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Commons Chamber

Volume 748: debated on Wednesday 17 April 2024

House of Commons

Wednesday 17 April 2024

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Science, Innovation and Technology

The Secretary of State was asked—

AI in the NHS

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on increasing the use of AI in the NHS. (902258)

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology closely engages with all Departments on the adoption of AI, including the Department of Health and Social Care, and we are committed to ensuring that the adoption of AI is done in an ethical, safe and responsible way. That includes using AI to improve public service outcomes and productivity in the NHS. Ahead of the AI Safety Summit last year, we announced a new AI in healthcare fund, backed by £100 million, to target areas where the rapid deployment of AI could create transformational breakthroughs.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Without doubt, AI offers an opportunity to innovate regarding medical diagnostics. What discussions is he having with colleagues from the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that the next generation of clinical scientists, including radiologists and pathologists, gain the right skills to make full use of AI?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. Ensuring that the UK’s life sciences sector can grow and access the variety of skills it needs to support innovation, including the adoption of AI, is a key commitment of the life sciences vision. To deliver that we are working cross-Government, including with the Department for Education and DHSC, industry and academia, to ensure that our ecosystem can deliver and attract interdisciplinary talent. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and her Department are also working to ensure that the NHS can take advantage of the opportunity that AI represents for healthcare. In addition, DSIT is actively represented on NHS England’s radiology and pathology boards, where AI and skills are regularly discussed.

The Health and Social Care Committee’s report into the digital technologies of the future clearly demonstrated the opportunities that sit before us if we get the basics right. AI is not only of use for increasing productivity in diagnostics, but also when setting treatment plans and in pharmacology. How is the Minister setting out a strategic plan for how AI can be invested in the NHS for the future, as Labour has done with our “Fit for the Future” plan?

The hon. Lady is right to say that AI can play a great role in improving the way we treat conditions, provided that it is implemented in an ethical, safe and responsible way. One great example of that is Brainomix, which is already being used in 37 NHS healthcare trusts. It means that the in/out time has been greatly reduced, and three times more people who previously would have not been able to live independently are now able to do so because of the use of AI. That is also being used in additional critical pathways, and lessons are learned. I know the NHS is working closely with DHSC to ensure that AI is used effectively.

AI: Regulation

In our White Paper on AI regulation we set out our ambitious pro-regulation, pro-innovation framework, outlining five cross-sectoral principles to be applied by existing regulators. In February we published our response, setting out how we are supporting regulators to deliver the framework and strengthen our global AI leadership. That includes new funding and guidance for our regulators, and we have established a central risk function to support.

Yet we heard just a few months ago from the Prime Minister that the UK’s answer is not to rush to regulate. The Competition and Markets Authority has been clear about the potential harms that unregulated AI could generate from baking in biases that affect certain demographics, and general purpose models that could get out of control. Why have the Government dragged their feet on safeguards for the most advanced AI models, or is the Secretary of State simply waiting for the next Labour Government to control the new AI models?

Mr Speaker, this is absolute tosh. We have led the world when it comes to AI safety. We have set up a long-term process in the AI Safety Summit, and the next one will be in Seoul in just a few weeks. We have also set up the world’s first AI Safety Institute, which is testing both pre and post deployment. We have also been clear: we will not rush to legislate. We will grip the risks and better understand them, rather than produce out-of-date legislation as a gimmick.

Tomorrow the TUC will officially launch its Bill on AI regulation and employment rights, which recognises that transparency, observability and explainability are all key elements of a fair and just workplace. What will the Government do to ensure that AI does not lead to a weakening of workers’ rights?

We want to garnish the opportunities of AI for the British public, which include the comple- mentary aspect that it can pose for jobs, especially in teaching and medicine, by taking away some of the admin and bureaucracy. We are also very realistic that technology always changes labour market needs. In 1940, 60% of the jobs we now have did not exist. That is why we have undergone a revolution in our skills system, including the launch of the lifelong learning entitlement next year.

It is all very well the Government saying that they will take their time over this response, but the point is that the Federation of Small Businesses is saying that a regulatory framework is urgent, and Dr Rogoyski of the University of Surrey is pointing out that delay could mean the UK probably having no choice but to follow the approach of the US and Europe on AI regulation. Can the Secretary of State set out exactly what the timeframe will be for regulation?

The hon. Member is getting confused between regulation and legislation. We already have a plethora of regulation and world-leading regulators that we are supporting. We were clear in our White Paper response that we will legislate—as will every nation around the world—but we want to get that legislation right. She commented on the US’s approach. We are working hand in glove with the US, and I signed the world’s first memorandum of understanding on AI institutes just a few weeks ago.

What assessments have the Government made of the United Nation’s plans to internationally regulate artificial intelligence? What are the implications for UK sovereign security?

The UK Government are committed to unlocking the opportunities of AI, while mitigating the risks. That requires both domestic and international action. The UK is a leading voice internationally, having hosted the AI Safety Summit, which delivered the world-first Bletchley declaration, as well as actively participating at the UN. That includes our proactive role shaping UNESCO recommendations on AI ethics.

The Secretary of State knows that leading AI developers are expected imminently to release new, more sophisticated AI models. Can she confirm that our AI Safety Institute has had access to those models, as was agreed at Bletchley Park? Is it the case that the developers have made changes to their models where they have been requested by the institute?

I know that my right hon. Friend shares my passion and enthusiasm for this topic, as well as a desire to make sure we grip the risk. Our institute is the first in the world to be doing pre and post-deployment testing, in line with the agreement we made at Bletchley Park. I cannot get into the specifics of which models we are testing, as I am sure he will understand, as that is highly commercially sensitive information, but I can assure him and the House that where risks are found, we expect relevant action to be taken. The responsibility of developers is to ensure that their models are safe, but the Government are committed to holding them to account.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that spreading best practice in this field is perhaps the most important thing? For example, the health benefits of AI have already been mentioned, such as in the diagnosis of bowel cancer, and that is about promoting the health of the public at large. Those things need to be pushed forward with urgency. It is not enough just to try to slow things down and over-regulate.

I absolutely agree. AI has the potential to be revolutionary, especially in areas such as healthcare. That is why at the summit we announced a £100 million pot to accelerate some of our existing healthcare missions. We are working hand in hand with the Department of Health and Social Care on this important topic.

AI is an incredible new technology, and it can help the NHS to save lives, but there are also risks, such as the danger of deepfakes. The Government have been warned about those risks, yet time and again Ministers have dithered and delayed, and the Government’s failure to act was highlighted in the Financial Times this week. Have the Government run out of ideas, or are they just scared of their own Back Benchers?

As the hon. Member will know, we have the defending democracy taskforce, which is dedicated to this very subject and is led by the Security Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). We as a team are actively participating in that, and we also work with social media companies and our international counterparts. It is something that I personally put on the agenda at the summit and that I have personally discussed in forums such as the G7. The Deputy Prime Minister is also leading the way with his AI compact. There is no easy answer to this, but we are working in a conciliatory and speedy manner to ensure that we address all opportunities and answers.

Personal Data

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill before Parliament builds on the high standards that we already have for personal data protection. It strengthens and modernises the regulator so that it can enforce standards must more robustly, to protect people. We are looking at what we can do to strengthen our cyber-resilience and data infrastructure all the time as new technology develops.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is clearly vital that the enormous amounts of personal data collected by Departments and private companies are safeguarded. I have received a number of complaints about people’s personal data being abused by companies, and indeed about public sector data being sold to companies who then use it. Just this weekend, our Greater London Authority candidate had his phone hacked and his social media destroyed. That is equally important as a demonstration of what can happen to democracy when data is abused. Will my hon. Friend take further action to safeguard people’s personal data?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that case. I regret what has happened to the GLA candidate, which highlights some of the risks in relation to technology. That is why we have high data protection standards, but there is a range of ways in which we need to tackle this problem. We have the national cyber strategy, which is working to ensure that we can deal with the cyber-threats we face. We are taking measures to protect our data infrastructure and trying to do things to stop fraud in the national “Stop! Think Fraud” strategy, as well as new laws on security of devices, such as connected devices. We need to do a whole range of things, but we need to keep making sure that we are vigilant about the risks.

When my 91-year-old mother died, I took on her landline for purely sentimental reasons. For months and months after that, I kept getting scam calls offering all sorts of dodgy products. Does the Minister agree that the elderly almost more than anyone else must have their personal data protected?

I am sorry to hear of that experience, which I am afraid is shared by constituents across the country. That is why we have taken new measures in the data Bill to try to deal with scam calls by trying to ensure that we can see where those numbers are and take action by blocking them on bulk. I appreciate what the hon. Member said; it is something that we must tackle.

