction conference that took place in London last year, where we announced a number of specific measures to lay the foundation for Ukraine’s long-term future. I hope very much that the £250 million of new capital that was announced then, along with the £500 million UK loan guarantee via the World Bank, is seen as a down payment on that effort. In respect of the use of wider funding, he may be sure that his words are being heard.

May I back the comments of the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)? You can back Trump or you can back Ukraine; you cannot do both. No Member of this House should try to ride two horses at once on this conflict.

I am probably one of the few Members of Parliament who have been to Avdiivka, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, going back over six years. That long line of blood in the loss of Avdiivka two weeks ago can be drawn back to two things: first, weapons being held up vis-à-vis what is going on in Washington in Congress; and secondly—this is another frustration that Ukrainians told me about this weekend when I was there with the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—the slow yes they get from Europe. When Europe and the west decide to provide certain types of capability, it is a slow yes to providing it, and then even slower again to getting it into Ukraine to be used. That is what will see towns such as Kramatorsk go next.

There is rightly a determination to win, but there is an anxiety in that country that I have not experienced in all the times I have been going for six or seven years. What is the Minister’s plan, not just to keep doing more of what the Government have been doing on weapons, which I commend wholeheartedly, but to turn the slow yes into a fast yes, so that Ukraine can achieve the victory it needs?

In respect of the first part of what the hon. Gentleman said, he underlines the point that I have repeatedly made today about the importance of the American contribution getting through Congress and arriving in material terms at the front as swiftly as possible. On his second point, we are doing everything we possibly can. The Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister have clearly been in the lead in the support that Europe is giving to Ukraine. We are seeking to persuade in every way all our friends and allies to do the same. I submit to him that in recent months there has been a welcome increase in that support from our European allies, and I hope he will share my pride that the United Kingdom is right at the forefront of those pressing for more and better in the future.

Forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I flee the Chamber for a 2 o’clock meeting of the Liaison Committee, which I must attend immediately after this question. May I point out to my right hon. Friend the Minister that it was notable how swiftly No. 10 played down President Macron’s suggestion that French or NATO troops might be directly deployed to the conflict in Ukraine? Can that be used to demonstrate how vacillation in Washington will lead to escalation in Europe? Could the European members of NATO perhaps explore some kind of lend-lease arrangement with the United States, as we had in the 1939 to 1940 period?

First, may I wish my hon. Friend every success in his outing at the Liaison Committee this afternoon? He is right that we need to stretch every sinew to ensure we give as much support as we can in the way he suggests, but I must re-echo the words of the NATO Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, when he said yesterday that there are no plans for NATO combat troops to be on the ground in Ukraine.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I add to the consensus that Parliament has expressed so far this afternoon in supporting this statement and the Government’s position on Ukraine. Sky News reported last week that UK-exported equipment may be winding up in Russia, such as drone equipment that has been exported to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Armenia. Exports of heavy machinery to Kyrgyzstan have grown by 1,100% in the past year. What more will the Government do to keep dual-use goods from ending up in the occupied oblasts of Ukraine, given that end-user declarations are plainly not sufficient?

First, I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for his support. As I have said, it greatly strengthens the British Government’s position that there is that support across the House. The point he makes underlines the importance of moving sanctions along all the time to take account of things we discover that are happening, such as clever ways of breaching sanctions and ways of closing down loopholes. That is very much what we are doing. I mentioned earlier that we are seeking to introduce powers to sanction individual ships. We know that companies are involved in circumventing western sanctions. We take steps all the time to close down those loopholes, and we will continue to do so.

On those who are circumventing sanctions, perhaps through third countries in central Asia or elsewhere, does the Minister of State believe that the current penalties for breaching sanctions are sufficient? If not, when might the Government bring forward new legislation or take action to increase those penalties? Will the Government make public those who breach sanctions and British companies that try to avoid these sanctions, so that they are shown to have done what they have done, so as to send a signal to other people who might be tempted to do the same thing?

Finally, on Vladimir Kara-Murza, I thank the Government for taking more action than they perhaps previously have. I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary and those on other Benches for the cross-party support. There has been talk of a potential prisoner exchange between the United States Government and the Russian Government. Vladimir Kara-Murza is a joint British and Russian national, but he was living, and his family still live, in Washington DC. He worked there. I urge the Minister—he does not have to make public comments now—to explore the principle of working with the Americans to ensure that, should there be any prisoner swap, Vladimir is part of that exchange.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about Vladimir Kara-Murza. He will know that we have sanctioned 11 individuals, including two individuals involved in Mr Kara-Murza’s earlier poisoning. We do not engage in prisoner exchanges because doing so would put a target on the back of so many British citizens. However, he may rest assured that we are exploring all possible ways of getting Mr Kara-Murza out.

