Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 747: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2024

House of Commons

Tuesday 12 March 2024

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Bishop’s Stortford Cemetery Bill [Lords]

Bill read the Third time and passed, with amendments.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The Minister of State was asked—

Humanitarian Situation in Gaza

15. If he will resume funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. (901947)

We are doing all we can to increase aid into Gaza. With our allies, we will take decisions on the future of UNRWA funding after scrutinising Catherine Colonna’s interim report on UNRWA neutrality.

We have heard this morning some shocking reports about Palestinian medical staff in Gaza being blindfolded, detained, forced to strip and repeatedly beaten by Israeli troops, after a raid on Nasser Hospital last month. There is footage from Khan Yunis showing men stripped and kneeling, and patients with their hands bound being wheeled in beds. Do the UK Government believe that the Israeli Government are responsible for the conduct of their forces, and that this clearly appears to be torture and is in breach of international law, including the universal declaration of human rights and article 18 of the Geneva convention? What are the UK Government going to do about this?

The hon. Lady is right to say that Israel must comply with the Geneva convention. We have seen these reports. A full explanation and investigation is required, and that is what the British Government are pressing for. I point out to her that, when it comes to targeting operations, lawyers are embedded in the Israeli and Israel Defence Forces command, just as happens in Britain, which should ensure the acceptance and honouring of international humanitarian law. But I agree that a full explanation is required.

For months we have seen the horrifying images of children in Gaza mutilated or killed by bombing, and now we see them starving. Aid by air and sea is welcome, but it is insufficient and it is a diversion from Israel’s responsibility. Yesterday, 12 Israeli human rights organisations called out their own Government for failing to comply with the International Court of Justice ruling to facilitate access for humanitarian aid. Does the Minister agree that the Israeli Government should be told by the UK and our allies to unlock aid and end the killing, or face real consequences?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both pressed Prime Minister Netanyahu, and indeed President Herzog, to ensure that more aid can get into Gaza. As the hon. Gentleman will also know, it is the policy of the British Government to do everything we can to achieve a pause so that we can get the hostages out and get more aid in, and move towards a sustainable ceasefire. We are doing everything we can to try to achieve that.

What we are seeing in Gaza is a starvation-level event. The United States has taken the desperate measure of air drops and flotillas, which do not direct aid like land-based aid. The only organisation big enough to fully distribute aid in order to avoid starvation is UNRWA. Canada reviewed the interim report of the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services and has resumed funding. Sweden has received bilateral assurances on the same actions that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is supposedly looking for from UNRWA and has resumed funding. It is scandalous that the UK Government’s position is still for a suspension of funds, despite the interim report and without evidence of wrongdoing being provided by Israeli in the first place. The British public do not want to be responsible for starvation in Gaza. When will the Minister resume the funding?

As I have told the House before, no British funding is due until April and enough funds have now come forward to ensure that adequate supplies are available. We are awaiting the report of the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services and the interim report from Catherine Colonna, the former French Foreign Minister. The view we take is that when we have seen those, we very much hope we will have the reassurance to recommence funding. That is also the position of the US, Germany, Australia, Italy, Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be comforted by the fact that we are very much trying to resolve this matter as speedily as we can.

The Foreign Affairs Committee recently returned from al-Arish, which is the staging point for aid into Gaza. It was very difficult to see thousands of trucks on that border. The Government have been clear that Israel has a legal obligation to ensure that aid reaches civilians. The last legal assessment took place at the end of last year. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House, in legal terms, whether Israel is demonstrating a commitment to international humanitarian law? If he will not tell us in the House, will he please write to me?

I thank my hon. Friend for her visit with the Select Committee and for her comments. We are quite clear that Israel has the capacity and ability to abide by international humanitarian law. We review it on a regular basis, but as of today that remains the position.

The UN mission team that recently visited Israel concluded that

“there are reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred in multiple locations during the 7 October attacks”.

In the light of that appalling and shocking conclusion, will the Government redouble their efforts to get the hostages home, because they might be suffering a similar fate to those victims on 7 October?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. She will know that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and Lord Ahmad have all met the families of the hostages. I had the privilege of meeting some of the families last week, the second occasion I have done so within the precincts of this House. She is right. We are doing everything we can to increase the flow of aid and get the hostages home. We will continue to do so.

One of the most troubling aspects of the 7 October massacre was the fact that many ordinary Gazans—reports indicate hundreds, or even thousands—followed the Hamas terrorists into Israel and participated in the atrocities. Reports suggest that civilians kidnapped Israelis and sold them to Gaza-based terrorist groups, and committed further unspeakable acts of violence, including sexual violence. Is my right hon. Friend aware of those reports, and does he share my concerns about Hamas’s ongoing indoctrination of ordinary Gazan citizens?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am aware of those reports. The fact remains that the appalling events of 7 October were, as I have said in the House before, the worst atrocity and the worst killing of Jewish people since the holocaust and the second world war. We continue to want total accountability for the terrible events that took place on that day.

Accepting what the Minister says about there being no money due to go to UNRWA until April, can I say to him, however, that for us to continue not to fund UNRWA sends a truly dreadful signal to other countries on the world stage? Canada and Sweden have resumed their funding. Surely we should be attending to this now as a matter of some urgency?

I listed the countries that take the same view as us. The right hon. Gentleman is right that there is a division, but Britain is not due to provide any funding until we reach the next financial year in April. We will, of course, seek to do everything we can to resolve the matter by the time that funding is due.

Can the deputy Foreign Secretary confirm that Israel is co-operating with an increasing number of lorries entering Gaza carrying essential humanitarian aid? I have been looking up the figures: 16,405 aid lorries, 203,300 tonnes of food and 26,160 tonnes of water. Is it not correct that the Israelis have said there is no limit on the amount of aid that can come in, but that there is a delay once it has passed Israeli checks and before it gets into Gaza proper?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to say that there has been an increase in the number of trucks getting in. In February there were, on average, only 97. In March that figure is 162. So there has been an improvement, but the House will recognise that there is nothing like enough getting through. The easiest way to do so is by truck and road. It is because that is so difficult that we have had to find other mechanisms, such as the maritime and air routes.

May I return the Minister to the serious allegations made today, following a BBC investigation, that medics in Gaza were detained, stripped and beaten while trying to perform their life-saving humanitarian duties? All of us in the House have repeatedly called on all parties to abide by international law, but the Government have so far declined to say that the provisional measures of the International Court of Justice should be implemented in full. Will he now tell us that they should be, and that the UK will support the International Criminal Court investigation, led by Andrew Cayley, to ensure not only that all allegations against all parties are investigated, but that there is accountability for those who break the law?

The hon. Lady is quite right: there needs to be a full and thorough investigation and accountability in respect of what was reported today by the BBC, and I can assure her that the Foreign Office is pressing for full transparency and accountability on that matter.

But surely the Minister can see the problem. Unless the ICJ’s provisional ruling is implemented and the ICC is allowed to go about its work, those words are simply meaningless; and unless the international community makes it crystal clear that rules will be upheld by all parties and those who do not uphold them will be held accountable, more people will die. Peace is built on the bedrock of international law. May I ask the Minister again to make it clear to the House that the Government will support the ICC’s investigation of Hamas as well as its investigation of Israel and will press for the full implementation of the ICJ’s provisional ruling, and that international law will be upheld not when it is convenient but always, as the precondition for peace?

Let me be very clear about this: we did not believe, and do not believe, that the ICJ referral is helpful to attempts to secure dialogue. We respect the role and independence of the ICJ and will consider any advisory opinion, but we did not think it helpful, without the consent of both parties, for the Court to deliver an advisory opinion on what is essentially a bilateral dispute. However, we keep all these matters under review and, as I have said, our current position is that we believe Israel has both the capacity and the intent to abide by international humanitarian law.

The Minister will have seen the shocking images of parachutes dropping aid into Gaza at the same moment as a barrage of Israeli missiles struck. There is, of course, every chance that the aid and the missiles originated from the same source, and I wonder at the level of cognitive dissonance required to supply aid to innocent civilians while at the same time providing the means by which Israel can continue to kill them indiscriminately. When will this Government recognise the moral absurdity of selling weapons to Israel while attempting to salve their conscience by airdropping aid to those civilians who are fortunate enough to have survived the bombardment?

As I think I have mentioned to the hon. Gentleman before, in this country we have the toughest arms control mechanisms anywhere, but we accept that Israel has a right of self-defence, and this has to be seen through that prism as well as the prism through which he sees it. But I can tell him that we continually keep these matters under review—that is not only international humanitarian law, but the arms export regime—and we will continue to do so.

Israel and Palestine: Two-state Solution

2. What steps his Department is taking to support a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. (901932)

I thank the Minister for his comments. Everyone in the House wants to see a negotiated diplomatic agreement to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on two states, but does he agree that the first step towards achieving that is an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the release of all hostages?

The problem with calling for an immediate ceasefire is that neither side wants to have one, and therefore, in my view, it would be an unhelpful intervention. That is why the British Government, and other Governments too, have called for a pause to get the hostages out and get aid in, which can then be built on and lead to a sustainable ceasefire, and that is what we are seeking to do.

The ideal of a two-state solution is one that unites this House. However, there are practical barriers, not least the fact that Hamas are surging in the polls—what polls there are—across the Palestinian Authority, and the Palestinian Authority continue to have hateful preaching in the school curriculum that is breeding the sort of hate that leads to evil organisations such as Hamas having a grip on Gaza, and it continues to pay salaries to convicted terrorists’ families. If we are to get a two-state solution, that needs to stop, does it not?

In respect of the textbook allegations that my hon. Friend made, I have received those allegations. Last week I had a meeting with the head of UNRWA, Mr Lazzarini, in which I presented him with the evidence and asked for a full account. In respect of the two-state solution, let me be clear that within both the Israeli Government and civil society throughout Israel, there are pragmatic voices that believe in self-determination for Palestine as the only way forward. It is very important that we try to build on that vision, which is why the Foreign Secretary is so committed to trying to bring people together so that when the political track can open, it has real substance to it.