We are told that this is the general election year. In other countries, we already see those who want to manipulate democracy using AI to scrape together personal details, including someone’s face and voice, allowing them to falsify candidates’ views. What the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) raised about the GLA candidate is pertinent. As we quickly approach the second half of the year—when we are told the Prime Minister will finally call the election—will the Government commit to ensuring that personal details are protected for candidates, voters and, above all, democracy as a matter of urgency?

We absolutely share those concerns. That is why we have a defending democracy taskforce working across every Department to look at the threats to our democracy. We face a substantial threat, and it is one that we must all be mindful of in how we conduct ourselves as candidates. AI, fakes and the protection of data is one element of that, but I assure the House that we are taking a whole range of measures to ensure that the protection of the coming general election is robust.

Individuals’ personal data is not safe in Tory hands. A recent article in The Guardian reported that senior Tory party officials planned to make millions from selling off their own members’ data through the “True Blue” app. If the Tory party is happy to sell off its own members’ personal data, how can the public possibly have confidence that their data is safe under the Government?

The allegations that the hon. Lady has put forward were written in The Guardian, and I have not seen them myself. I am presiding over the data Bill, and I have seen no evidence to suggest that we are trying to bring forward laws that would do such a thing.

Online Safety Act: Implementation

Ofcom is the independent regulator of the Online Safety Act. The Government are working with it to implement the Act as quickly as possible, including the relevant secondary legislation. Ofcom is taking a phased approach to bringing the duties into effect and is consulting on guidance and codes of practice. Offences around serious online abuse came into effect on 31 January this year.

The Online Safety Act introduced many measures to keep children safe, but given the increased concerns about children’s online safety, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time to go even further and introduce a child-safe phone? That would ensure that, at a minimum, all phones intended for children are properly fitted with parental controls to stop children accessing harmful content.

The Government produced world-leading legislation on online safety, which puts the onus on social media companies, not parents. I know that my right hon. Friend has spoken about information, which is particularly important to make it as easy as possible for parents. She raises an important about device-level controls, and I assure her that I am listening not just to Members of this House but to parents.

Yesterday, the Government finally backed Labour’s calls and announced that they would make the creation of deepfake porn a criminal offence. However, it is disappointing that the Government continue to adopt an intent-based approach over one of consent in relation to these crimes. Why are Ministers prioritising a man’s right to have banter over a woman’s right to feel safe? Will the Government look at the regulation of AI apps such as Nudify and ClothOff, which are freely available, easy to use and exist only to humiliate and violate women?

I share the hon. Member’s passion in this area, which is why we put it in the Online Safety Act with regard to the sharing of that content. We have now gone one step further, and are in the process of making it illegal to create that content in the first place.

AI: Impact on Democracy

The Government are clear that artificial intelligence is the defining technology of our time, with the potential to transform humanity positively. We also recognise the challenges that AI can pose. As has been said, we are working to ensure that we respond to the full range of threats to our democratic processes, including through the defending democracy taskforce. DSIT is engaging with social media platforms, civil society groups, academia and international partners to tackle the risks that AI can pose to democracy.

In the longer term, I agree that AI has enormous potential to support participation in politics, and we should seek to harness that. But in the short term, disinformation and deepfakes, often put together by foreign actors, threaten to have the most immediate impact on democracy. What risk does the Minister believe AI poses to this year’s election in particular, and what steps is he taking to alleviate those risks?

Let me be very clear: the UK will not tolerate malicious cyber-activity that targets our democratic institutions. The Deputy Prime Minister has already come to this Dispatch Box and taken definitive action where that has happened. The defending democracy taskforce and Government teams are working collaboratively to ensure that we respond to threats to our democratic processes, including digitally manipulated content. The Online Safety Act will force companies to take proactive, preventive action against illegal, state-sponsored content online via the foreign interference offence, including deepfakes and other AI-generated content within the scope of the Act.

In two short sentences, will the Minister reassure us that AI will not destroy not just democracy, but the human race?

Two sentences, Mr Speaker. I can confirm that the Government are taking a proactive approach to AI. The defending democracy taskforce is working very hard to protect our democratic processes.

Topical Questions

I want the British people to be able to seize the extraordinary opportunities that AI offers, but that can happen only if we address the risks. At Bletchley Park we kick-started a global conversation and, since then, the Bletchley effect has seen countries from around the world collaborating on the development of safe, responsible and trustworthy AI. Two weeks ago I signed an agreement with the United States to allow us to collaborate seamlessly on AI safety testing. Last week we announced the date of the second AI Safety Summit in Seoul. We also remain laser-focused on implementing the landmark Online Safety Act, which will make Britain the safest place to be online. Last month we saw the first sentencing under the cyber-flashing offences that we brought in in January.

A fast and reliable internet connection is vital for everyday life and so many local businesses. I conducted a broadband survey in East Devon, which showed that some rural parts of my constituency sadly still lag behind, such as Sidbury, Fluxton, Marsh Green and Talaton. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that broadband providers improve connections across our county?

I am glad to say that over 75% of premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency can access gigabit-capable broadband. That is up from 6% in 2019, but we want to do more, so we have included mid and east Devon in our cross-regional framework for Project Gigabit. That is currently undertaking pre-procurement market engagement. We hope to give him news very soon.

The first act of the Prime Minister was to promise a Government of professionalism and integrity, yet here we have a Secretary of State who uses her position to accuse a British scientist of being a terrorist sympathiser. She goes on to use public money to settle her libel case and then she tries to cover up just how much taxpayers’ money she has wasted. Are those the actions of someone with integrity and professionalism—yes or no?

As the Minister responsible for UK Research and Innovation, I was alerted to a tweet by officials in my Department, which stated, “This is disturbing”

and to the comment:

“Suella Braverman urges police to crack down on Hamas support in UK”,

with no further context or wording. That was posted by a representative of an equality, diversity and inclusion board that sits under UKRI. At the time, like many others, I was indeed concerned and used the forum that the person used to alert UKRI to my concerns. This was highlighted using that medium, but on receipt of the letter, UKRI itself said that it was deeply concerned and launched an investigation.

T2. WhatsApp can be very handy, but it can also be very dangerous. Its end-to-end encryption means that even the most vile illegal content, such as child sexual abuse, cannot be policed or prevented. Given the obvious dangers to children, does the Secretary of State agree that it is woefully irresponsible of Meta to reduce the age for using WhatsApp to 13? (902299)

We are pro-innovation, but also pro-privacy. However, it is clearly not right for anyone to be exposed on any service to harms such as sexual abuse, extortion or grooming. Platforms must have robust processes in place to safeguard children, in line with the Online Safety Act 2023. Responsible encryption has an important role to play in protecting privacy, but it should not compromise safety, and Ofcom will take robust action when that is compromised.

T5. At the Lords Science and Technology Committee, the Secretary of State said there had been no surveillance of academics in that case. What was the evidence, then, on which she based her decision to write to the UKRI chief executive? (902302)

I have answered that multiple times. An official alerted me to those concerns. I then saw the tweet myself and asked the Department for further advice.

T3. The Kettering-based company In2tec is the only company in the world that can manufacture and completely recycle circuit board technology. The potential for it and for the UK is huge. Will the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation be kind enough please to visit In2tec in Kettering to see this groundbreaking innovation for himself? (902300)

In2tec is indeed a great example of innovation in sustainable electronics. I am pleased that it has benefited from £250,000 in UK support. It would be my pleasure to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency in Kettering, and I believe we have a date soon.

T7. Following the confidence and supply agreement with the previous Government, Northern Ireland should have virtually 100% access to fibre broadband, which is a first in any of these islands. Does the Minister agree that Northern Ireland and other regions in the UK should take full advantage of that broadband access to maximise employment opportunities across these islands? (902304)

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of gigabit broadband to the economy. I am very glad to say that 95% of Northern Ireland has that access—the highest percentage in the country. That is a tribute to the work done between central Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

T4. Why should people living in rural areas be second-class citizens when it comes to mobile phone coverage? (902301)

We agree; that is why we have the shared rural network programme, which is dealing with a lot of those notspot problems.

Black students studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects are leaving education in great numbers. What is the Minister doing to identify the challenges and help the progression of black students in STEM subjects?

The Government are absolutely committed to expanding STEM opportunities. A key way of doing that is building mathematical capabilities and helping girls and minorities to stick with maths, which is why the Prime Minister has announced our ambition to see all young people receive maths education until they are 18.

T8. There is a high incidence of respiratory disease in Amber Valley. What more can the Government do to increase investment in research on respiratory conditions in the areas that need that research most? (902305)

The Medical Research Council is benefiting from the highest ever level of research spending, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about what more we can do in this important area.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


We are joined today in the Gallery by postmasters caught up in the Horizon IT scandal. It is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our history, which is why we have introduced a Bill to quash convictions, delivered schemes to ensure swift compensation, and established an independent inquiry.

