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Commons Chamber

Volume 748: debated on Monday 22 April 2024

House of Commons

Monday 22 April 2024

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

This morning, two people were charged with offences under the Official Secrets Act 1911. One of those individuals was a parliamentary passholder at the time of the alleged offences. This matter is now sub judice and, under the terms of the House’s resolution on matters of sub judice, Members should not refer to it in the Chamber. I know that hon. and right hon. Members will understand how important it is that we do not say anything in this place that might prejudice a criminal trial relating to a matter of national security.

Oral Answers to Questions

Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

The Secretary of State was asked—

Private Rented Sector

The Renters (Reform) Bill will have its Report stage on Wednesday 24 April. The Bill abolishes section 21 evictions, moves the sector to a system of periodic tenancies and introduces a private rented sector property portal and ombudsman, improving the system for responsible tenants and good-faith landlords.

Ministers first promised to end no-fault evictions five years ago. Since then, 85,000 households have been threatened with no-fault evictions, including a constant stream of residents in Putney. Does the Minister not agree that that was ample time to implement the necessary improvements and that the delay has caused immense suffering to people in the private rented sector?

I agree with the hon. Lady that we need to abolish section 21 evictions as soon as possible. When it comes to the Bill, we published the White Paper in 2022, we published the Bill in 2023 and we are bringing forward the Report stage on Wednesday.

In 2019, the UK Government announced plans to outlaw no-fault eviction notices. However, just last week, the housing charity Shelter revealed that almost 1 million renters in England have been served no-fault eviction notices since that announcement. While the Government seem to be unable to get the rental reform agenda past their Conservative Back Benchers, the Scottish Parliament banned no-fault evictions back in 2017. Does the Minister agree that that is yet another example of the Scottish Parliament delivering for the people while Westminster dysfunction only lets them down?

As I said to the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), we are abolishing section 21 evictions. The Bill will return to the House on Wednesday.

Cost of Public Services: Coastal Areas

2. What recent estimate he has made of the additional cost to the public purse of councils delivering public services in coastal areas. (902393)

Cornwall is one of the most beautiful areas of the country, second only to Dorset. [Interruption.] Thank you. It has the longest county coastline in England and, as such, its council faces unique challenges in delivering services. The Government are committed to reforming the local government funding landscape in the next Parliament to deliver simpler, fairer and longer settlements. As part of that process, the Government have previously publicly announced that they are exploring options for specific formulae for flooding and coastal erosion. We will engage councils about those options as reform progresses.

The Government have already accepted the additional cost of delivering services in rural areas through the rural services delivery grant, but they have not yet accepted those additional costs for coastal areas. Would the Minister consider establishing a coastal services delivery grant to ensure that coastal regions such as Cornwall, which as he said has the longest—and most beautiful—coastline in the country, get the funding that they need?

Second most beautiful, I remind my hon. Friend. He makes an important point, representing as he does his constituents and the wider county of Cornwall, and an interesting suggestion. Strong points sit behind his argument. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss that further, but he makes good points and gives me food for thought.

The cost of delivering services in Somerset is rising, with care costs rising by 47% between 2022 and 2023, yet urban councils receive about 38% more Government funding spending power per head than rural councils. What steps is the Department taking to address that inequality and help rural councils to deliver vital public services?

As the hon. Lady will know, the rural services delivery grant tries to reflect that as well, but if only the Lib Dem leadership of her council had got on—as Dorset did—and delivered the benefits of going unitary, rather than fiddling while Rome burns, her situation might be a little better.

Metro Mayors: Local Economies

Our Mayors play a powerful role in driving economic growth, improving public services and giving local areas a powerful voice on the national stage. I met all the Mayors as a group before Christmas, as well as Mayor Brabin, as chair of UK Mayors this year, and a number of Mayors on an individual basis. I look forward to meeting and working closely with all the Mayors, collectively and individually, after the May elections, including the three new Mayors who will be elected for the East Midlands, the North-East Combined Authority, and York and North Yorkshire.