Does the Minister agree that a two-state solution has become more difficult because of the construction of over 700,000 illegal homes in the west bank, which continues with the backing of the IDF and the Israeli Government? Even now, we see images of people being turfed out of their homes and others taking over, and illegal settlement homes are being sold to people in the USA.

There are things that we want the Israeli Government to do in that respect. We want them to release frozen funds, halt settlement expansion and hold to account those responsible for settler violence, which is why Britain has sanctioned four extremist Israeli settlers. Let me be clear: as I understand it, the Israeli Government are not against Palestinian statehood but are against unilateral recognition without bilateral negotiations. That was the burden of a vote in the Knesset on 18 February this year.

The wider discussion of a two-state solution outside this place is being misrepresented. Restaurants are being boycotted for selling Coca-Cola, because people think the company supports Israel. The Coca-Cola factory in the west bank is actually owned by a Palestinian franchisee, so we need to educate people. To get back to the discussion of a two-state solution, we clearly need a ceasefire and the hostages to be released by Hamas. Will my right hon. Friend detail what discussions he is having in that regard?

Those discussions are going on all the time with our friends and allies, with the regional powers, at the United Nations and, indeed, directly with Israel. As I said, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary talk regularly to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we will continue to do so. My hon. Friend eloquently set out the reason for the Government’s policy of trying to create a pause to get the hostages out and aid in, and we will continue to pursue that objective.

The situation in Gaza is truly appalling, but the situation in the west bank is also a cause for huge concern. Since the horrific 7 October attacks, over 400 Palestinians have been killed and thousands have been detained. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), last week Israel advanced plans for 3,400 new homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As a two-state solution is the only path to a lasting peace, does the Minister agree that a firm position on these issues must be taken now by the United Kingdom and the international community?

I hope that I have set out my broad agreement with what the hon. Gentleman says. Britain wants to see steps taken against illegal settlements and settlers who have committed crimes—we want to see them arrested, tried and punished for those crimes. We want to see the Palestinian Authority reinvigorated, with new leadership and a strong approach to taking up the roles that it will need to fulfil when the sky clears and there is a moment for the political track to begin.

Gaza: Sustainable Ceasefire

18. What discussions he has had with his US counterpart on a potential UN Security Council resolution on a ceasefire in Gaza. (901951)

We need a humanitarian pause to get aid in and hostages out, leading to a sustainable, permanent ceasefire. We are pressing for this with Israel, regional leaders and our wider international partners, including the United States.

Given the importance of their role, the Palestinian Authority will require thoroughgoing reform, won’t they?

My right hon. Friend is right, and that is why both the Foreign Secretary and the noble Lord Ahmad have been in discussions with the Palestinian Authority and the wider regional community—to try to ensure that when the moment comes, as I set out in my response to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), the Palestinian Authority are able to seize it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an unsustainable ceasefire that rapidly collapses would only make it more difficult to build the confidence required for peace, and that if there was a humanitarian pause now, we could get more aid in and hostages out, and it could help to bring about the conditions required for a sustainable ceasefire?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a critical point. We do not believe that calling for a general and immediate ceasefire and hoping that it would somehow become permanent will work. A ceasefire will not last if the hostages are still being held. We cannot just will it if neither side wants it, and the conditions need to be in place for it not to collapse within days.

Some of these answers—“We have the toughest arms licence regime”, “We have urged Israel to follow international law”—are the same meaningless, supine nonsense week after week, month after month from this Government. I have said many times that it sickens me that although this Government—and indeed the Labour Front Benchers—called out Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine at light speed, they prevaricate on doing the same when it comes to the Israeli bombardment and siege of Gaza. It sickens me that this Government have abstained on UN Security Council ceasefire resolutions. Will the Minister guarantee that the UK will work with partners to draft a resolution that reflects the will of this House, and finally vote for a ceasefire to end the suffering of so many in Gaza?

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, which I think was the question, the answer is yes, but in respect of everything else he said, the answer is no.

Women in Gaza are giving birth without even having a chair to sit down on. They are having caesareans without medication. The Minister will know that many aid agencies have repeatedly called out the horrific suffering of the Palestinian people and Israel’s unacceptable restriction on aid flows. We have been talking about the urgency of an immediate humanitarian ceasefire; how urgently are the Government actually pushing for this with both sides and with partners in the middle east—not just for the urgency of the ceasefire, but for a plan for what comes next?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that on both of those two points—pressing for a pause and pressing all the regional powers on what comes next—the Government are actively and continually engaged. On her first point about the terrible plight of women in Gaza, that is why the British Government gave nearly £5 million just a week or so ago specifically to try to alleviate the desperate circumstances in Gaza that so many women find themselves in.

The best way to deal with a sustainable ceasefire is obviously to deal with the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and that is best done by UNRWA, not through individual bilateral actions. The Minister mentions states that have suspended their funding, and the situation is evolving really fast. The EU has just announced €50 million for UNRWA, and two further tranches of €16 million, subject to the satisfactory completion of an audit. I take the point that no funding is due from the UK to UNRWA until April, but what further reassurance does the UK need to ensure the funding will be in place, because UNRWA is the best organisation to disburse it and the UK risks being very much on the wrong side of these developments?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point. It is true that Canada, Sweden, Spain and the EU, with conditions, expect to be able to resume funding, but as I mentioned earlier, America, Germany, Australia, Italy, Finland, the Netherlands and Switzerland take the same view as us. To the substantive points he makes, we are in discussions with the leader of UNRWA, Mr Lazzarini, and we are awaiting the report from the former French Foreign Minister and the report from the UN. We hope that as a result of those reports, sufficient change will be secured, so that we can continue to fund UNRWA, but the hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt that we have fully funded UNRWA into the next financial year.

Illegal Migration

We are engaging with international partners on a “whole of route” approach to addressing irregular migration. This includes: a multi-year operational plan with France to stop small boats; developing partnerships to tackle organised immigration crime; improving returns processes; and working with partner countries through a number of international fora to address the root causes.

Small boat crossings continue to be a massive concern for my constituents, many of whom point out to me that there is some logic to the argument that if those who illegally enter our country from France, a safe European country, were returned on the same day, the problem would probably be dealt with overnight. Has my right hon. Friend discussed this with her French counterpart, and is her counterpart open to this undeniable logic? If so, why does France not accept them back on the same day?

My hon. Friend raises a point that is raised in many of our postbags. The reality is that individuals in need of international protection should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach; that will always be the fastest route to safety. We, of course, continue to work collaboratively with our European partners, including France, to address our shared migration challenges. I can update the House that our partnership with France has helped to bring down small boat arrivals, and together we stopped more than 26,000 crossings last years.

I thank the Minister for her response. We in Northern Ireland have a border with the Republic of Ireland. What discussions has she had with her counterparts in the devolved nations, and particularly in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, about tackling illegal migration? I am ever mindful that we have a land border that needs to be patrolled and policed.

As I said, we continue to engage across a number of international fora to strengthen our collaboration, and to make sure that we have secure and ambitious partnerships to tackle irregular migration. I will ensure that my colleague updates the hon. Gentleman on the meetings they have been having with the PSNI.


My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I regularly speak to our ministerial counterparts on a range of issues, including the war in Ukraine. He met Foreign Minister Baerbock at the UK-German strategic dialogue on 7 March in Berlin to reaffirm our commitment to supporting Ukraine.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will be aware that the head of the luftwaffe, Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, made an appalling lapse of security. The former director general of German intelligence, August Hanning, said on the subject that NATO security and British troops had had their existence in Ukraine “compromised.” Does the Minister agree?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s motivation in asking that question. We should keep in mind that our relationship with Germany on supporting Ukraine is strong, united and deeply co-operative. Together we are delivering the fighting edge that our friends in Ukraine need.

One of the things that rang in my ears after my recent visit to Ukraine was the frustration with what is happening not just in the US, but even in those European countries—Germany, the UK, France and others—that are a “yes” on weapons support. It is the slow yes that is frustrating people. What is the Minister doing to turn that slow yes to Taurus into a quick yes? More broadly, does that not make the case for a comprehensive defence agreement between Britain and the EU?

No, it does not, but we continue to work very energetically and closely with our friends across Europe, including at the recently convened French summit, to ensure that the heft and military capability of all Ukraine’s allies are brought to bear in increasing Ukraine’s fighting edge.

Our defence, security and foreign policy relationship with Germany is critical, not least in relation to our united and mutual support for Ukraine. I will meet German counterparts about those issues in Berlin this week. Will the Minister give us more detail on the discussions he and the Foreign Secretary have had with German counterparts on three issues: urgently speeding up and expanding the delivery of weaponry, bolstering our diplomatic coalition and, crucially, using frozen Russian state assets across Europe to pay for urgent needs to support Ukraine?

The hon. Gentleman asks a characteristically intelligent and pertinent question. We are working together to increase defence industrial capability. Some new ideas have come out of the French summit about increasing domestic capability for our Ukrainian friends. A lot of diplomatic support goes into that. On frozen assets, he will have seen recent thinking from the European side about using the interest payments from those funds, which we will consider. We need to find a reliable legal route, if that is to be sustainable.

Vladimir Kara-Murza

6. What diplomatic steps he is taking to help secure the safety and release of Vladimir Kara-Murza. (901936)

The UK has consistently condemned Vladimir Kara-Murza’s politically motivated conviction and called for his release. We sanctioned 11 individuals in response to his sentencing, as well as two individuals involved in his earlier poisoning. We regularly raise his case both with the Russian authorities and at multilateral fora.

Since the death of Alexei Navalny, do the Government recognise the increased urgency of Vladimir Kara-Murza’s case? He is now the most high-profile living political prisoner in Russia. What more are the Government considering doing? Are the Government working with our allies, such as the United States, on a number of issues in this field?