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

Does my right hon. Friend agree that towns such as Barnstaple—the main transport hub in North Devon, serving hundreds of square miles—should have a fully functioning bus station? Liberal Democrat-run North Devon Council has not reopened ours since the pandemic, leaving residents out in the cold with no public facilities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as people start to feel the difference as a result of tax cuts and falling inflation, we should be making it easier for people to use the bus, come to town and support Barnstaple’s local economy? Will he join me in calling on the Lib Dems to get on with reopening the bus station?

We know how vital bus services are for communities right across the country. That is why we are providing Devon with £17 million to deliver better bus services, and we introduced the £2 fare bus cap. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport recently visited my hon. Friend and saw the benefits of reopening Barnstaple bus station, and it is clear that the local Liberal Democrats should just get on and do it.

I, too, welcome the postmasters in the Gallery, in their quest for justice.

This week we marked 35 years since the disaster at Hillsborough, and the enduring courage and determination of the families must be marked by the passing of a Hillsborough law.

We also lost Lord Richard Rosser, a lifelong member of the Labour party. He will be greatly missed, and our thoughts are with his wife Sheena and his family and friends.

I am privileged to be the proud owner of a copy of the former Prime Minister’s new book. It is a rare unsigned copy; it is the only unsigned copy. It is quite the read. She claims that the Tory party’s disastrous kamikaze Budget, which triggered chaos for millions, was the “happiest moment” of her premiership. Has the Prime Minister met anyone with a mortgage who agrees?

All I would say is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman ought to spend a bit less time reading that book, and a bit more time reading the Deputy Leader’s tax advice. [Interruption.]

We have a billionaire Prime Minister, and a billionaire—[Interruption.] Both of whose families have used schemes to avoid millions of pounds of tax, smearing a working-class woman. [Interruption.] The former Prime Minister has a long list of people to blame for the economic misery. Conservative Members do not want to hear it, but they made her Prime Minister, and millions of people are paying the price. She blames the Governor of the Bank of England, the Treasury, the Office for Budget Responsibility. The American President is blamed at one point. We even learn that the poor old lettuce was part of the “deep state”. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is actually much simpler than that? It was the Tories’ unfunded tax cuts—tens of billions of pounds of unfunded tax cuts—that crashed the economy and left millions paying more for their mortgages, wasn’t it?

Everyone knows that two years ago I was not afraid to repeatedly warn about what my predecessor’s economic policies would lead to, even if it was not what people wanted to hear at the time. I was right then, but I am also right now when I say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s economic policies would be a disaster for Britain. He would send inflation up, mortgages up and taxes up, and working people would pay the price.

I appreciate the Prime Minister having the stomach to say that out loud, but everyone knows that it is the Tory party’s obsession with wild, unfunded tax cuts that crashed the economy. We know it, he knows it and his party knows it, and the whole country is living it. When is he finally going to learn the lesson from his predecessor’s mistakes and explain where the money is coming from for his own completely unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance?

When my predecessor was running for leader, I did have—to use the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s words—the stomach to argue out loud about her economic policies. I had the conviction to say that they were wrong—not once, but twice. He tried to make his predecessor Prime Minister, despite him opposing NATO and Trident, ignoring antisemitism and siding with our enemies. It is clear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman did: he put his own interests ahead of Britain’s.

Actually, when the Prime Minister was running for leader, he explained how he was funnelling money from poor areas to pay it into richer areas. We know what his record is.

I notice the Prime Minister is not denying the £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance, but he is refusing to say where the money will come from. We have been trying for months to get to the bottom of this, so now is his chance. No more spin, no more waffle, no more diversion—I know that will be difficult. This is the choice: either he can cut the state pension or the NHS, which national insurance funds—that is route one—or he can put up income tax. Which one is it?

We have just cut taxes by £900 for a typical worker. We have delivered the biggest tax cut for businesses since the 1980s. But while we are cutting taxes, Labour is already putting them up. In Wales, it is putting up taxes right now for small businesses. In Birmingham, it is putting up council tax by 21%. In London, the Labour Mayor has put up taxes by 70%. This is just a glimpse of what they would do if they got into power. A few weeks ago, the right hon. and learned Gentleman finally admitted it to The Sun. What did he say he would do? He said, “We would put up taxes.” It is always the same: higher taxes, and working people paying the price.

No single politician has ever put tax up more times than the Prime Minister has. But hang on, he was just given the chance to rule out cutting the NHS or state pensions to pay for scrapping national insurance. I was a lawyer long enough to know when someone is avoiding the question, so I am going to give him another chance. Will he now rule out cuts to the NHS, cuts to the state pension or putting up taxes to pay for his unfunded £46 billion promise to scrap national insurance? Which is it?

I make absolutely no apology about wanting to end the unfairness of the double taxation on work. The NHS is receiving record funding under this Conservative Government. Pensioners have just received a £900 increase under this Government. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to talk about tax, let us have a look at what Labour’s brand newly appointed tax adviser has to say. This adviser thinks that supporting pensioners is “a complete disgrace”. He believes their free TV licences are “ridiculous”. If it was not bad enough, this adviser has called for increases in income tax, national insurance and VAT. It all makes sense now—that is who the shadow Chancellor has been copying and pasting from.

This is genuinely extraordinary: two chances to rule out cuts to state pensions, cuts to the NHS, or income tax rises to fund his promise to abolish national insurance—[Interruption.]

This really matters. The Prime Minister has had two chances to rule out cuts to the NHS, cuts to pensions or tax rises. This matters to millions of people watching who will want to know what is going to happen to their NHS and pensions—[Interruption.] It really does matter to millions of people who are watching, so I will be really generous now and give him one last chance. It is very simple and very clear. Is his £46 billion promise to abolish national insurance being paid for by cuts to the NHS, cuts to the state pension or yet another Tory tax rise?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has really got to keep up. It is this Government who have just delivered a £900 increase to the state pension. It is this Government who have already committed to the triple lock for the next Parliament. He has had six opportunities, but I do not think I heard him say that. When it comes to the NHS, you would much rather be treated in the Conservative-run NHS in England than in the Labour-run NHS in Wales. It is another week where all we have heard is political sniping. Not a word about their plans for the country. He has failed to acknowledge that since we last met, taxes have been cut by £900, the state pension has gone up, free childcare has been expanded, wages have risen for nine months in a row and just today, inflation is down again, to 3.2%. Our plan is working and the Conservatives are delivering a brighter future for Britain.

Q4. Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised to learn that I very much welcome the £20 million allocated to Carlton in my constituency as part of the long-term plan for towns. I am eager to see that this money is spent according to local wishes. I know that there will be consultations following the setting up of the town board, so will my right hon. Friend join me in urging Carlton residents to take part in those forthcoming consultations to make sure that their voices are heard and to ensure that this money is spent on what the people want? (902246)

I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless campaigning on behalf of the residents of Carlton. Our long-term plan for towns means that 75 towns across the country including Carlton will benefit from £20 million each to invest in their local area. Crucially, as he has said, it will be in the hands of local people to decide on their priorities for the place where they live. Whether it is regenerating local high streets, investing in parks and green spaces or tackling antisocial behaviour, we are levelling up across the country and he deserves enormous praise for his role in securing that investment.

This week, a former Prime Minister who oversaw a financial crash before being unceremoniously turfed from office told the public the truth—and I am not referring to that one, Mr Speaker. On Monday, Gordon Brown told the people of these isles that

“the forces pulling Britain apart are greater than the forces holding it together”.

Maybe the Prime Minister can find some time this afternoon to agree with just one of his predecessors?

Where I do agree with my predecessor very strongly is that Scotland would be far stronger inside the United Kingdom.

Gordon Brown was also correct in stating that Scottish independence is not simply off the agenda. Those remarks were echoed just yesterday by the general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, who stated that it remained an unresolved issue—[Laughter.] Conservative Members may laugh at her, but she went on to say:

“That can be a very dangerous place to end up in when you are not allowing people to express their wishes in a democratic manner.”

Does the Prime Minister welcome the fulsome, wholehearted and warm support of the Labour party in denying the people of Scotland the opportunity to have a say over their own future?

We did have a democratic vote on that topic, but I would suggest to the SNP that, rather than obsessing about independence, and wasting time cracking down on free speech and trying to lock up J. K. Rowling, he should focus on what the people of Scotland care about: schools, hospitals, jobs and our new tax cuts.

Q5. I abhor a two-tier policing system, and we must ensure that everyone is treated equally under the rule of law. The Labour police and crime commissioner who investigated the beergate scandal handed their police chief constable a new three-year contract while the investigation into the Labour party leader and deputy leader was ongoing. Now, two former MPs are overseeing the force due to investigate the Labour deputy leader. Does the Prime Minister agree that complete transparency throughout this investigation is of the utmost importance? (902247)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. A key principle of our country is that there are the same rules for everyone. On this topic, the Labour leader should show some leadership: stop reading the legal advice; simply publish it and get a grip of the situation. It says a lot about his priorities that, with his famed legal expertise, he is more than happy to help defend Hizb ut-Tahrir but refuses to help his deputy.