On my right hon. Friend’s comments about sanctions, of course, sanctions are designed to close down support for Putin’s illegal war machine. Whenever we can, we do prosecute people who break our laws, but as I have mentioned to right hon. and hon. Members, we are seeking all the time to ensure that the sanctions regime is as effective and all-engrossing as it can possibly be.

May I, from the Democratic Unionist party Benches, thank the Government for their work in sending military aid, financial aid, and moral and political support to Ukraine, as well as the efforts to try to keep some of our reluctant allies supplying the goods and military equipment they have promised? The Minister has given an upbeat version of the story in Ukraine at the moment, but the fact is that retreats have been forced on Ukrainians because of the weight of Russian military might. What steps is he taking, first, to stop those who are inadvertently breaking sanctions, which is helping the Russian military, secondly, to release funds which frozen at present but could be used and, thirdly, to encourage other European countries to give the military aid they have promised but has not yet been delivered?

I thank the right hon. Member and his hon. Friends for their support of the Government’s position. He described my summary of the situation as upbeat. I hope he will accept that it is also candid. I am trying to paint for the House a picture of what is happening on the ground and the steps that the House rightly expects the Government to take to forward the endeavour that has brought the House together so comprehensively.

On the development of sanctions, as I have said, they are becoming increasingly effective and sophisticated as they bear down on loopholes or ways of getting round them. That has denied the Russian war machine some $400 billion, which is something like four years of running costs for this war. I hope the right hon. Member will see that that is the result of the painstaking work that we, along with our allies, are undertaking to make the sanctions regime as successful and effective as possible.

Given the vital role of international support for Ukraine, it was good over the weekend to be part of a four-party delegation to Kyiv, showing the House’s united support for the war effort. It is rightly described not as a war between Ukraine and Russia but as a war between Putin and democracy. We all know that if Putin wins, Europe will again go down the dark path we went down nine decades ago.

I welcome the statement. On support, I want to focus on drones and how we have seen them almost transform what happens on the battlefield. What particular discussions are being had about enabling increased production of drones to be used offensively against Russian forces and about technical countermeasures to protect forces that are finding themselves under constant attack?

I thank my hon. Friend very much for his remarks. He will know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement, who is in his place, launched the drones strategy last Thursday. I hope he agrees that it is highly effective and just what is required given the importance and effectiveness of drones and drone technology. I also thank him for being part of the important four-party delegation, about which I had heard, and for the eloquent way in which he set out why the position and the action we are taking, in what is an existential challenge to our generation, are so important.

Sky News recently reported on sanctions evasion and things being moved via Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Uzbekistan to support Putin’s war machine, which I suggest is facilitated more often than not by professional enablers right here in the UK through the use of shell companies, limited liability partnerships and Scottish limited partnerships. I have been banging on about that for years. The loopholes evidently still exist and are still being abused, and they come from here. What conversations has the Minister had with Companies House and His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to close those loopholes, shut down those companies and go after the people and the professional enablers who sit behind the sanctions-evading mechanisms being carried out here?

Save The Children estimates that 20,000 children have been forcibly removed from their parents in Ukraine and sent to Russia. What diplomatic efforts are the Government making to reunite those families?

On the hon. Lady’s second point, it is absolutely appalling that large numbers of children have been taken in that way. We are in frequent discussions with the International Red Cross to try to ensure that all possible progress is made in respect of their return.

In terms of the examples given of the technical ways in which sanctions can be evaded, the hon. Lady asked me whether conversations are going on about closing down those loopholes. They certainly are, and I think we will see that at each turn of the ratchet we get more effective in closing down loopholes and stopping people evading the sanctions and the will of the House, which is so important in depriving the Putin war machine of the fuel it needs.

My right hon. Friend rightly highlighted the strengthening of NATO, with Finland and Sweden choosing to join since this illegal invasion was launched by Putin. Looking ahead to July’s NATO summit in Washington, will the Government intensify work so that it results in a stronger alliance and more support for Ukraine? Any other outcome only weakens our collective security.