Our ambassador raised Mr Kara-Murza’s case in person with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister on 19 January, repeating our request for consular access. The Foreign Secretary met Mrs Kara-Murza, and Mr Kara-Murza’s mother, Elena Gordon, on 1 March. We remain in close and regular contact with his family and legal representatives, and we will continue to keep his case at the top of our agenda.

My constituent, Evan Gershkovich, was detained by the FSB—the Federal Security Service—almost exactly a year ago, on 29 March 2023. He is an American citizen who lives in the UK and works for The Wall Street Journal. His continued detention is another stain on Russia. Although Mr Gershkovich is not a British citizen, is the Minister conferring with his American colleagues to ensure that Mr Gershkovich is released?

Yes, I am happy to confirm that. I will seek an update from our head of mission in Moscow for the hon. Lady’s increased awareness.

Israeli Occupation of the West Bank

7. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the Israeli occupation of the west bank. (901937)

20. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the Israeli occupation of the west bank. (901954)

Israel must not undermine prospects for peace and security in the west bank. As the occupying power, Israel must protect the civilian population.

The Minister forgot to mention that this is one of the rare occasions on which the United Kingdom Government have a long-standing position that Israel is acting unlawfully in the west bank. Some 700,000 separate criminal acts of unlawful occupation have been endorsed and instructed by Benjamin Netanyahu. Because that illegal occupation has gone unpunished, we now see extremists, with the tacit acquiescence and sometimes direct support of the Israeli Defence Force, committing acts of cold-blooded murder against innocent civilians. If they do not stand up to criminals, those crimes will get worse. The Minister mentioned that two individuals have been sanctioned for their crimes in the west bank. Why have the President or the Prime Minister of Israel, who ordered that unlawful occupation, not also been sanctioned?

The Government pursue the objectives I have set out clearly to the House in a way most likely to bring success. The five core asks that are so relevant to many of these questions are: the release of all hostages; formation of a new Palestinian Government for the west bank and Gaza; removing Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel; Hamas no longer being in charge of Gaza; and, with our allies, the provision of serious practical and technical support for the Palestinian Authority. That is the approach that is most likely to command support and not, I fear, the line that the hon. Gentleman took.

The Minister said that Israel has a duty to protect civilians, but in the west bank there have been 400 deaths. There are now testimonies from Palestinian civilians, including women and children, who have been subject to kidnap, torture and abuse at the hands of Israeli settlers, yet the UK Government have sanctioned only four illegal settlers. What further action are the UK Government going to take against settlers? Surely it is time to ban the trade of goods from those illegal settlements once and for all.

I really do not think that that would be a very sensible thing to do. We do not comment across the Floor of the House on who is about to be sanctioned or where the sanctions regime is going, but the hon. Member may rest assured that we keep these matters under very careful review.

As Ramadan begins and Passover and Easter approach, it is vital that all places of worship in Jerusalem be respected. I was extremely concerned by suggestions from Israeli Minister Ben-Gvir that restrictions could be imposed on worshippers at al-Aqsa mosque. I welcome subsequent statements by Israeli authorities that the sanctity of the holiday will be preserved. Authorities must show respect and restraint at this crucial moment. Have the Government made it clear to Israeli counterparts that Minister Ben-Gvir’s comments were unacceptable and inflamed tensions, and that the status quo arrangements must be maintained?

The hon. Member is entirely right about the importance of religious freedom, particularly in the circumstances that she so clearly set out. She may rest assured that those are points that the British Government make very strongly to Israel. It is helpful that the Opposition and the Government speak with one voice on that very important matter.

Falkland Islands

The UK Government will always protect and promote the Falkland Islanders’ right of self-determination. Only they can decide their future. We want a good relationship with Argentina, but have been very clear that we will never negotiate away the islanders’ democratic rights. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reassured the islanders about our enduring commitment during his welcome visit to the Falkland Islands last month.

I am the chair of the British overseas territories all-party parliamentary group. I remember watching the ships leave the Tamar in my constituency and head to the Falklands more than 40 years ago. In 1982, our Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher, said:

“Defeat? I do not recognise the meaning of the word.”

Do the Government retain that steely resolve?

I am young enough to remember those days as well, and yes, the UK Government remain steadfast in their resolve to ensure that the Falkland Islanders’ right of self-determination is upheld, and we will continue to use all diplomatic means to that end.

Will my hon. Friend join me in recognising the efforts of the Falkland Islanders to build a modern, thriving community and economy, and does he agree that as long as they wish to remain part of the British family, the sovereignty of the Falklands Islands will not be up for discussion?

Well said. The modern, diverse, economically prosperous Falkland Islands of today is testimony to the islanders’ achievements since the 1982 conflict. The islanders are a valued part of the British family, and as long as they want to remain part of the family, sovereignty will not be up for discussion.

Have the very commendable words that the Minister has said at the Dispatch Box today been relayed to the Argentinian authorities?

As I have said, we are working on our good relations with Argentina, but the country is very clear about our position on the Falkland Islands.

British Overseas Territories

It is good to see my hon. Friend in his place, and continuing with his strong interest in our overseas territories. The UK is committed to ensuring the security and good governance of the overseas territories and their peoples. We support improvements in institutions to ensure greater accountability and transparency, and fairer societies.

The Minister will know that the 16 British overseas territories are cherished parts of the British family, and we rightly expect good governance from them in return for their being part of our British family. However, is it not time that they were given some form of representation—not necessarily here in the British Parliament, but in institutions such as a Committee of the House, where they could actually have a voice? At the moment, they have no representation in any sense; they are not even allowed to be members of the Commonwealth—not even associate members. Will he look at that, and see whether the Government can come up with a new approach to ensure that our British overseas territories are fully represented?

I understand my hon. Friend’s point, which he makes with characteristic conviction. The Foreign Affairs Committee is setting up a Sub-Committee that will engage the overseas territories more. Of course, I am a strong voice, along with many other people here, for the overseas territories and will continue to be so.

Turkey: Surgical Procedures

11. What information his Department holds on the number of UK nationals who have died following surgical procedures in Turkey in the last 10 years. (901942)

We are aware of 28 British nationals who have died in Turkey following elective medical procedures since 2019. The UK Government continue to engage actively with the Turkish Government on how to support the safety of patients who travel to Turkey for medical treatment.

I thank the Minister for that answer; that is far too many people who have died. Many gruesome deaths have occurred following cosmetic surgery in Turkey. The family of my constituent, 28-year-old Shannon, witnessed the most agonising, horrific death as she lay on a table convulsing for some nine hours.

As far as I am aware, not once have Foreign Office Ministers raised those needless deaths with Turkish Government officials. Furthermore, a pitiful byline of travel advice on the website is simply not good enough. Will the Minister investigate an advertising suspension, in collaboration with Cabinet colleagues and regulators, for countries known for dangerous health tourism as a possible way to avoid further deaths like Shannon’s?

We raise that issue with our Turkish counterparts at many levels. We will always look at what more we can do, but the head of mission in Ankara is seized of the urgency and importance of the issue and is working in close collaboration with the Turkish authorities.

Israeli Hostages in Gaza

17. What steps he is taking to support efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. (901950)

Last week, the UN published its first report into the violence against women in Israel on 7 October and against hostages. It concluded that rape, gang rape and genital mutilation were systematically used against Israeli women and girls. The fact that the victims who survived do not trust the UN enough to speak to it about their experience adds another layer of heartbreak to the situation. What will my right hon. Friend the Minister do to urge the UN to make it a priority to rebuild trust and tell the world that #MeToo counts for Jews too?

The world very much needs the United Nations, and I completely recognise the position that my hon. Friend so eloquently describes. We will do everything we can as a leading member of the United Nations—one of the P5—to try to improve that relationship. On the appalling events of October 7, which she described, we are doing everything we can to try to help, as I set out earlier.

The hostages have been in captivity for more than 100 days. The New York Times has reported that of the 134 hostages still in captivity, 50 may have been killed. Given that 10 Israeli citizens have been in captivity in Gaza for more than 10 years, does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that there must absolutely be a commitment to return the hostages before we can move to a humanitarian ceasefire?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. He sets out the position extremely well. It is a top focus of all parts of the British Government to try to get the hostages back, as I set out earlier. The Prime Minister and the International Court of Justice have called for their immediate release. Although I cannot give a running commentary, we are working closely with the US, Qatar and Egypt to secure their release.

In the past five months, Israeli and Palestinian civilians have borne the brunt of this conflict. We are getting only the slightest glimpse of the rape, torture, hostage taking and murder that is going on. Will the Minister tell us what our atrocity prevention team and preventing sexual violence team are doing on the ground to document and stop that?

We are very clear that we seek to document atrocities so that people can be held to account, no matter how long it takes. I set out earlier the additional funding specifically to help women who have been the subject of appalling sexual violence. I am grateful to the hon. Lady and the International Development Committee for their visit to the region. On the issue that she raises, the British Government’s position is that there can be no impunity.

The utter tragedy in the middle east is that innocent civilians on both sides are paying the price for failed politics and extremism. To take the Minister back to his answer to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, if he accepts that Israel has the capacity to meet international law, he is saying, is he not, that Israel is in breach of it?

No, I am not saying that. I am saying that the current judgment of the British Government is that Israel has both the capacity and the intent to abide within international humanitarian law. It is an issue that we keep under review, as the hon. Gentleman will understand.

Topical Questions

On the question of Britain’s priorities in Ukraine, Gaza and across the world, the Government are delivering. At the Munich security conference, the G20 in Brazil and the United Nations, the Foreign Secretary has argued for standing by Ukraine as the invasion enters its third year. On Gaza, we are pressing with partners for a humanitarian pause and increased aid flows to Palestinian civilians. We have expanded the blue belt, defended shipping in the Red sea and launched an innovative development partnership with Qatar. The international development White Paper is being implemented across Government and has been widely welcomed around the world.

Following recent events in Ukraine, what steps have been taken to speed up the process of releasing funds from the sale of Chelsea football club to support all victims of the war in Ukraine, wherever they are in the world?