The recently published Kenova report makes it clear that the IRA was riddled with British agents from top to bottom. Those agents were involved in the abduction, torture and murder of British and Irish citizens. The British Government—successive British Governments—knew all about it and did nothing. The report also calls for an apology from the Government to those victims. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to make that apology?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the report is an interim one. As the Secretary of State has laid out, we cannot comment on the findings until we get the final report, but we would never condone wrongdoing where there is evidence of that. I will also say, because it is not said enough, that the overwhelming majority of the police, armed forces and intelligence services served with great distinction. They defended democracy in the face of some horrendous violence, and without their service and their sacrifice, there would have been no peace process. They helped ensure that the future of Northern Ireland will never be decided by violence but by the consent of its people.

Q6. Does my right hon. Friend agree—we do not agree on everything—that anyone who want to see why the Government introduced strong Mayors need look only at Ben Houchen in the Tees Valley? From saving our airport to introducing our freeport to bringing steelmaking back, Ben delivers. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the best thing is that Ben has done this without charging any mayoral tax, which his Labour opponent would need to do to fund his unfunded spending plans? (902248)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the great work of Ben Houchen. I share his concerns about the pledges of the Labour candidate—over £130 million of unfunded spending, showing that Labour cannot be trusted. We see the results in Labour-run Birmingham, with taxes going up by 20%. The story of Labour in local government is one of working people paying the price. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend and I completely agree that the people of Teesside should vote Ben Houchen and vote Conservative.

Q2. Last year, in Shropshire, 10,000 people waited for more than 24 hours in A&E. That is 10,000 people over 65 waiting on hard plastic chairs or on trolleys in our accident and emergency department. The Prime Minister tells us that he has got a plan for the NHS, but people in North Shropshire want to know how long they will have to wait for him to get on and fix the issues where we are. (902244)

With the record funding that we are putting into the NHS, our urgent and emergency care plan is delivering more ambulances and more beds, with faster discharge through our hospitals to speed the flow, and that plan is working. Of course there is more to do, but this winter we saw ambulance and A&E waiting times improve from the year before for the first time in many years, and if we stick to the plan, we will continue to deliver improvement for the hon. Lady’s constituents and everyone else.

Q7. In 2010, somebody earning £15,000 a year paid £1,700 in income tax. Today, somebody earning £15,000 a year pays less than £500 of tax. Does the Prime Minister agree that this has helped to create jobs, growth and self-reliance? (902249)

My hon. Friend is quite right. Because of our plan, the economy has, after a tough few years, turned the corner. Inflation has fallen from over 11% to 3.2%, and it is forecast to return back to target in just a few months—a year ahead of expectations. That is why we have been able to cut people’s taxes. As he mentions, the tax cut is worth £900 for an average worker. That is part of our plan to end the long-term unfairness of the double taxation on work.

Q3. Four years ago, my constituent Juliana was drugged and raped by her then boyfriend. After his conviction, Juliana was advised that reading a transcript of his trial would help her to come to terms with her experience. But when she requested that transcript, she was told that she would have to pay more than £7,000. Astonishingly, Juliana is not alone. I have heard about victims who have been quoted fees of up to £22,000 just to read trial transcripts that are part of their own story. Justice should not have a price tag. The Liberal Democrat amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill would give all victims the right to read sentencing remarks and summings-up free of charge. Julian is here in the Gallery today, and she asks whether the Prime Minister will support that amendment. Will he look her in the eye and say yes? (902245)

I am extremely sorry to hear about Juliana’s case, and my sympathy is with her and her family. We are committed to improving victims’ access to court transcripts to help them move on and rebuild their lives. We already offer a free service to families of homicide victims, for example. That is why we have already committed to a one-year pilot to help identify the current demand and to inform our next steps. Alongside this, we are actively looking at other options to immediately reduce the costs.

Q8.   Bracknell Forest Council has a particular challenge with special educational needs, and I am keen to support it. I am grateful to the Government for the recent SEND review, the significant increase in resources and the bespoke safety valve programme for Bracknell, but additional school places are needed now. Will the Prime Minister please agree today to release the funding for our new SEND units at Sandhurst and Edgbarrow schools, and commit to fully funding up front our new SEND school in Crowthorne? (902250)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting how Bracknell Forest Council has worked positively with the Department for Education through the safety valve programme. As part of that agreement, the council will receive £16 million in extra funding over the next few years to provide the vital education that his constituents deserve. I am told that the Department is still reviewing capital bids for the safety valve programme, but it will be in touch with local authorities directly as soon as possible.

Q14. In earlier exchanges, we did not hear much of a defence from the Prime Minister of his predecessor. Could he tell the House what he considers to be her greatest achievement? (902256)

While the Labour party was busy trying to take us back into the EU and reverse the referendum result, my predecessor was signing trade deals around the world that have seen Brexit Britain overtake the Netherlands, France and Japan to become the fourth largest exporter in the world.

Q9. My constituent Claire Massey and one of her two children almost lost their lives in a fire at her home in February 2023. Since then, Claire has been a victim of bullying by aggressive claims handlers, and of negligent and unprofessional conduct, including violating a policy and withdrawing alternative accommodation, by the insurer Policy Expert—part of the Accredited Insurance (Europe)— and Trinity Claims. Claire has raised institutional failings with the Financial Conduct Authority, which appears toothless. She has also successfully raised individual issues with the financial ombudsman, but the delaying tactics of the insurers mean that she is no closer to a resolution. Claire is here in the Gallery today and asks whether the Prime Minister will meet her and me to look at how we can better protect consumers against bad practices in the insurance industry. Does he agree that it is time to establish on “Office of the Whistleblower”? (902251)

My hon. Friend is an excellent campaigner on behalf of her constituent, and I extend my sympathy to Claire and her family. While I cannot comment on individual cases, as I am sure she will understand, I know that the Financial Conduct Authority has the powers it needs to take action against firms that breach its rules. Further, customers can contact the Financial Ombudsman Service, whose decisions are binding on insurers. I will immediately ensure that the relevant Minister meets my hon. Friend to look more closely at this specific issue and the case that she raises.

Q15. Ukrainian Member of Parliament, Mykola Stefanchuk, is in the Public Gallery this afternoon. I am sure we all wish to welcome him and wish Ukraine “Slava Ukraini”. Mykola has told me that Ukraine has the people and the courage, but does not currently have the weapons and the air defence to secure her freedom. In light of the Russian attacks on Chernihiv this morning, which have killed at least 10 people and injured many more, will the Prime Minister respond to President Zelensky’s statement that this “wouldn’t have happened” if Ukraine had received sufficient air defence equipment? (902257)

It was a pleasure to address Members of the Ukrainian Parliament when I visited Ukraine earlier this year. Indeed, it was my first foreign visit of the year; I was the first foreign leader to visit Ukraine and President Zelensky to demonstrate our strong support for the Ukrainian people at their moment of struggle against Russian aggression. We have increased the amount of support we have given to Ukraine this year— the first major country to do so—and a big part of that support concerns air defence. Where we have led in supporting Ukraine’s efforts, we will continue to do so and continue to encourage other countries around the world to step up and match our leadership, because we all want to see a future for Ukraine based on freedom from tyranny.

Q10.   On a recent visit to Pimlico, in my constituency, the Prime Minister heard directly from local people concerned about the eye-watering rise in violent crime and robbery. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the London Labour Mayor has failed to take advantage of extra Government funding to recruit more police, and that on 2 May Londoners can send him a very clear message that he has let them down? (902252)

Sadiq Khan is failing London. While burglary is down across England, it is up in London. Violent crime is down across England, but up in London. The Labour Mayor is the only one of 43 police and crime commissioners to have missed his police recruitment target. Londoners will have the chance to speak when they cast their votes on 2 May. I hope that they kick him out because we all know they will be safer with Susan Hall.

My local community is reeling from the discovery of 35 bodies and unidentifiable cremated ashes at a local funeral home. The pain was made worse when people realised that the funeral plans they had used their life savings for were fake. Does the Prime Minister agree that in these unique and limited circumstances banks should offer discretion when deciding if chargeback applies to payment refunds?

I express my sympathies to the families affected by the case that the hon. Lady raises. I believe the Ministry of Justice is urgently looking at the matter. I will ensure someone gets in touch with her as soon as possible.