Since he was first elected in 2017, Andy Street has delivered £10 billion of new investment to the west midlands region, more housing—particularly on brownfield land—and much-needed investment in transport infrastructure across the region. Does the Secretary of State agree that, when voters go to the polls next week, they should support Andy Street to continue that track record of delivery for the west midlands?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Andy Street has been outstanding at delivering jobs and more homes in the west midlands than in any other region, according to housing targets. He has done so despite the failure of Birmingham City Council, which was driven into bankruptcy by Labour.

Can my right hon. Friend further update colleagues and my constituents on the progress of the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal, following the deals approved at upper tier council level earlier this year?

We have been consulting and we have listened, and we will have to wait until after 2 May to say more. I am looking forward to working with my hon. Friend to make Lincolnshire great again.

Given that after 2 May there will be 12 metro Mayors directly representing 27 million people in England, does the Secretary of State think that there should be a dedicated formal structure that will enable the metro Mayors to work more effectively with Whitehall Government, rather than the somewhat ad hoc structures that are currently in place?

That is a fair point. The ad hoc structures that the hon. Gentleman described work well. All the existing Mayors work well together, and all party politics aside, it has been instructive to see the kind words that Andy Burnham has directed towards Andy Street and vice versa. Now that the mayoral model, which has worked overall with one or two slight bumps in the road, has reached a level of maturity, his point is very fair.

Voters in the upcoming North Yorkshire mayoral election are facing significant economic hardship and deserve to know that their money is being spent responsibly. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that one candidate in the North Yorkshire mayoral race has made over £300 million of unfunded spending commitments for the county? Could central Government perhaps provide an assessment of the economic impact of such spending commitments?

It is striking that the Conservative candidate in North Yorkshire is the only one who has a plan for growth, and a long-term plan for York and North Yorkshire’s economy. When it comes to value for money for our Mayors, I should point out that the Conservative Mayors for Tees Valley and for the West Midlands, Ben Houchen and Andy Street, levy not a penny in extra mayoral taxation, unlike the Labour Mayor in London, whose spendthrift ways will see him thrown out on 2 May.

Despite that love-in, as the Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street has over-promised and under-delivered. Almost 70% of devolved housing funds have not been used, and he has done nothing to tackle rogue landlords. The mayoral model can work, and Sadiq Khan’s affordable housebuilding in London is evidence of that. When did the Secretary of State last meet Andy Street, and did he raise those failures with him?

I talk to Andy Street constantly because he is a model of what a strong Mayor should be. The right hon. Lady talks about housing. There are housing targets set at a regional level—which Mayor missed them by most? Sadiq Khan in London. Which Mayor has exceeded those targets? Andy Street in the west midlands. Sadiq Khan has failed on housing, failed on crime and failed on transport, and he will be kicked out on 2 May.

Roll on a general election. Sadiq Khan has been building a better London for everyone. If the right hon. Gentleman wants more evidence of Mayors working, he should look up north: Tracy Brabin, Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham have been bringing transport services back under public control, giving better value for money. In the Tees Valley, we see the opposite. The review into Lord Houchen’s mishandling of Teesworks found

“the principles of spending public money are not being consistently observed.”

So why will the Secretary of State not give the National Audit Office the chance to investigate?

I am sure the right hon. Lady is very, very keen that all sorts of matters are investigated properly by independent figures who can be trusted, but in the Tees Valley Ben Houchen has done more than any other Metro Mayor to bring jobs and investment into his region. The thousands of jobs created in Teesworks stand in stark contrast to Labour’s failure, from London to Liverpool, to bring in the jobs required. Andy Street, I should reinforce, is the single most successful Mayor in the country. That is why both Andy and Ben will be re-elected on 2 May, alongside Conservative Mayors in York and North Yorkshire, the East Midlands and, of course, London.

Fire Defects: Remediation Costs

4. What steps he is taking to help prevent (a) leaseholders and (b) tenants paying for the remediation of fire defects. (902395)

No qualifying leaseholder in a building above 11 metres in England will be liable for cladding remediation costs. Where we are able to do so and where they still exist, we are making those who cause these issues pay to resolve them.