The hon. Lady is quite right that releasing those funds is taking far too long. There are significant complications addressing the release, which involve the European Union and Portugal, as well as Britian. I can tell her, however, that there is renewed energy in the Foreign Office to try to bring this matter to a head as swiftly as possible.

T2. The International Atomic Energy Agency has recently made an assessment that enough uranium has been enriched in Iran to produce three atomic warheads. If that is true, what is the Government’s consideration regarding snapping back sanctions on Iran? (901956)

These enrichment levels have no credible civilian justification. We are working with partners to ensure that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon, are prepared to use all diplomatic options, including triggering UN snapback if necessary, and will continue to monitor the situation very closely.

Next month is the anniversary of a full year of unmitigated horror in Sudan. On Friday, the Security Council called for an immediate Ramadan ceasefire, and I know that our excellent diplomats and the Minister were pivotal in that resolution. The African Union, the Arab League and Members across this House echo that call, but the violence has not stopped. If the warring parties continue to refuse to listen, how can the Government work with partners to step up the pressure?

The hon. Lady is quite right to raise the appalling position in Sudan, which to some extent has been masked by other terrible events in the world. She will be pleased to hear that, thanks to British leadership at the United Nations, a new Security Council resolution was passed, I believe, last Friday. We are seeking to bring together all the different parties to try to make progress, so that the next round of talks, possibly in Jeddah, will be more successful than the last. Britain condemns any arming of either party inside Sudan. We are seeking also, through the work of our diplomatic mission in Khartoum, currently based in Addis, to help build civil society so that a political track can emerge.

T3. As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to four key Latin American markets, I have seen at first hand the work that His Majesty’s Government and the UK private sector are doing to help with the responsible extraction of key minerals such as lithium. With the drive to net zero accelerating, those minerals will only become more important, and competition is increasing. What diplomatic steps is the Department taking to strengthen the UK’s security and its economic relations with countries in Latin America? (901957)

We are grateful for the outstanding work of our well-respected trade envoy—my hon. Friend does amazing work. Trade and security are two central tenets of the UK’s relationship with Latin America. Joining the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership creates huge opportunities for businesses in Latin America and in the UK, and as my hon. Friend is aware, sustainable and reliable supply chains for critical minerals—including lithium—are key. I look forward to meeting the Bolivian vice-president this afternoon.

T4. State-hood is the inalienable right of Palestinian people and not in the gift of any neighbour, so does the Minister agree that no country has the right to veto the UK’s recognition of a Palestinian state? (901958)

The British Government have always made it clear that they will recognise the Palestinian state when they think the time is right and such recognition would be helpful.

T5. The Belarusian company Alutech has somehow managed to circumvent sanctions and set up in the UK, in direct competition with its business partner, Dewsbury-based Alunet, whose turnover has been halved from £30 million to £15 million and has shed jobs as a result of that unfair competition. Will the Minister agree to meet with me and directors of Alunet to discuss how we can resolve this terrible situation? (901959)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. As he knows, some of our officials have met representatives of the company concerned, and we are continuing to take action to close gaps between our Russian and Belarusian sanctions—we keep them under constant review. I would be very happy to meet with my hon. Friend to discuss the Belarusian sanctions further.

T8. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary have been clear that we must be bolder, seizing hundreds of billions of pounds of frozen Russian assets to support the Ukraine war effort, and that we must get hold of the interest on those assets. In February, the Prime Minister said,“And then, with the G7, we must find lawful ways to seize the assets themselves and get those funds to Ukraine too.”Can the Minister update the House on progress within the G7? (901964)

The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. We are making progress, but he is also right to point out that what we do needs to be lawful. That is the key thing, and that is what we are working on.

T6. Would the Minister for development and Africa please update the House on his recent visit to Ethiopia? (901961)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I was recently in Ethiopia, and was able to visit Tigray and the edge of the most food-insecure area, where—as the House will know—starvation and food shortage is rising alarmingly. The situation is as if a football was being kicked at a plate glass window; we have the power to alter its trajectory, but if we do not, it will smash that window. That is why Britain is setting up a pledging conference—working closely with the United Nations—and a contact group on Ethiopia. In the next financial year, we are increasing our bilateral funding very significantly.

While the world looks the other way, Sudan is suffering from a catastrophe, with 8 million people displaced, 15 million with no healthcare whatsoever, and 24 million going hungry. What little aid there is is not getting in, and all aid across the conflict lines has been suspended since last December. What efforts is the Minister making to advocate for additional crossing points for aid to get in to Chad and South Sudan and across the conflict line, and will he attend the aid conference in Paris next month?

Yes, I do expect to attend that conference. I speak regularly to counterparts in the African Union, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and spoke last night to Tom Perriello, the new US special envoy for Sudan. We work very closely with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the Troika. We understand that the violence in Darfur bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing and are funding an open-source organisation, the Centre for Information Resilience, to keep account of those events, so that there can be no impunity in that respect either.

T7. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in order to see Palestinian self-determination, we need an end to human rights abuses, antisemitism and the glorification of violence, and we need Palestinians free from Hamas? (901963)

We certainly agree with my hon. Friend’s last point about a Palestine free from Hamas. There is no place for Hamas in the future Government of Palestine. On the point he makes about how we proceed further, the Government are absolutely clear that there is no place in our society, or anywhere else for that matter, for Islamophobia or antisemitism.

Israeli Minister Benny Gantz is the only person to have been granted a special mission status certificate by the Foreign Office since the beginning of last year, in effect protecting him from arrest for his part in suspected breaches of international law. According to reports, Israel did not grant Gantz’s delegation official status, so can the Minister explain why the UK Government still chose to provide diplomatic cover for this individual?

Whatever the position of the Israeli Government, let me assure the hon. Member that Benny Gantz was received in this country. He was seen by the Foreign Secretary, and his visit was most welcome.

The Minister will know that European security continues to be underpinned by the USA, which funds the vast majority of the NATO budget. Could I please ask him what is being done to coerce more of our NATO allies to meet their 2% commitment, and does he agree that European nations must shoulder more of the burden for our own security, for good strategic reasons?

I do agree that we must put our money where our mouth is, but as we survey the landscape of European and Atlantic security on the 75th anniversary of NATO, we see—with the accession of Finland and Sweden—that NATO is in very good order indeed.

I acknowledge what the Minister of State said about sanctioning certain west bank settlers, although four seems a very low number to me. Has he raised the activities of those settlers with his opposite number in the Israeli Government?

The British Government have certainly raised those activities with the Israeli Government. That is why we have asked that they should be arrested, prosecuted and punished for those activities. On those who may or may not be subject to a sanctions regime, we keep that fully under review, but the hon. Member will understand why I think it is best not to discuss that across the Floor of the House.

Has any Foreign Office Minister, official or embassy member had any discussions with our American allies over the dysfunctional extradition treaty since the disgraceful end of the Sacoolas case?

My right hon. Friend asks an extremely good question. He and I have co-operated on this matter many times in the past. If he would be so good as to table a question on this matter, I will make sure that he immediately gets a full answer to that question.

When Jeffrey Sachs, a UN adviser—from a Jewish American family, incidentally—says on camera:

“Israel has deliberately starved the people of Gaza… I am not using an exaggeration. I’m talking literally starving a population. Israel is a criminal, is in non stop war crime status, now I believe in genocidal status, and it is without shame, without remorse, without truth, without insight into what it’s doing”,

and adds:

“This is a murderous gang in government right now. These are zealots”,

does that not give the UK Government pause to reflect on the funding of UNRWA, and to call for a ceasefire and the recognition of Palestine, which 138 of 193 UN member states have done, rather than see it wiped off the map?

I think almost nothing that the hon. Gentleman has just said could possibly be deemed helpful in trying to bring the two sides together, achieve a pause, get the hostages out, get aid in and achieve a sustainable ceasefire. Therefore, I am afraid I am unable to offer any reassurance on any of the points he made.

Last week, 287 children aged between five and 12 were kidnapped from their school in Nigeria. That comes on top of 8,000 Christians who were killed for their faith last year. What are we doing about it?

My right hon. Friend is right about these appalling events, and the high commission in Abuja has raised these matters. Our hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is responsible for freedom of religion or belief, regularly focuses on what is happening in Nigeria and makes representations, which also ensures that the Foreign Office is kept up to the mark in pursuing it.

Canada is to resume funding for UNRWA having received UN reports. Has the UK Government received such reports, are they being reviewed, and when will that review be concluded and decisions be made?

We are asking that we have an interim report on both the key reports as soon as possible, and we will look at those reports as soon as they arrive and make our decisions accordingly. During the course of these questions I have adumbrated both those who are supporting the same position as the UK and those who are restoring funding immediately. The hon. Gentleman will want to bear in mind that Britain has fully funded UNRWA for its share up until the next financial year.

Haiti is on the edge of collapse, and only 100 nautical miles away are the Turks and Caicos islands, for whose national security the UK has responsibility. Will the Foreign Office fulfil its role by requesting of the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office that we deploy HMS Trent with its defensive capabilities, deploy Royal Marine fast boats, provide assets monitoring in the sea lane, and increase the policing footprint in TCI? Too often we have acted too slowly, which in the past that has resulted in threats to remove TCI from our overseas family. Please can we act now?

I assure my hon. Friend that I was recently in TCI and I understand the situation there. We have seen a rise in the number of people making the dangerous journey by sea from Haiti to TCI. We have put in place 13 serious crime investigators and seven firearms, officers, and we are working with the Home Office and the MOD in building capability and capacity in this important situation.

I listened carefully, as I always do, to what the Minister said regarding calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, but it is now time to step up. It requires all warring parties to stop the rockets, the bombs and the bullets—exactly right—and for the hostages to be released. Surely it would send a very strong signal if the UK Government now called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. He will have heard the five key priorities that the British Government have put on the table, and I am grateful to him for his agreement. Cross-party support is extremely helpful in driving forward an imperative about which Britain feels very strongly.