Q11. Robotic surgery allows laparoscopic surgery to be performed with increased precision, flexibility and control. This can result in reduced patient complication rates, reduced lengths of stay in hospital and reduced hospital readmission. However, there is currently no robotic surgery provision in Cornwall. As a result, residents of Cornwall must travel to Devon for robotic procedures, a journey of more than 80 miles for those from west Cornwall and 120 miles for those from the Isles of Scilly. Will the Prime Minister commit to ringfence capital funding for Cornwall to establish a robotic surgery service, and address the health inequalities our constituents have lived with for far too long? (902253)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the potential of this innovative technology for patient care. I am delighted that more generally Cornwall is benefiting from our new hospital programme, providing a new women and children’s hospital at the Royal Cornwall Hospital, in the centre of Cornwall, which he and I discussed when I was last with him. NHS England is actively exploring opportunities to expand robotic-assisted surgery. Any decisions on funding new allocations will factor in health inequalities, such as areas with less access to robots to date. I will ensure that the current access to robotic surgery in my hon. Friend’s local community is appropriately considered by the relevant health Minister.

The Prime Minister told us on Monday that he was off to make a telephone call to Mr Netanyahu, to urge restraint on a Government that have killed and maimed well over 100,000 people in six months, 72% of them women and children. Will he tell us how the telephone call went? What will he do if his advice is not taken and an unrestrained war begins?

I was pleased to speak with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who thanked the UK for its support of Israel’s security over the weekend. We discussed the situation and how Iran is isolated on the world stage. I also made the point to him that significant escalation is not in anyone’s interest and that it is a time for calm heads to prevail. I also reiterated our concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. I welcome the statements and commitments that the Israeli Government have made about significantly increasing aid into Gaza, and now we need to see those commitments delivered.

Q12. Residents in Smalley and Denby now face two huge solar farm applications. There is only a 500-metre gap between them and both sites are wholly in the green belt. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should change planning guidance to make it absolutely clear that productive farms in the green belt are not the right place for solar farms, and that the investment and the time being spent should go on sites that might be appropriate, such as car parks, brownfield land or roofs of industrial buildings, rather than wasting people’s time and causing fear? (902254)

My hon. Friend is right that, particularly at a time of increased geopolitical risk, we must protect our nation’s food security and therefore our most valuable agricultural land. We do want to see more solar, which is one of the cheapest forms of energy, but, as he said, on brownfield sites, rooftops and away from our best agricultural land. That is why our recently published national infrastructure planning rules set out the requirement for solar not to be placed on what is described as the best and most valuable versatile land where possible. The Secretaries of State for Energy Security and Net Zero and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are ensuring that developers and planning authorities strike the right balance so that we can deliver what my hon. Friend wants, which is more British food grown here at home.

I went out recently with Chris McEwan, the mayoral candidate in Teesside. It was clear that residents are really worried about crime. Levels in Tory-run Teesside are among the highest in the country. The residential burglary rate is 52% higher than anywhere else in the country. When will the Prime Minister realise that he has lost control not only of his party, but of crime in this country?

Mr Speaker, what a joke! We have police and crime commissioner elections across the country, and the hon. Lady really should look at the record. Under this Government, crime has been cut by 50%, and we have 20,000 more police officers. Let me give her the facts, because this is why it is so extraordinary to hear what she said. People with a Labour police and crime commissioner are more likely to be victims of burglary and twice as likely to be victims of robbery. The facts completely speak for themselves, so people should vote Conservatives for safer streets.

Q13. Every month in my constituency, the Labour-run Warrington Borough Council spends nearly £4.5 million on interest payments to cover its £1.8 billion debt. It has used borrowing to spend on an energy company that went bust, offices in Birmingham and Manchester, and even a business park that it purchased through an offshore company, presumably to avoid paying tax. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time to send in the inspectors? Warrington Borough Council has gone too far in its money-making schemes. Local councils should be focusing on delivering great services, and the way to achieve that is by voting Conservative on 2 May. (902255)

This year, the Government announced a further £600 million in extra funding for local councils—a real-terms increase, as has been the case in every single year of this Parliament. But we all know what happens when Labour is in charge—whether it is racking up debt in Warrington, as my hon. Friend said, increasing council tax by 21% in Labour-run Birmingham, slashing services in Nottingham, or, as I have just said, higher crime on average in each Labour police and crime commissioner area. It is crystal clear that, whenever Labour is in charge, it is working people who pay the price.

While 64,000 people are on the waiting list for a council house in the west midlands, families are living in hotels, cold and damp homes and mouldy flats. The Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, has built 46 social homes in eight years. Does the Prime Minister think that that is good enough?

Andy Street is absolutely delivering for the west midlands. Unlike the Labour Mayor in London, he has delivered on all his housing targets. It is the Labour-run council in Birmingham that is imposing on the hon. Lady’s constituents and others a 21% council tax rise, and what are they getting in exchange? Six hundred job losses and cuts to services. On some streets, they are even turning off the lights. What Labour has done to Birmingham the Conservatives will never let it do to Britain.

I ask the Prime Minister to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for holding further meetings with Hitachi this morning—and, indeed, with the union representatives. We were all glad to see what happened with Alstom yesterday, but it is important that we do the same to support the factories up at Hitachi in Aycliffe.

I thank my hon. Friend for his role in championing the rail industry in the UK. As he rightly said, the Department for Transport and the Secretary of State have been actively engaged with companies to ensure that we have a robust supply chain. As my hon. Friend knows, we are investing record amounts in rail, particularly in the north, and we are pleased to see that that is being delivered.

The Prime Minister is no doubt aware of the collapse of SSB Law, and many constituents, including hundreds in my constituency, have been affected and have bills of up to hundreds of thousands. One constituent had to sell his wedding gifts, and his father had a heart attack with the stress. People are having to raid their pension pots; they are getting bills, and bailiffs are knocking on the door. Will the Prime Minister meet me and my constituents’ representatives on the collapse of SSB Law, and make sure that the Government respond to this injustice that has happened to people across the country?

I am sorry to hear about the situation impacting the hon. Lady’s constituents. I will be more than happy to make sure that the right Minister looks into it and that we get back to her as soon as possible.

Humanitarian Situation in Gaza

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The deputy Foreign Secretary is regrettably unable to respond to this question in person, as he is at the World Bank spring meetings in Washington. I will respond on his behalf. Earlier this month, we passed a grim milestone: six months since Hamas’s horrific terrorist attack on Israel. The UK Government have been working with partners across the region to secure the release of hostages, including British nationals. We want to see the release of all hostages.

Palestinian civilians have spent these months suffering, with conditions worsening by the day. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire. The Iran attack and our support for Israel have not changed our focus on ensuring that Israel meets its commitments to enable at least 500 aid trucks a day to enter Gaza; to open Ashdod port for aid deliveries; to expand the Jordan land corridor; to open a crossing into northern Gaza; and to extend hours at Kerem Shalom and Nitzana. We are pushing as hard as we can to get aid to Palestinian civilians. As this House knows, we have been urging Israel at the highest levels to take immediate action on the bottlenecks holding up humanitarian relief. We have recently seen a small increase in the number of aid trucks being allowed to enter Gaza, but not all of them are full, and numbers are not yet close to reaching the levels required given the severity of the humanitarian situation that we now see.

We will continue to press Israel to take immediate action to open Ashdod fully for humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, we recently announced new support for a life-saving aid corridor by sea to Gaza, including the deployment of a Royal Navy ship, which has now arrived in the Mediterranean and is ready to integrate with the US pier, and provide a command and control platform.

We are also committing up to £9.7 million for aid deliveries through that corridor, as well as providing logistical expertise and equipment. In recent weeks, the Royal Air Force has conducted seven airdrops along the Gazan coast, delivering more than 58 tonnes of food. The UK-Med field hospital, funded by the UK, is up and running in Gaza and has already treated more than 8,000 people, a high proportion of them children. We need to see the operating environment in Gaza improve, so that more aid gets in and can be distributed quickly, safely and effectively. Israel must ensure that the UN has the access, equipment and staff that it needs to do that.

We were horrified by the attack on the World Central Kitchen convoy, which killed seven aid workers, including three very dedicated British nationals. Israel must do more to protect aid workers, including through guaranteed deconfliction for aid convoys and other humanitarian work to ensure that they can operate safely. The findings of Israel’s investigation must be published in full, and followed up with a wholly independent review, to ensure the utmost transparency and accountability.

Six months on, however much we might wish otherwise, the fighting has not yet come to an end. We cannot and will not stand by. The Foreign Secretary is in the region this week, pressing for further action.

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

Conditions in Gaza are desperate and intolerable. Famine is taking hold, sewage is pooling in the streets and the water has still not been switched back on. Almost nothing is reaching northern Gaza, where people are already dying of starvation. The healthcare system has been utterly devastated. Yesterday, leading non-governmental organisations told me about specific blocks and restrictions that they face from Israeli authorities in doing their life-saving work. Aid is sat waiting, unable to reach those in need, with some rotting where it stood. Items are removed from trucks without explanation, and doctors are reusing single-use medical equipment taken from patients who have died. Today, a UN report says that 10,000 women have been killed. That is a description of hell on earth. It cannot go on.