In my constituency, residents are asking for transparency in their service charges. They are fearful that they are being charged for surveys for fire remediation work, which is the responsibility of the developer and not the people who live in the flats and who are not the cause of those problems. What will the Government do for people in Master Gunner Place or Grove Place in my constituency, where people are asking questions but not getting answers on why they are paying these excessive charges? In one case, there was a 107% increase in the service charge. The Government are making all the right noises, but I do not see much result at the sharp end for my constituents.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is absolutely vital there is transparency in how, when and why leaseholders are being charged. That is why we have done one thing and been doing another thing in the past few weeks alone. Last week, on the new building safety approach for high-rise buildings, we were very clear in a joint letter about highlighting the importance of temperate remuneration and cost. Secondly, we need to continue to bring forward the reforms in the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, which will see a transformation in transparency on service charges. The Government brought that Bill forward and it will come through as soon as the other place has concluded its observations.

The Minister has done good work in protecting leaseholders and renters from remediation costs above 11 metres. As a leaseholder myself, I am a bit baffled as to why people are not protected when fire remediation measures are necessary below 11 metres. I would be grateful if he could explain the Government’s reasoning.

When the Building Safety Act 2022, which put in place the differentiation, was going through, we were very clear and asked colleagues, on the Floor of the House, for any examples of where there were potential issues below 11 metres. If my right hon. Friend or any other Member has an issue, I would be very keen to hear from them. The reality is that, over the past two years nearly, we have received only 160 potential issues. Of those, we can count on one hand where there has been a problem. We are working with each of those three buildings to make the progress we need to make.

The Select Committee welcomed the more than £2 billion provided through the building safety fund to private leaseholders with regard to remediation due to fire safety works. On the other hand, social housing providers received only £200 million, which is about 10% of the amount going to private leaseholders. How can it possibly be fair that in a block of flats a private leaseholder gets their remediation costs paid, but in the same flat next door a social housing tenant has to pay for the total cost out of their rent? That simply is not fair. Ministers have accepted the unfairness in the past. When will they do something about it?

As my constituency neighbour recognises, there is, rightly, a substantial amount of taxpayer subsidy for remediation. We are trying to ensure that that taxpayer subsidy is then clawed back from those responsible for the problems in the first place. Where there are challenges and issues with registered providers, we are very happy to talk to them. We have done that and we have made changes where necessary.

Following a fire last summer, timber and unplasticized polyvinyl chloride cladding on 586 homes in the borough of Barnet was identified as needing remediation. A number of those homes are in my constituency. Homeowners are facing bills of £23,000. Will the Government help them with those bills?

This important issue is very much on our radar, and one that we are working through. I had meetings about it only a few days ago, and I continue to do so. Perhaps I could update my right hon. Friend separately outside the Chamber with further information about our proposed approach.

Soaring service charges are placing an intolerable financial strain on leaseholders and those with shared ownership across the country. Among the main drivers of the eye-watering demands with which many have been served over recent months are staggering rises in buildings insurance premiums and the passing on of significant costs relating to the functioning of the new building safety regime. Given that many leaseholders are being pushed to the very limits of what they can afford, do the Government now accept that the service charge transparency provisions in the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill—and pleading with freeholders to take a temperate approach—are not enough, and that Ministers should explore with urgency what further measures could be included to protect leaseholders better from unreasonable charges and give them more control over their buildings?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that our substantial reform package sets out clearly and transparently the changes that are being introduced and what people are expected to pay. It could not be clearer than it is in the legislation, which is one of my reasons for wanting it to proceed as quickly as possible. When there are issues, we are keen to look at them and, where we can, take action, but the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill is designed to improve transparency and reduce problems, and I am sure that it will do that once it has completed its passage here and in the other place.

Local Plans

5. Whether he has made an estimate of the number of planning authorities that do not have an up-to-date local plan. (902396)

At the end of March 2024, 110 local planning authorities—a third of the total—had adopted a local plan in the past five years, while 291 had plans that were more than five years old. Of those, more than half are making progress towards updating their plans. The Government have made it clear that authorities should continue to update their plans because that is the best way to deliver development that is in the interests of local communities.

My Liberal Democrat-run local council is one of those without an up-to-date local plan. In fact, it has now delayed its plan until 2026, which means that places such as Burbage have housing without full protection. That puts pressure on our GP services, our school places and even our roads. What more can the Government do to persuade Liberal Democrat-run Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council to ensure that its plan is established and updated so that my residents have the required protections?