Will His Majesty’s Government make the strongest possible diplomatic protest against the draconian new national security laws being imposed on the good people of Hong Kong, and does the Minister accept that Britain still has a moral responsibility to the people of Hong Kong, who have been loyal to this country for so many years?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and we continue to raise our concerns about breaches of the Sino-British joint declaration that we see, and about this new layer of legislation coming through. We consider that that continues to be in breach, and we continue to ask for those laws to be removed.

Does the Minister agree that the alleged detention, beating and humiliation of 49 Palestinian medics at the Nasser Hospital last month needs to be investigated by the International Criminal Court—yes or no?

This session ends with the same question with which it started, and as I set out, we believe there must be accountability and we have made that clear to the Israeli authorities.

Prisons and Probation: Foreign National Offenders

With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about criminal justice in England and Wales.

Keeping our people safe requires a relentless focus on cutting crime, cutting reoffending, and making sure that those who pose the greatest risk are imprisoned for as long as necessary to protect the public. That is why it is welcome that crime has fallen significantly over the last decade, in particular with falls of over 50% since 2010 for offences of violence and burglary. In addition, the reoffending rate has fallen over the last decade from 31% to 25%. That has happened not by accident, but as a result of prioritising measures ranging from the tagging of acquisitive offenders post-release, to giving the police the powers they need such as stop and search.

At the same time, to take the worst offenders out of society for longer, we have taken action on sentencing, and those committing the most serious crimes are being sentenced to 40% longer behind bars. That is because, first, we acted to end the injustice of automatic release at the halfway point for the worst offenders. Instead of getting out at the 50% mark come what may, serious sexual and violent criminals must now serve at least two thirds of their sentence in custody. Rapists are now serving nearly three years longer on average than they did in 2010, and we are going even further by legislating to ensure that rapists service their whole term behind bars.

Secondly, we have increased sentence maximums for the worst offenders, such as those who cause death by dangerous driving or who cause the death of a child; and, as a result of our reforms currently before the House, those who kill in the context of sexual or sadistic behaviour will in future expect to spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars. Life should mean life for those who commit the most heinous crimes.

Thirdly, we have introduced a power to enable the Secretary of State to block the release of offenders such as Robert Brown, where release would pose an unacceptable risk to society.

Meanwhile, we are pushing ahead with the biggest prison building programme since the Victorian era. We are on track to deliver 10,000 new prison places by the end of 2025 and are committed to building 20,000 places overall. Today I can announce that we are going even further to make sure that we have the prison places we need to continue locking up serious and violent offenders for longer. I want to focus in particular on foreign national offenders, whom I will call FNOs.

The number of FNOs has increased over recent years to 10,500—around 12% of prisoners—in England and Wales, at an average cost to the taxpayer of around £47,000 per prisoner per year. These foreign criminals are not only putting a strain on the public purse but reducing the capacity of the prison system. We believe that they should, wherever possible, be removed back to their countries of origin, and we have made progress: last year the Government returned from prison and the community nearly 4,000 foreign criminals, which is a 27% increase on the year before—and we are going further.

In October, I set out in the House our plan to reduce the FNO population. We have extended the early removal scheme from a maximum period of 12 months to 18 months, so that eligible FNOs can be deported up to six months earlier. Almost 400 have already been removed from the UK through this and similar schemes since January. That is a 61% increase compared with the equivalent period a year earlier. We have also signed a robust new agreement with Albania, which has restarted transfers of Albanian offenders—the largest single cohort in our prisons—and we are legislating in the Criminal Justice Bill to rent prisons overseas, as other European countries have done.

This is important progress, but we must build on it by making sure that even more FNOs are removed from the country and spurious barriers to their removal are quickly removed. I can tell the House that we will radically change the way that FNO cases are processed. We have created a new taskforce across the Home Office and Ministry of Justice, including the Prison Service, Immigration Enforcement, and the asylum and modern slavery teams. We have surged 400 additional caseworkers, who will be in place by the end of March, to prioritise these cases, and we will streamline the end-to-end removal process.

We are also expanding the number of FNOs we can remove—for example, by bringing forward legislation to allow us to remove foreign offenders with limited leave to remain under conditional caution, and amending our deportation policy so that we can remove those on suspended sentences of six months or more. We are making more use of the diplomatic levers we have to remove people back to their home countries, including by expediting prisoner transfers with our priority countries; concluding new transfer agreements with partner countries such as Italy; and being prepared to make use of the powers provided under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 to restrict visas for any country where no progress on FNO removals can be made. That will allow us to deport more FNOs directly from prison in 2024—more than double the 1,800 we removed last year and more than in any year since 2010.

Let me now turn to the unsustainable growth in our remand population since the pandemic and the Criminal Bar Association action. This is important. When covid hit, we were confronted with two momentous judgment calls. The first was whether to order mass release of prisoners. Public health advice in this country, as in many others, was to release thousands and thousands of prisoners, given fears that the pandemic would rip through the prison estate and take countless lives. We declined to do that, and in the event—although every death is of course a tragedy—the total number of lives lost in prisons was under 200, thanks to the excellent efforts of His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service officers. Other nations took a different approach. In America, where I discussed the matter recently with my counterparts, tens of thousands were released; in California alone, the figure was 11,000. In France, nearly 13,000 were released. It is for each nation to take their own course, but I am clear that we made the right decision for public safety in our country.

The second judgment call was whether to heed the clamour to end jury trials. I believe that would have been a grave mistake, shattering a fundamental British freedom and dismantling the centrepiece of our justice system. The decisions that we made were right for access to justice, right for public protection and right as a matter of principle, but have contributed to the increase in the number of defendants held on remand while awaiting trial or sentencing by over 6,000 since 2019 to about 16,000 today.

Let me turn to what we are doing. On pre-trial detention, the Lady Chief Justice has confirmed that if bail applications are made to the magistrates court or renewed before the Crown court, the courts stand ready to hear them within the short time limits provided in the criminal procedure rules. We are also exploring at pace with the judiciary the roll-out of a remote nationwide pilot Crown court capable of hearing new bail applications. The pilot would monitor whether these additional measures result in an increase in the use of tagging and appropriate support packages in bail applications.

To support that, the Government will invest £53 million of additional funding to expand the bail information service—part of the productivity package announced by the Chancellor at the Budget—which will enable our court system to operate as efficiently as possible by increasing the court-based staff and digital systems that can provide critical information to the judiciary, making the bail process more streamlined. To support that work, a further £22 million of additional funding will be available over the next year to fund community accommodation. We will also increase awareness about the availability of tags—especially high-tech GPS and alcohol monitoring tags—to ensure that offenders can be monitored in the community where appropriate.

We will also extend the existing end-of-custody supervised licence measure to around 35 to 60 days. We will enable that to happen for a time-limited period and work with the police, prisons and probation leaders to make further adjustments as required. That will be only for certain low-level offenders. Where necessary, electronic monitoring will be applied to enhance public protection. Ministers will, of course, continue to keep use of this measure under review. The extension has been requested and supported by leaders in the Prison Service and the police.

All these measures rely on a probation service that focuses its resource on the most critical points of the justice system, especially when an offender is first released from prison. In 2021, the Government reunified the probation service, which brought together all probation functions into a single national organisation. We have invested £155 million of extra funding each year in the service and onboarded more than 4,000 trainee probation officers since then, and I will be taking steps to refocus probation practice on the points that matter most to public protection and reducing offending.

From April, we will reset probation so that practitioners prioritise early engagement at the point where offenders are most likely to breach their licence conditions. That will allow frontline staff to maximise supervision of the most serious offenders. Similarly, for those managed on community orders and suspended sentence orders, probation practitioners will ensure that intervention and engagement is prioritised towards the first two thirds of the sentence, as experience shows that that most effectively rehabilitates offenders. To be clear, none of the changes will apply to those convicted of the most serious offences, including those subject to multi-agency public protection arrangements.

I express my deep gratitude for the efforts of all those working in the criminal justice system: prisons, probation and courts staff, the police, prosecutors, lawyers and the independent judiciary. They are exceptional public servants. The Government will do what is necessary to remove foreign national offenders from our country and we will do whatever it takes to ensure that the British people are kept safe from the most dangerous criminals. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Late in the hours of yesterday evening, the Government tried to slip out quietly an announcement that they will be releasing prisoners up to two months early to deal with the lack of space in our prisons. Let us be in no doubt that this is the most drastic form of early release for prisoners that the country has ever seen, yet in the Secretary of State’s 11-page, 10-minute statement it merited just one paragraph. This measure will cause shockwaves and deep concern across our country and he seems to think that a quiet written ministerial statement published late last night and one paragraph today is good enough. It is not.

Prisoners will now be released not 18 days early but up to an unprecedented 60 days early. No other Government have ever found themselves having to do that on such a scale. It is nearly three times the number of days on licence seen under any previous scheme. Let me be clear that there are consequences. This scheme will seem wrong in principle to victims and the public—that people who have done wrong and have been sentenced under due process of law can be released as much as two months before a court intended. That means that people who have broken the law and, in many cases, pose an ongoing threat to the law-abiding public are directly benefiting from the Government’s complete incompetence.

It is small wonder that the Government have refused all requests to be transparent about the scale and the impact of the scheme. That is no way to run the criminal justice system—or, indeed, the country—not least because when the Secretary of State announced the scheme last October, he was explicit that the power would

“be used only for a limited period and only in targeted areas.”

He said that the scheme was to be

“a temporary operational measure to relieve immediate pressure.”—[Official Report, 16 October 2023; Vol. 738, c. 59-60.]

Last month we learned from a leak to the media that the scheme had been expanded to more prisons and, according to unpublished guidance to prison governors, activated for an “undefined period”. He will surely acknowledge that this will strike many people as a novel definition of “temporary”.