For months, we have demanded that aid flow without restrictions—unfettered and unimpeded—at a level that meets humanitarian need. The UN Security Council has demanded it; the International Court of Justice has ordered it. However, despite the pledges that have been made, UN figures show that more aid went in on some days in January than went in yesterday, so I have three questions for the Government.

First, can the Minster be clear that Israel is not meeting its commitments, and about what pressure the Government are applying to change that? Secondly, why have the Government not yet announced that they are restoring future funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency? It is shocking that, in the face of famine, the UK is one of the last major donors yet to resume funding, without explanation. Thirdly, why are the Government seemingly softening their message to Netanyahu on Rafah? Let us be clear: 1.5 million Palestinians sheltering there have nowhere safe to go.

There can be no humanitarian operation to meet the scale of need without an immediate ceasefire now. Both sides must agree to comply. We note that it was Hamas and their leader, Sinwar, who rejected the latest ceasefire deal. Both sides must urgently agree to end this war now to prevent the further loss of innocent life, to free the hostages still cruelly held by Hamas, and to allow a surge of aid into Gaza.

Important points have been made. It is important to welcome Israel’s commitments to increase the amount of aid getting into Gaza, and the limited steps that have been made, but—and this is an important but—more must be done, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to realise those commitments, and we continue to urge that that happens. As I said, the Foreign Secretary is in the region, and we are working hard on those issues.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about UNRWA. The final report from Catherine Colonna is due at the end of April. We will review that and make a decision on future funding. We recognise the important role that UNRWA plays. On the wider, more strategic point about our approach, it is clear that we want to see a humanitarian pause before then pushing for the conditions for a sustainable ceasefire.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the position of the hostages is absolutely key, and is he able to report any more progress? He has explained that Hamas have not agreed to the latest proposal, but does he agree that pressure needs to be put on them by their interlocutors who are working with them to do something solid on the hostage problem, and to do it speedily?

As I have said, the Government continue to call for an immediate humanitarian pause to allow for the release of hostages. While we cannot provide a running commentary on negotiations, which are highly sensitive and ongoing, the UK is using all our diplomatic channels to support international negotiation efforts facilitated by Egypt, Qatar and the US.

Under-standably, perhaps, the world’s attention has been on the shocking Iranian missile attack at the weekend, but we cannot and must not forget about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and the plight of millions of innocent civilians facing a man-made famine and living with the constant threat of attack. Neither can we forget the immensely brave humanitarian aid workers, particularly the seven World Central Kitchen employees, whose status as humanitarians appears to have offered them little or no protection from the Israel Defence Forces. Despite the promises made, the United Nations has reported that this week, more than 40% of what it tried to take into Gaza was rejected. Those of us who have been to the border and seen the efforts of the Egyptian Red Crescent, and its warehouse full of rejected medical equipment, have a pretty good idea of what those items were. This is an area that has no single operational hospital.

The elephant in the room, though, is arms export licences. For how much longer is the UK going to send humanitarian aid to Gaza while simultaneously licensing weapons sales to Israel? Would not the best form of humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza be to stop supplying Israel with the weapons that will kill them?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight what happened in Iran recently, and of course we must not forget the humanitarian situation on the ground in Gaza. As I highlighted in my opening remarks, we are working very hard to make sure that the aid he talked about can come through. He also talked about exports; the latest assessment carried out by the Foreign Secretary leaves our position on export licenses unchanged. That is consistent with the advice Ministers have received. We will continue to keep that position under review, but the hon. Gentleman should remember his opening point about Iran and what happened recently. I will leave it there on export controls.

Humanitarian aid getting into the Gaza strip is very important. Has my hon. Friend noticed that in the last couple of days, the White House national security spokesman said in an interview with NBC that the aid getting into Gaza has increased by a large amount in the past few days? More than 2,000 trucks have been able to get in, including about 100 trucks in the past 24 hours alone. Three bakeries have reopened in northern Gaza in the past week, producing some 3 million pita breads daily, and food aid convoys are now continuing via the newly opened northern crossing. Of course, there is always more to do—as I have said, that is very important—but does my hon. Friend accept that there have been significant improvements, considering that this is still an active war zone?

I am grateful for the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend. As I said in my response to the Opposition spokesman—sorry, could he remind me of his question again?

We have seen limited improvement. My right hon. and learned Friend said that it has been significant, and it has, but from a low base, and as I have set out, our aspirations are clearly a lot higher. There are a number of key areas in which we want to see further improvements, and we are working closely with Israel on that.

Airdrops, promises of harbours and promises of money to come are not even touching the sides of the problem, given its scale. People are starving to death. At the beginning of March, my Committee published a report calling on the UK Government to press for more than 500 trucks of humanitarian aid a day to be allowed into Gaza; for all the crossings to open; for the Israeli military to co-operate better with aid agencies; and for deconfliction, so that humanitarian workers can live, and also safely carry out their vital work. Despite the Foreign Secretary’s optimism about greater humanitarian flows, the average is just over 1,100 trucks a week. Why are this Government not doing more to persuade Israel to meet its responsibilities under international law and facilitate aid to the people of Gaza? How many more people have to die?

I understand the hon. Member’s concerns, particularly given her position as Chair of the International Development Committee, but I have highlighted already that we are pressing incredibly hard on Israel to make further progress, and there has been limited progress. The Foreign Secretary is in the region, and he continues to press this case, as does my the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who is doing important work in this area as well.

I am sorry to question the Minister again on the same theme, but he will be starting to appreciate the frustration in the House. Over the last six months, we have heard the Government beg, plead with and press Israel, and have telephone calls, meetings and conversations with it. We even had the RAF in the sky, rightly, to defend Israel from Iran. Yet it occurs to many of us that the Israeli Government care little for what we say, to the extent that Medical Aid for Palestinians reports that a famine in Gaza over the next few weeks is all but inevitable. When will we realise that saying things is making no difference, and that we have to act, not least to take steps to enforce the judgment of the International Court of Justice? When will we actually do something concrete to save lives?

As I have said, we are pressing incredibly hard to make sure that we see further progress in this vital area. I have highlighted that one of the key things we are doing is committing £9.7 million for aid deliveries through the life-saving aid corridor to Gaza through the sea. That is a material step—it is action that is being taken—but clearly we will continue to put pressure on the Israelis. They have made commitments, and we want them to stand up and realise, or allow agencies to realise, those commitments.

Crossings are still not open, trucks are going in half empty, and 41% of the UN’s requests to send aid into northern Gaza are being refused by the Israeli Government. That is the reality on the ground. The Colonna report comes out this Saturday, on 20 April, not at the end of the month. When will the Government come to this House to tell us when they will reinstate funding to UNRWA, which is the only aid organisation with the infrastructure on the ground to deliver aid at scale?

As I have said, we will review that report. When we receive it, we will make our final decision, and we will come to Parliament to explain that decision. As I have also highlighted—and, more importantly, as the Development Minister has highlighted—we recognise the vital role that UNRWA plays.

The Foreign Secretary was very proud to announce that the United Kingdom had set up a contact group for the middle east, which has members from Europe, the middle east and the United States. There is a key link to the humanitarian situation in Palestine and Gaza, in that all the group’s members, and the European Commission, have decided to fund UNRWA. The contact group aims to find a solution in the middle east. Why is it taking us so long to make a decision, when our European counterparts have made theirs? I also ask the Minister to ask the Foreign Secretary—I have raised this with him and the Prime Minister—to set up an international donors conference for Palestine, as we did in the case of the Friends of Syria. We need to move forward urgently, and show our leadership on this matter, as the situation is getting critical.

As I have said, and I will say it again, we will wait for the final Colonna report before we make a decision on UNRWA. This situation was particularly concerning, so we need that report in order to make a decision. My hon. Friend will remember that we trebled the amount of aid we provide to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Now our task is to make sure that we can do that, and find ways to get that aid in.

Yesterday, Oxford doctors Nick Maynard and Deborah Harrington briefed parliamentarians very movingly on their experiences of treating people in Gaza. They impressed on us how important it was that they were kept safe, and how many of their colleagues had died. I am sure that the Minister and the whole House will thank them for their tireless work, as well as other aid workers, and anyone who gives over their safety to save others. They also pointed out that the malnutrition that we see is making patients more vulnerable to infectious diseases. A report released by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine projected that if the situation continues as it is, there will be 74,000 excess deaths—that is, that number will die, over and beyond the number who have died by bombs, if something is not done.[Official Report, 18 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 6WC.] (Correction) Does the Minister agree that we need not only an immediate bilateral ceasefire, but rebuilding of the medical situation in Gaza now, not later, because that is what is stopping people getting the life-saving treatment that they desperately need?