Now we learn that the scheme is due to be expanded very significantly—an unprecedented 60 days ahead of when a prisoner would ordinarily be released. I repeat the questions that I first raised all those months ago. How many prisoners have been released early under the scheme to date? Which prisons are using the early release scheme? Which types of offenders are being released early under the scheme? Are domestic abusers and stalkers eligible for release under the scheme? Why has it been expanded to early release of up to 60 days? Why has the scheme been activated indefinitely? Will the Secretary of State finally commit to publishing all the relevant statistics about the early releases scheme on the same basis that prison data is published—on a weekly basis, rather than the wholly inadequate commitment to publish on an annual basis, not least because there will have been a general election before then?

The Secretary of State has acknowledged, at last, that all the changes put real and profoundly concerning additional pressure on our already overstretched and understaffed probation service. He tells us that there will be a reset for probation to ensure that it prioritises early engagement, but it is not clear what that means or what part of its vital work he is suggesting probation officers will not do as a result of today’s statement. What is glaringly absent is any additional resource to support the thousands of cases that will now have their release dates brought forward.

It is wholly inevitable that rushing out such measures will increase the risk to the public. I hope the Secretary of State will have the honesty to admit that in his response. Again, what measures have been put in place to ensure that probation has the time and the resources to assess risk adequately and protect the public? Has there been a risk assessment of the expansion? If so, will he publish it? How will the Government ensure that inexperienced probation staff are not left unsupported to supervise dangerous offenders?

The Government tell us that they will free up more spaces in our prisons by cracking down on the number of foreign national offenders who are taking up space that we can ill afford to spare when they have no right to be in this country. The Secretary of State has not pointed out that the numbers that the Government deported last year are significantly lower than those they inherited in 2010—5,383 foreign national offenders were deported in the last year of the Labour Government. Meanwhile, thousands of foreign national offenders are living in the community post release for several years without being removed. We welcome any improvement that the Government intend to make on this pretty poor record, but if the public are to believe that any of these measures will make the necessary difference, the Secretary of State needs a more credible plan, such as a new returns and enforcement unit with up to 1,000 new staff—more than double his 400 announced today.

Unprecedented is a term that is far too often bandied around in politics, but these changes are, by any measure, truly extraordinary. The Secretary of State has not been transparent with this House or with the public. They deserve answers, and it is about time that he started giving them.

I thank the hon. Lady for her points. She addressed a number of issues, but not the fact that when Labour were in government, it ran a similar scheme for three years. Does she want to explain how many were released during that scheme? I am sure that she will welcome the opportunity to update the House. She talks about risk, and she is right to raise these important issues, but it is also important that we set them out clearly and calmly. First, unlike the Labour scheme in which those who had been sentenced to under 12 months were released with no licence conditions, everyone will have a licence condition. We need to be clear about what that means. Under Labour’s scheme, which ran for three years, there were no licence conditions at all. Under our scheme there will be licence conditions.

Secondly, Labour’s scheme operated in a blanket way across every prison. Ours is targeted and calibrated. Thirdly, and importantly, under this scheme there will be the opportunity for a gold command veto, where the governor has concerns about an individual—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady could just listen for a moment. Those concerns will be escalated to a panel of senior officials, who will make a decision based on the offender’s history, the proposed bail address and the conditions that could be imposed—not to contact, not to enter, to abide by a curfew or potentially to be tagged. If the governor has concerns about safety, that person will not be released. That safeguard was not available under the Labour scheme, which ran for three years. It is critical to prioritising public safety, which is our focus.

In the hon. Lady’s response there was the eloquent sound of silence in relation to the specific questions that this Government and every Government around the world face: should we have let out thousands of prisoners? She has given no answer to that question, but it is important, because if she aspires to stand here, she will have to say whether that should have taken place. Not doing so has contributed to the pressures that we face, but it would have been the wrong thing to do, because it would have prioritised prisoner safety over public safety. We did not do it, and we were right not to do it. Principle has a cost, and we have taken a sensible decision.

The second thing that the hon. Lady did not address is whether we should have listened to those who clamoured for the end of jury trials. I do not think she is suggesting that we should have, but there is an inevitable effect to that. When we came into office, the number of cases in the Crown court was around 48,000. Pre-covid, it was 39,000, but as it has gone up, inevitably as a result of keeping the jury trial system, a higher proportion of people have been in custody awaiting trial. That is a matter of remorseless, arithmetic logic. There are an additional 6,000 people now. We made the right decision, but we have to take a sensible step.

The final point that the hon. Lady failed to address is what she would have done in these circumstances. She knows, as I know, that she would have taken exactly the same step. To seek to make political capital is beneath her.

I commend the Secretary of State for his characteristically thoughtful and measured approach. Does he agree that it does no one any good service to try to reduce this issue to simplistic arguments? The truth is that dealing with prison capacity, where everyone has recognised for many years that there are real pressures, demands a careful set of checks and balances. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those are in place? Does he also agree that we need to be honest with the public in saying that, however much we try, prison places are expensive and finite. Therefore, the system must make judicious and intelligent use of prison, which includes locking up those who are dangerous and having alternative ways of dealing with and punishing those who are not dangerous to the community. Is that not the objective?

My hon. Friend makes an exceptional point. We have to proceed on the basis of evidence, not emotion. We choose to lock up the most dangerous offenders for longer, which is why those who murder in the context of sexual or sadistic behaviour should be in custody for the rest of their lives, because the threat to the population is so great. Where people can be reformed using technology, which was not available a long time ago, we should use that, not just because that works as a matter of common sense but because the data shows that it works.

On my hon. Friend’s specific point, anyone who looks at this issue calmly and in an adult way will see that there have been pressures in moments in history. There was one in 1997 and another in 2007, when Jack Straw had a terrible argument with Lord Falconer about the use of cells in Inner London Crown court. Those of us who have been in the system remember that. The key is whether to deal with that in a sensible, calibrated and proportionate way. We will take every step to look after the safety of the public, and we will not score political points in the process.

Last week, the Prisons Minister and I visited Wormwood Scrubs, where we found doubling up in single cells, with unshielded toilets, and overcrowding affecting people’s time out of cell and access to work. The education service was described as poor, and food budgets are £2.70 a day. Staff told us that assaults on officers are not being prosecuted. What is the Lord Chancellor doing to improve conditions in our Victorian prisons, as that is vital for the welfare of staff, the rehabilitation of prisoners and the protection of the public?

First, I commend the hon. Gentleman for visiting his local prison, as doing so is extremely valuable and I am grateful for his feedback. He raised a number of issues and I would be happy to write to him, but may I just deal with one thing in particular? We ask prison officers to do an extremely difficult job; they need to be robust, but sometimes they have to be sensitive. To assist them in doing so, we are ensuring, first, that they are paid properly, and so we accept every last penny of the Prison Service pay review body recommendation. Secondly, we are rolling out body-worn video, so that they know that if a situation looks like it is escalating, the evidence will be there—that provides a powerful deterrent effect. Thirdly, and finally, we are reducing attrition. I hope he will agree that experienced prison officers are the ones who can make those tough decisions on when to be tough and when, metaphorically speaking, to offer that hand of support.

Clearly, there is pressure on the prison estate. I appreciate that some of the challenge to the Justice Secretary’s statement today is about many thinking that we are not keeping in prison people who should be there, but there is also a problem of some people being sent to prison who should not be there. He will be aware of my police officer constituent who one minute was hailed a hero for apprehending a violent criminal and the next found himself in Wandsworth prison.

There is a slight irony, given this statement, that the Government intend to put further pressure on the estate through clauses in their Criminal Justice Bill proposing the imprisonment of beggars and rough sleepers. Given what he is saying today, will he consider supporting the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), and supported by myself, my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and many others from across this House, that would remove the intention to imprison rough sleepers and beggars?

My hon. Friend assiduously raises matters on behalf of her constituents and is going to be such a loss to this House. She indicates in that question why she will be. Of course, I cannot comment on the specific circumstances relating to her constituent, because of the independent trial process. The Criminal Justice Bill contains Home Office measures, but I will ensure that the Home Secretary is aware of the points she has raised.

The number of cases disposed of by our courts is down by 200,000 from its pre-pandemic level—a reduction of 12%. What is the Secretary of State doing to eliminate that backlog? What impact does he think there will be on prison numbers in the event that he is successful?

That is a fair question. It is always worth remembering that more than 90% of cases are disposed of in the magistrates court, where we are getting through a very significant number. He makes a fair point about the Crown court, because we are prosecuting 32% more rape offences than before, so the plea rate is lower, because—guess what?—people do not plead guilty to rape in the way that they might plead guilty to handling stolen goods, for example. So we address that by putting additional money into the system, with £141 million going into legal aid, and by ensuring that section 28 is used, with pre-recorded video evidence and so on. We make no apology for the fact that we have to let the system take its course on these appalling crimes and we will do everything we can to increase resources so that people—victims and witnesses—get the justice they deserve.

I very much support the carefully considered moves announced today by my right hon. and learned Friend, which reflect the reality of the pressures on our prison estate and on our excellent prison officers, following the extraordinary impact of covid. I especially welcome the additional steps he has announced to remove more foreign national offenders. He spoke of a reset in probation, so will he set out in a little more detail how he hopes it will reduce reoffending and so cut crime? What we all want to see, of course, is fewer victims of crime.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. Probation is critical and I have made a point since coming into this role of speaking not only to senior probation officers, important though they are, but to probation officers on the frontline. That has been an incredibly instructive experience. One I spoke to in Luton and Dunstable told me that the measures we have taken to roll out 12 weeks’ guaranteed accommodation were the most significant steps that any Government had taken in the 30 years he had been a probation officer. The reset I referred to will follow evidence, not emotion. In other words, it will allow probation officers to calibrate and prioritise their resource to those parts of the licence period where reoffending is most likely to take place. That is common sense and it follows the evidence. Ultimately, measures such as that are why reoffending has gone down from 31% to 25%, thus saving a number of people from being victims of crime in the first place.

I thank the Minister for a comprehensive response, as always; he is certainly across his subject. It is great that action has been taken to ease prisoner overcrowding. An element of concern must, however, be expressed at the thought of criminals being released early, even though their crimes are being deemed “low level”. What procedure will be followed to ensure that those being considered for early release pose absolutely no threat to the public? What is the Minister’s plan should one reoffend upon release?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter because it is important that we in this House, no matter where we sit, ensure that a clear and accurate message goes to the public. The people who are out will be out on conditions. If a condition is breached—this is not necessarily about committing an offence—not only will they be recalled for the period of the end of custody supervised licence, but they could be recalled for the entire balance of their sentence. That is an important point to understand. We could be talking about a contact condition, a residence condition, a co-operate with probation condition or a “not to go to Strangford town centre” condition. These things are important conditions to ensure that the public are protected and society is kept safe.

I welcome today’s statement on foreign national offenders, but this is ultimately about law-abiding British people. Does the Justice Secretary agree that we should instantaneously remove any right to remain at the end of their sentences for those who abuse our hospitality by committing the most serious crimes?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about this; people who come to our country and enjoy its hospitality should expect short shrift if they repay that with crime, because that is an offence against not just the individual, but our entire community. That is why we are taking robust action to deport foreign national offenders. I am afraid to say that this is action not shared by the Opposition; in 2020, a letter was sent to the then Prime Minister urging him not to allow a planeload of foreign national offenders to take off. Who signed it? It was the shadow Secretary of State.

Is the Lord Chancellor alive to a principal concern and source of frustration among Crown court judges: the frequent delisting of cases at short notice, with all the consequences that then follow for delay and increasing numbers of prisoners on remand, occasioned by a growing shortage of criminal barristers? That, in turn, will lead to a reduction in both the quantity and quality of future judges.

I am so grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that issue, because ensuring that there is a vibrant profession is crucial, not only in order for the machine of justice to continue, but to provide the pipeline to which he referred. As for the specific issue of listing or delisting, as he referred to it, that is a judicial discretion—it is a matter for the judges. However, he is right about wanting to ensure that there is a pipeline, which is why we are investing more than £140 million into legal aid, so that instead of talented young professionals thinking, “I am off to the private sector to earn a fortune at the chancery Bar,” they will be there at the legal aid Bar, following in the footsteps of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the Chair of the Justice Committee, prosecuting and defending criminals so that we can ensure that justice is served in our country.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that under the new scheme victims will see justice prevail, while foreign national offenders will efficiently be processed to leave the country? That contrasts with what happened under the previous Labour Government, who had people who had already served their sentence languishing in prison beyond their sentence while the deportation court caught up with the process.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a matter of basic justice. The British people expect that those who offend against our country, as well as against victims of crime, should receive short shrift. That is why we are absolutely clear that if violent thugs who rape, murder, steal and rob are in our country from overseas, we will put them on a plane and get them out.

Bills Presented

Bereavement Support (Children and Young People)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Christine Jardine, supported by Wendy Chamberlain, Mrs Flick Drummond, Mr Tobias Ellwood, Richard Foord, Tim Loughton, Rachael Maskell, Jim Shannon and Munira Wilson, presented a Bill to require specified organisations and public bodies to inform children and young people of local, national and online support services available to them following a bereavement; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 176).

Personal Protective Equipment at Work (Protected Characteristics)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Emma Hardy presented a Bill to require employers to ensure that personal protective equipment provided at work to people with certain protected characteristics within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010 is suitable for the wearer; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 7 June, and to be printed (Bill 177).

Public Sector Websites (Data Charges)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require providers of electronic communications networks to allow their customers to access certain public sector websites free of charge; and for connected purposes.

It is a pleasure to present the Bill, which would make a significant difference to the financial security of so many struggling households up and down the country. As we all know, the cost of living crisis has squeezed the household finances of millions. The last thing our constituents need, when they are already worrying about choosing between heating their homes or putting food on the table, is to run out of data to access vital public services on the internet.

In October 2023, the digital inclusion all-party parliamentary group found that nearly 2 million households in the UK were struggling to pay for broadband—nearly double the number in the year before. Indeed, a Citizens Advice study in May last year reported that 12% of households surveyed said they have had to cut back or stop spending on broadband entirely during the previous 12 months. For those on universal credit, the situation is even starker. The study found that 16% of claimants said they were behind on their broadband bill, compared with just 4% of non-claimants. Some 14% of universal credit claimants who said they had to cut down on their internet usage due to cost, also found it difficult to manage their universal credit account as a result.

In an age when we are increasingly able to access public services via the internet, particularly via mobile browsers, we must ensure that we do not leave people behind during this digital revolution. Our reliance on the internet became acutely clear during the pandemic: NHS Digital recorded 1.2 billion visits to NHS webpages between October 2021 and September 2022, with 131 million visits to the vaccination booking pages. The increasing prevalence of public information and resources available online is a good thing—as a former NHS worker, I know it has the capacity to make our public services more efficient, more agile and better value for money for taxpayers—but being able to access the NHS website should not be constrained by someone’s financial situation. Likewise, someone on universal credit should not have to worry about not being able to access their account because of their data allowance. Simply put, we know that those with the greatest need to access online services are often the ones facing the greatest barriers to do so.

During the pandemic, operators such as Vodafone, EE, Virgin Media, O2 and Three gave their customers free online access to the NHS website, covid information, the NHS app and online education resources such as BBC Bitesize and Oak National Academy. The operators recognised the huge surge in need and the barriers that some people would face as a result. This procedure is known as zero-rating, whereby accessing any of those websites would not consume a user’s mobile data allowance. Indeed, since the pandemic, Virgin Media, O2 and Three continue to offer zero-rating to their customers for various public service websites after seeing what a vital help it can be for the least well-off during the cost of living crisis. My Bill simply proposes that we continue the good work that some operators have already done by extending this precedent into a legal requirement for all network providers operating in the UK. By making the and sites zero-rated, we can extend universal free access to the most vital services, such as universal credit, local authority services and NHS health information, to everyone no matter their financial situation.

Zero-rating public service websites is by no means a silver bullet, but it would help to ease one of the many financial burdens that households currently face. By giving users free access to webpages, for instance, we could ease some of the financial pressure and stress for some of the most vulnerable in society. Many households rely on a mobile phone for all their internet access, but they are often dependent on expensive data top-ups to stay online. By removing costs from and sites, households who visit these services will not have their data affected and will still be able to access them even when they are out of data.

In my constituency of Wakefield, we have a fantastic organisation called Wakefield Technology 4 All, which provides vital digital access support, as well as digital devices themselves, to so many households. A young woman who came to its support hub last year needed help to rebuild her life after multiple incidents of sexual violence. As well as having a tight budget to support herself and her children, she had to deal with having no carpets, no beds and no curtains. What she did have was a donated laptop from Wakefield Technology 4 All, but she struggled to find money for data. Accessing websites for Government services, the NHS and local council services would often be reactive and unplanned, and she would often find herself running out of data when she needed to access those vital services. During unimaginably stressful circumstances, she would have to rely on seeing someone face to face at another location, or simply do without the services until she was able to purchase more credit.

Many of the poorest and most vulnerable households have enough on their plate without the constant worry about how they will access crucial public services and information if their data allowance runs out. My constituents should not have to worry about the lack of data preventing them from accessing the vital public services and information they need.

With Bills such as this one, there is often the question of how, but this is a rare situation where it has been done before. As I set out, during covid and the ongoing cost of living crisis, some networks stepped up and introduced zero-rating. Clearly, deployable technology for zero-rating already exists. Zero-rating was described by a Three mobile representative during the pandemic as being as simple as “flicking a switch”. Indeed, some networks already offer zero-rated access to social media as a perk for their customers.

Compared to social media, the cost for operators to zero-rate access to domains such as and is tiny. The Government services covered by the Bill are largely text-based, so the amount of data consumed is a minute fraction of what it would take to, for example, stream a 4K video on YouTube. Once domains are established, verified and shared with operators, it would be a seamless transition to ensuring that millions of the most vulnerable households are still able to access vital health, education, employment and benefit services, even when their data runs out.

My Bill will not solve the financial problems that so many are facing up and down the country; that is not the intention. It would, however, ensure that everyone can still access the essential services they need to get on in life, even if they run out of data. I pay tribute to all those who are working so hard, across this House and in the other place, on digital inclusion. In particular, I am extremely grateful to the digital inclusion all-party parliamentary group, which has worked tirelessly on so many aspects of digital inclusion. I also pay tribute to organisations outside Westminster, including Virgin Money UK, which I was able to visit in my constituency a few weeks ago. It is working with the amazing team at the Good Things Foundation to provide a national data bank, increasing access to the internet for its customers and some of the most vulnerable households up and down the country.

In closing, the Bill would give millions of households the security of knowing that they can always access the crucial public services they depend on, from health advice to information about their universal credit applications and accessing important local Government services. We still have a long way to go before we solve all the problems of digital exclusion, and the Bill does not try to fix all the myriad problems that come with it, but with the technology ready to go and the clear need for action, the Bill would none the less take us one step nearer to closing the digital divide for good.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That Simon Lightwood, Dame Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Kate Hollern, Fabian Hamilton, Nadia Whittome, Ms Marie Rimmer, Cat Smith, Naz Shah, Sarah Edwards and Dr Rupa Huq present the Bill.

Simon Lightwood accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 May, and to be printed (Bill 178).

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 24 January, the Procedure Committee published its report HC338, entitled “Commons scrutiny of Secretaries of State in the House of Lords”, which recommended that the Foreign Secretary should appear at the Bar of the House to answer questions. Today we had the second session of Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions since the report’s publication, and there was no sign of the Secretary of State. If the Prime Minister bottles it and does not call an election in the next week or so, there could be three more sessions of FCDO questions before the summer. Have you, Mr Speaker, received any indication from the Government of whether they intend for the Foreign Secretary to come here and answer questions from Members of the House, and can you confirm whether the House authorities are in a position to facilitate that if and when he does appear?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving notice of his intention to make this point of order. The Procedure Committee published its report in January, and the Government’s response will be due towards the end of this month. I would advise him to wait for the response before considering how he might pursue the matter further. That is what I have been told by the Clerks.