I join the hon. Member in praising the vital work of aid workers in the most challenging of circumstances, and I highlight the courage and bravery that they demonstrate. Obviously, we want to create conditions in which they can operate more safely. She calls for a ceasefire. We call for a pause that can lead to a sustainable ceasefire. Of course, as we move to such a situation, some of the things she talked about, particularly the extra medical support, can be provided.

Access to the north of Gaza for those providing humanitarian aid is still dire, and 28 children are reported to have died of malnutrition and dehydration. UNRWA continues to be disproportionately affected by access restrictions, and it was last able to deliver food to northern Gaza at the end of January. As we have heard, other countries are restoring funding to UNRWA, including the United States, so why are we taking so long?

We want to see the report, and then we will make our final decision. We recognise the important role of UNRWA, and we also recognise the importance of opening a crossing in northern Gaza, as my hon. Friend highlighted in her opening point. We are pressing the Israelis to stand up to their commitments.

Yesterday, I attended a meeting of British doctors who have recently been in Gaza, and they described the systematic targeting of healthcare in Gaza. Let us be clear: that is a war crime. A UN special rapporteur recently warned, at a meeting that MPs organised, that Government Ministers and officials involved in arms exports to Israel should be absolutely clear that they could be individually criminally liable for aiding and abetting war crimes in Gaza. Will the Minister say on the record in this House, and ahead of next week’s High Court hearing, that the legal advice that the Government have received confirms that there is no such risk, and that arms sales are in line with international law?

After our latest assessment of our position on export licences, it remains unchanged, and is consistent with the advice that Ministers have received. We will continue to keep the position under review.

As has been referenced, our close allies in the United States have commended Israel for stepping up the amount of aid getting into Gaza, but once aid trucks are on the Gazan side of the border, Hamas have sought to hijack the trucks, and to cynically use the distribution of aid as a political weapon, as has been recognised by this Government. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the level of control that Hamas exercises over UNRWA and the distribution of aid?

My hon. Friend makes important points, which set out why we are waiting for the final report, as I have said repeatedly, before making a final decision. The underlying situation relating to UNRWA was very challenging, and we need to make sure that aid is used for the appropriate purposes.

The Government rightly condemn Iran for risking destabilisation in the region, and for demonstrating that it is intent on sowing chaos in its own backyard, yet we have had six months of Israel killing civilians, doctors and aid workers; destroying almost all civilian infrastructure in Gaza; cutting off water, fuel and electricity; and severely limiting the supply of aid. That is all in clear violation of international law, has destabilised the region, and has sown chaos in Israel’s own backyard, so will the Minister condemn the action of Israel, too?

We recognise that Israel has the right to defend itself and, as I have said, we are calling for an immediate pause in order to get aid in and the hostages out. We also recognise the destabilising action of Iran and its acolytes, and we must ensure that we push back and seek to de-escalate the whole situation.

By now there could have been a humanitarian pause and aid could be flowing into Gaza to help those poor individuals threatened with famine and war, but of course, just as the last two humanitarian pauses were breached by Hamas, Hamas refused to accept a ceasefire on the terms that have been agreed. Such a ceasefire would mean that the hostages could be coming back now, and the people of Gaza could be receiving aid. Does the Minister agree that Hamas are clearly the obstacle to peace in the middle east?

Clearly Hamas are an obstacle to peace. Their actions provoked terrible atrocities in Israel back in October, which we find abhorrent. Now we want to ensure that we find a way of tackling the terrible humanitarian situation, as I have described, and tackling further destabilising activity by Iran.

In reply to my written question on 15 April, the Minister said:

“We want UNRWA to give detailed undertakings about changes in personnel, policy and precedents”.

Has the Minister, or any of his colleagues, actively sought those undertakings and changes from UNRWA by contacting it directly? If so, in what state was that request last made?

The broader issue about UNRWA is that we are waiting for the final report and then we can make decisions. I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s detailed points with the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), and get back to him.

Will the Minister confirm that it is inconceivable that the money we would earmark for UNRWA will not be given this year, and will he either set out what alternative agencies he thinks could do achieve the same outcomes on the ground, or confirm that we will have to give UNRWA the money anyway, in which case we might as well get on with it?

I have already said that UNRWA carries out important work and has a vital role, but the concerns about its activities mean that we must have this report. We then want to look at our approach and our funding in relation to that.

Oxfam has reported that 1.1 million people are projected to be facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity in Gaza, and children are now starving. Samantha Power, administrator for USAID, told the US Congress last week that northern Gaza is now experiencing famine. Do the Government share that assessment, and how will aid get there?

We continue to be very concerned about the humanitarian challenges in Gaza and, as I have highlighted, we are pressing hard and taking steps ourselves. We have increased the amount of aid that we are committing to the region, and we are focusing laser-like in seeking that Israel should step up to the commitments it has made. It has already made limited progress; we need to see more.

Israel’s right to self-defence comes with clear responsibility. Gaza has become a conflict hellhole, and the delivery of more humanitarian aid from the international community, including the UN, is non-discretionary. Will the Minister please confirm that everything possible is being done with the Israeli Government to ensure that non-combatants are being supported and are not being inadvertently targeted or hit?

We have highlighted that with the Israeli Government, and I confirm that we are pushing incredibly heard. Not only are we increasing the amount of aid that we give to the region, but we want to ensure that it gets through. We have already deployed a number of airdrops, which have helped, but a lot more needs to be done.

As has been said, more than 33,000 people have been killed, 70% of whom are women and children. The International Court of Justice has warned of genocide, and more than a million people have been left starving while almost 2 million are displaced from their homes. Even as the Foreign Office’s own legal advice, which it continually refuses to make public, is purported to declare that the Israeli military are breaking international law, and as the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, the reality remains that nothing has changed: bombs are still falling, children are still starving, and civilians are still dying. Let me ask the Minister a simple question: does international humanitarian law mean anything anymore, when the UK and the international community continue to refuse to draw a line?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s passion and concern about the area, and we continue to have grave concerns about humanitarian access. However, that is not sufficient to undermine our judgment that Israel is committed to complying with IHL in general.

Israel’s military is reported to be using Lavender, an artificial intelligence system, to help choose its bombing targets in Gaza. That is machine decision making over human decision making, and it arguably sacrifices accuracy in favour of speed. The Lavender system identifies targets, which are reviewed for only 20 seconds before authorisation of a strike. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence about the use of AI in combat, the concerns over error rates, and the humanitarian impact on the ground?

Too many civilians have been killed, and we want Israel to take greater care to limit its operations to military targets and avoid harming civilians and destroying homes. That is the message we give when we engage with the Israeli Government.

The situation in Gaza is having its impact on the west bank. Tragically, this week a 14-year-old Israeli child was found dead, and that set off a process of settlers rampaging across the west bank. We now know that four Palestinians have been killed and others brutally attacked, and the evidence is that IDF soldiers stood to one side and allowed that to happen. At a meeting with Israeli colleagues this morning we heard that the Israeli Government are now arresting legal and peace observers in the west bank. Will the Government make it clear to the Israeli Government that observers should be allowed to operate within the west bank and ensure that peace is maintained? May we have a detailed report on the sanctions that the Government are applying to Israeli settlements and settlers?

I do not know the detail of some of the earlier points the right hon. Gentleman raised, but I will welcome receiving that. My understanding and memory is that we put sanctions on two individuals. We keep this issue under constant review, because those actions and what happens in the settlements is important, given the implications that has for the west bank.

The escalation of recent days is deeply worrying, with two nuclear-armed countries exchanging ballistics, and neither with any reputation for care of civilian lives and both with agendas of their own. That escalation has occupied the headlines, but the people of Gaza continue to suffer unrelenting military attacks and starvation. The rules-based order and international law have suffered lasting damage, including by the targeting of aid workers and medics. The UK’s influence with an out-of-control Netanyahu Government has yielded little, but one of the few legal tools available is the suspension of arms export licences. When will the Government use that?

As I said in a previous answer, our assessment on export licences remains unchanged. We have one of the most robust export systems in the world, enshrined in law through the Export Control Act 2022 and implemented through our strategic export licensing criteria. It is important that the hon. Lady recalls and notes not just the humanitarian situation in Gaza, but also what is happening through Iran’s destabilising activities.

Humanitarian agencies have concluded that we have passed the point of being able to avert famine in Gaza. Whatever we do now, we will be too late for those people who will have starved to death by the time aid arrives, and that is a stain on the international community. Will the Minister update the House on what specific steps the Government have taken to bring about the full implementation of resolution 2728, which was passed by the UN Security Council over three weeks ago? Pleading with, pressuring and pressing the Israeli Government is clearly not a strategy that is working, so why do the UK Government not recognise that consequences and concrete actions can start with the stopping of arms sales to Israel?