Ways and Means

Budget Resolutions

Income Tax (Charge)

Debate resumed (Order, 11 March).

Question again proposed,

That income tax is charged for the tax year 2024-25.

And it is declared that it is expedient in the public interest that this Resolution should have statutory effect under the provisions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968.

It is a privilege to open the final day of debate on the Budget—a Budget with a plan to grow the economy, a plan for better public services and a plan to make work pay. Today’s debate is focused on a theme close to my heart: improving productivity. As some Members know, back in 2010, before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked for my noble Friend Lord Maude on an efficiency and reform agenda that saved the Government £14 billion a year by 2014. It captured everything from buying printer paper collectively to managing Government projects better and digitising services. That agenda not only cut costs but improved productivity.

Ahead of the pandemic, and under this Government, productivity in the private sector increased by an average of 0.7% a year between 2010 and 2019. [Interruption.] As I am sure Opposition Members will be interested to know, that contrasts starkly with the decline in public sector productivity by an average of 0.2% per annum between 1997 and 2009. Our success was entirely due to hard work behind the scenes and a relentless focus on output.

Rather than cherry-picking statistics, will the Minister tell us what she thinks about the fact—confirmed by the House of Commons Library—that the UK has the lowest investment in the G7 and is the second worst performer in the G7, post-pandemic, in terms of economic growth?

I will say to the hon. Gentleman that since 2010 we have grown faster than France, Germany and Italy, and we are predicted to do the same in the next five years.

It is no coincidence that between 2010 and 2019 the number of violent crimes and burglaries halved. Our reading standards in schools, which were previously behind those of France, Germany and Sweden, raced ahead. The latest technologies, such as the NHS app and virtual wards, are now used by patients across the country.

However, this is not a “once and done” situation. The effect of the pandemic on productivity was significant. Moreover, as Lord Maude has put it, the focus on productivity must

“never end. This will always be a work in progress. There never can be a steady state… The public, for whom public services exist, deserve nothing less.”

That is why this Conservative Chancellor is willing to invest once again to drive change.

The head of the National Audit Office has said that if we can improve public sector productivity, the size of the prize is tens of billions of pounds, and the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that raising public sector productivity by 5% would be the equivalent of about £20 billion extra in funding.

While the Chief Secretary is on the subject of the OBR, may I ask her whether the OBR is correct in saying that the target public sector debt measure is forecast to increase, or whether her own personal calculations continue to suggest that debt will fall?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will see in the OBR figures that public sector net debt overall is expected to fall, and public sector net debt excluding the Bank of England is due to fall in the fourth and fifth year of the forecast. [Interruption.] No, that is just the overall public sector net debt figure.

May I pursue the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)? Why have the Government chosen a debt measure that excludes the Bank of England?

To put it simply, it is because we are more in control of that figure. The overall figure is falling, but public sector net debt excludes the impact of the Bank of England on the figures.

The rise in public sector productivity will help us to manage the size of the state in the long term, while also maintaining public service quality and delivering savings for taxpayers. That is why, 14 years on, in my role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I am delighted to be leading our public sector productivity programme.

I am pleased that the Minister is in charge of that programme. Perhaps she can explain a little more about it. Local government currently has a deficit of about £4 billion. In the productivity plan for local government, the Government highlighted the need to reduce waste on equality, diversity and inclusion. I have found no Government figure showing how much that will save, but the TaxPayers’ Alliance says that it will save £50 million over three years, towards the £4 billion deficit. Has the Minister a figure that suggests that the saving in that part of the productivity plan will be greater?

Yes, the savings in the productivity plan will amount to billions of pounds.

Let me say a little about the economic context. The last few years have not been easy. The pandemic, Putin’s illegal occupation of Ukraine, energy price rises, and now conflict in the middle east have taken their toll on the economy, on businesses and on families. However, because of the difficult decisions that the Government have taken, the economy is turning a corner. Inflation has more than halved, from 11% to 4%; real wages have risen for seven months in a row; and unemployment is down, from a high of 8% in 2010 to 3.9% at the end of last year. Because we have stuck to our plan, we have been able to cut the double tax on work, putting £900 back into working people’s pockets. On Sunday, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies gave its verdict on our tax cuts for workers:

“genuinely putting a lot more money into the pockets of people”.

The right hon. Lady is referring to the 2p cut in national insurance. That cut has been wiped out by the freeze in income tax thresholds, and the average worker on £35,000 a year will still be nearly £400 a year worse off this year than last year. How do these figures match up?

I am sure the hon. Lady will be pleased to know that the average earner will be subject to the lowest effective tax rate since 1975.

I am going to make a bit of progress.

Sadly, the Labour party is putting this in jeopardy. Labour Members have no plan to cut taxes, and cannot name a single one that they would cut. Instead, they are trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes by pretending that they have refinanced their £28 billion a year plan to decarbonise. They themselves have said that their pledge costs £28 billion a year, and they are apparently not scaling their promises down. We all know what that means: more taxes for hard-working families. What the public and the House need to know is this: which tax will they raise to pay for the plan, and, if they are in government after the general election, will they stick to our spending plans as set out in the Budget? The British public deserve to know.

During this Parliament, total departmental spending has increased by 3.2% a year in real terms, and day-to-day departmental spending will grow at an average of 1% a year in real terms beyond the current spending review period. The Government are protecting the record increase in capital spending over this Parliament, which will deliver about £600 billion of public sector investment over the next five years. As announced in the Budget, we are also committing an additional £2.5 billion for the NHS in England in 2024-25, protecting day-to-day funding levels in real terms.

Is the Minister aware that thousands of people in this country would love to work and be productive, but cannot because they are living with cancer? Cancer is not only a threat to people’s life, but it also limits their ability to earn a living. I am sure that she is aware that a third of people diagnosed with cancer wait two months for their first intervention that will help to cure them. Is there any room in the capital spending that she set out for large-scale investment in radiotherapy, as suggested by the all-party parliamentary group for radiotherapy? That would help to cure people more quickly and in a more targeted way, so that there is no collateral damage, and people can go back to work much sooner.

I praise the hon. Gentleman for the work that he has done on this very important issue, and I know that the capital we are providing will help with issues such as the one he has highlighted.

We cannot just put more money into public services and hope for the best. I was delighted to read that the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) said recently that he was in favour of reforming public services, not splurging on them. Well, here’s hoping that the Labour party breaks the habit of a lifetime. I genuinely hope that he will agree with some of the measures on productivity that we have set out today, because outcomes are determined by how things are done. By focusing on outcomes, not funding, we can deliver real value for the taxpayer. It is a trap to think that simply spending more buys us better public services. Simply spending more is also not sustainable.

On the subject of unfunded spending commitments, we on the Treasury Committee learned from the Office for Budget Responsibility this morning that the Government have not told it about the £46 billion ambition to scrap national insurance contributions altogether, and because the OBR has not been told, it cannot forecast the economic impact that that may have. How does that bake in long-term economic stability for the United Kingdom?

Unlike the Labour party’s massive £28 billion unfunded tax commitment until 2030, our long-term ambition to cut national insurance and erase the double tax on work does not have a date on it. We have shown that, through careful stewardship of the economy over time, we can reduce people’s taxes without cutting spending.

Simply spending more is not sustainable. If no action is taken, public spending is forecast to grow faster than GDP from 2030; that accounts for pressures that we cannot avoid, such as demographic changes. That must be managed, using all the tools at our disposal—and not by borrowing more, or increasing taxes on the British public. Instead, we have to assess how we deliver public services, and improve them to make the UK more productive and ensure the long-term sustainability of public finances. Yes, this is about money, but it is also about delivering the best services for the public, because productivity is not a theoretical concept; it affects us all, in each area of our everyday lives.

I want better outcomes for children, and teachers being able to spend more time with pupils, rather than filling out paperwork. I want the police to spend more time on the beat, not on forms. As a Member of Parliament representing constituents in Sevenoaks and Swanley, I want nurses and doctors spending time with patients, not having to look at computer screens. Better public productivity means better value for money, better support for frontline workers to do their jobs effectively, and better results.

In last week’s Budget, the Chancellor announced that we are allocating £4.2 billion to investment in productivity. The package is broad and comprehensive, and includes £3.4 billion for the NHS—double its current budget for tech and digital transformation. The NHS says that that will unlock over £35 billion in the coming years—10 times the amount we will put in. At the next spending review, that will be the model for all our public services. The package also includes £105 million for 15 new special free schools across England, which I know will be welcomed across the House. That will create over 2,000 high-quality places for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and prevent local authorities’ use of costly independent provision.

The Budget provides £165 million to tackle the shortage of children’s home placements and to rebuild the children’s home estate. That will reduce the need for expensive and unsuitable emergency provision that does not produce the right outcomes for the children who need our help the most. There is £334 million to cut crime by improving policing technology, and £17 million for modernisation of Department for Work and Pensions services, and replacing the paper-based system for benefits. As a former Pensions Minister, I know the impact that such modernisation has had on the state pension. However, this is just the start. I am also committed to driving forward work to embed productivity at every level across the whole public sector.

No, I will not. I have been very generous with my time.

When I began thinking about this agenda in 2009, no one could have foreseen the technological changes of the last decade. Those changes are revolutionising the private sector, and we must embrace them in the public sector, too.

Our job is not yet done on the economy, but we are making progress with our plan to reward work and create growth—a plan that would be put in jeopardy under the Labour party. This Budget does what it says on the tin: it sticks to the plan—a plan that Britain needs, a plan that is putting money back in the pockets of British people, and a plan that is working. I commend this Budget to the House.