We are urging, we are pleading and we are doing everything that we can to make our case. We are also trebling the amount of aid to £100 million. As I have said, we are also taking action to have this lifesaving aid corridor by sea to Gaza. Those are important actions that we are taking forward.

Having seen the drone attacks on Israel at the weekend, it is disappointing to watch the Government and the US Administration basically telling the Israelis to roll over and accept this aggression by Iran. It was, however, encouraging to see an alliance of air forces assist the Israelis to protect their people. I wonder why there is little condemnation of this aggression against Israel and little continued acknowledgement that had 7 October never happened, none of this would be happening. What are the Government doing to ensure that both Gazans and Israelis are free from Hamas and Iranian aggression respectively and can live normal lives? As we say in the UK, Israel has the right to defend itself.

I agree and the Government agree that Israel has the right to defend itself. As part of our approach to enabling a sustainable ceasefire to be put in place, Hamas have to be put clearly in their place. They must not have the influence they have at the moment, and their ability to fire rockets into Israel needs to be completely diminished to enable that sustainable ceasefire.

The Minister will know that his words are not cutting through. Hamas were wrong to reject the ceasefire, but what Israel does next is not inevitable. Yet the Israeli Minister for Defence on Monday evening said that Israel was waiting for aid to be delivered to Rafah and for civilians to leave, and then it would begin the military operation. He will know that there is nowhere for these people to go and there is no food elsewhere. It is an impossible choice for people. A few pitta breads will not cut it for millions of people at risk of starvation and at risk of harm from a military operation in Rafah. What can the UK do if Israel proceeds with its threat to enter Rafah?

As the hon. Member knows, I respect her enormously, and we have worked together on a number of issues. On her vitally important point, we want to urge restraint about this proposed military operation by the Israelis. We are also calling for restraint in response to what has happened with Iran, although notably the RAF and others were there to provide support to defend Israel from that attack. The Foreign Secretary is in Israel and the region this week to tackle these very issues and to address the points I have made.

On Monday, in response to my question about restoring UNRWA funding, the Prime Minister said that, along with allies, he was “reviewing the interim findings”. In subsequent responses to other Members, he said he was waiting for a final report, which is due towards the end of the month, on 20 April. Can we have a Government statement on Monday in which the Government set out a clear pathway back to restoring funding? The UK is the only major donor aside from the United States that has not restored its funding. Time is running out and lives are being lost.

I recognise the importance of the points that the hon. Lady makes. All I will say is what I have said previously: we are waiting for the report and then we will update Parliament on our decision. We need to review this report in detail.

Seventeen repetitions of “We are waiting for the report” will become the new definition of complacency. The more I listen to those on both Front Benches describing the bloody, putrid sea of misery that is Gaza, the more I am amazed that both sides continue to support the supply of British arms and military components to the country that is doing all this. No one could understand that. The Minister said how hard they were trying—personally, I believe him; he seems a sincere chap—but why is it not working? If the Government are trying so hard while scrambling their jets to defend Israel and giving arms to Israel, why will Israel not listen?

I say with respect that the questions I have been asked are entirely appropriate and understandable given the circumstances. I have responded as best I can from the Government’s perspective. The hon. Gentleman knows from his extensive experience that the situation on the ground is hugely complex. We are working night and day, and our officials in the FCDO are working flat out. We are providing the support we can to Israel and to help tackle the destabilisation. I understand the passion with which he asks his questions, but he should also understand that these are incredibly complex situations. We are endeavouring to do everything we can to make our case with Israel, but it is also having to think about the implications of what is happening and act after a terrible tragic attack by Hamas and the responses by Iran.

I am concerned to hear the allegations made by several organisations that the trucks going in are half-full or less, which makes the amount of aid getting into Gaza by truck a difficult statistic to use. What is the Minister doing to make sure that tonnage of aid is getting to the right places? Clearly, the Israeli authorities seem to be not able to deliver on their duties under international law to get aid to the right places. What more can he do to put pressure on the Israeli authorities to do what is legally binding and right to do?

The hon. Lady makes an important point that we need to think not just about trucks, but tonnage. I will speak to the Development Minister about this particular issue and make sure that we have extra focus on it. We need the trucks, but we need the tonnage, as well. It is vital.

It is good to finally hear those on the Labour Front Bench seemingly find their voice on this issue, after tens of thousands of deaths and months of shameful prevarication, although they are still willing to sell arms to Israel. On the UK Government’s policy on arms sales, the criteria for halting arms sales does not require a legal confirmation that a breach of international humanitarian law has occurred, but only that it might have occurred. Does the Minister not consider that the ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court of war crimes and crimes against humanity and the consideration by the International Court of Justice of potential genocide are indications that breaches of international law might have occurred? In any event, why are we so keen to sell arms to someone we have been pressing so hard to cease operations?

We continue to have grave concerns about the humanitarian situation on the ground, but those are not sufficient to undermine our judgment that Israel is committed to complying with international humanitarian law in general. We have already talked at length about the export licences and our controls around that. We recognise Israel has the right to defend itself.

The Belgian Foreign Minister stated that Israel was engaging in “tactics of starvation”. Last month, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland stated:

“The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a blatant violation of international humanitarian law.”

This month, Belgium’s Minister of Development and Co-operation stated that Israel’s use of hunger as a weapon of war was

“a flagrant violation of international law”.

The Israeli Defence Minister is on record as saying:

“I have ordered a complete siege on the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly”.

When will this Government wake up to the reality that innocent Palestinians are dying and take action to stop them dying from hunger and starvation?

We are working hard to get the aid in, as I have highlighted. That is critical. We are also calling out the Israeli Government, recognising that too many civilians have been killed. We want to see Israel taking greater care to limit its operations to military targets and to avoid harming civilians and destroying homes, as he has indicated.

The world is astounded by the fact that we are having to rely on sea corridors and air drops for the delivery of aid when we know that the only way we will prevent starvation in the hell that is Gaza is through mass truck supply and UNRWA-assisted delivery. Will the Minister explain the Government’s assessment of whether the current supply of aid through trucks, air and sea is sufficient to prevent imminent famine?

We have seen limited improvements—I have highlighted that—but we want to see Israel stand up to its commitment to increase the total number of aid trucks to at least 500 a day and increase the capacity through the Jordan land corridor to 100 trucks a day. More work is clearly required, and it is important to highlight that this is not just for is; it is an international priority where we are working with our partners.

Given the horrific scale of killing and the starvation of Palestinians, and especially children, we need an immediate ceasefire and the release of hostages, and the Netanyahu Government must allow aid into Gaza unimpeded, rather than continually blocking it. There also needs to be a process of investigation, accountability and justice, whether through the ICC, the ICJ or the UN commission of inquiry, given the serious allegations of war crimes, but the UK Conservative Government do not presently find any of those routes acceptable. Will the Minister please highlight which of those accountability mechanisms they find acceptable?

We respect the role and independence of the ICJ, but, to the points that the hon. Member raised, our view is that Israel’s actions in Gaza cannot be described as genocide. We remain clear that formal determination of genocide should be based on the final judgment by a competent court.

Will the Minister explain the rationale behind advocating a humanitarian pause in the bombing to allow medical aid, food, water and basic supplies into Gaza and then—presumably—permitting the killing to start up again? That has puzzled me for some time. Bombing civilians is a crime against humanity. Is it not time for humanity to be reasserted and for the ceasefire, which so many have called for, to start?

The Government’s position is that we need a pause—we need to get aid in and hostages out—and then work for the conditions for a lasting peace. We must also recognise Hamas’s role in getting to this point. In those conditions, we need to remove Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel and ensure that they are no longer in charge in Gaza.

May I say a thank you to my constituents who last weekend organised an Eid gathering for Palestinians in the north? When I was there, I met Gaza health and aid workers and heard lots of stories. One of them was about Nuzha Awad, a lady who had given birth to triplets. Her babies should have weighed about 6 lb to 8 lb each, but they weighed just 2 lb each and have not even developed their thighs because of malnutrition. According to confirmed reports, we know that 27 children have died so far of malnutrition. We send in RAF jets to support Israel when it is attacked, yet Israel does not heed the British Government’s warnings to get humanitarian aid in. So people are rightly asking: why are our Government so weak on saving the lives of children?

Some of the points that the hon. Member made are tragic and heart-rending to hear. I reiterate that we want to see change and are pushing for change, and we are taking action to ensure that more aid is available. We just need to get the conditions to enable aid to come forward and through to the people who need it on the ground in Gaza.

When the Israeli Government are not listening to the Minister about aid getting in, why are the Government still considering selling arms to Israel? When we are pleading with the Israeli Government so much, the Government cannot accept that situation and continue to sell those arms.