My hon. Friend has raised this matter in the Chamber before, and it is a great example of why it is so important that Bosworth has this Conservative Member of Parliament to highlight the challenges and failures of the Liberal Democrat council. Ultimately, the Government will not hesitate to take action against councils that are not fulfilling their obligations. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done so over the past few months, and we will continue to do so, because we expect councils to do their job and put their plans in place. When Liberal Democrat councils fail to do that, we will call them out.

York has one of the worst housing crises in the country, yet we have not had a local plan to restrain developers for 68 years. Why has it taken this Tory Government more than 14 years to deliver a local plan for York?

I am relatively clear that the Labour party has been in charge of York for a substantial proportion of the last 14 years. If the hon. Lady wants an answer to her question about why there is no local plan, she should look to her own party.

To help local authorities finalise their local plans, my hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues have made significant changes to the planning rules. As a result, Wiltshire has cut its house building by 9,000, North Somerset has reduced its house building plans by 29%, and Three Rivers and others are doing likewise, to ensure that local plans better reflect their communities. Does my hon. Friend expect all local authorities to consider whether the new rules apply in their communities?

It is vital for local councils to follow what is in the national planning policy framework. We know that where local plans are in place councils build more houses, but, most important, they build more houses in the right places, so that communities can be confident that they are being built where they are needed.

The problem with the Government’s developer-led approach to planning is that it means that we see houses built for demand, but not for local need. In a community such as the Lake District, developers will sell anything they can build, but will it meet the need of local communities? Often it will not. Will the Minister ensure that local authorities and national parks putting together local plans are allowed to designate land specifically and exclusively for genuinely affordable housing so that they can say no to the houses we do not need and yes to the ones we do?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the planning system has a substantial amount of flexibility—it is one of the frustrations—to ensure that local councils do the right thing. Where they do the right thing, they should be celebrated; where they do not, we should criticise them and hope that they are thrown out. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing against developer-led planning—capitalism, as it is otherwise known—that is a very interesting place for liberalism in this country to go.

Community Ownership Fund

6. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of the community ownership fund on local communities. (902397)

12. What assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of the community ownership fund on local communities. (902404)

Community ownership can boost local connections and pride of place, and bolster resilience. So far, we have awarded about £103 million to 333 projects across the UK. We are working with an external evaluation partner on an evaluation of the fund. We are already seeing some great examples of COF projects making a real difference to their communities, such as Grow the Glens in Northern Ireland and East Boldre community stores in the south-east of England.

There have already been three worthy beneficiaries of the community ownership fund in my constituency: the village shop in Llandyrnog; the Salusbury Arms in Tremeirchion, which the Minister has visited; and Rhyl football club, which hopes to secure the future of its ground, Belle Vue. His Department has been very helpful throughout, but what further advice and guidance can be provided for applicants in future rounds?

I enjoyed visiting the Salusbury Arms with my hon. Friend and raising a glass to the community there. Ahead of round 4, we launched a brand-new expression of interest process, which provides interested applicants with an outcome within minutes. To support applicants at the fourth stage, we have also updated the prospectus and other guidance on We want to help as many communities as possible to benefit from the fund, spreading the benefits of levelling up nationwide.

Does the Minister agree that the recent grant of £452,700 to the Owain Glyndŵr hotel in Corwen, in Clwyd South, is a wonderful example of the hugely beneficial impact of the community ownership fund on local communities? The grant will enable this much-loved hotel to play a central role in the town again, and to benefit from the reopening of Corwen station and the other projects in Corwen arising from my Clwyd South levelling-up fund.

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting that exciting project, which seeks to secure the future of the Owain Glyndŵr hotel and develop it into a community social hub showcasing the life and history of the area. I agree that the project is a great example of what the community ownership fund seeks to do across our United Kingdom. The fund not only safeguards priceless and much-loved local assets, but supports ambition and builds opportunity in local areas. I will be visiting north Wales in the very near future and will test my diary to see whether it is possible to swing by and say, “Da iawn.”

The Minister mentioned pubs that have been rescued and secured for the community, but where historic local pubs, which were at one time hubs of the community, have been wrecked by absentee owners and therefore require capital investment, does he envisage the funding being used in that regard as well?

The fund is open to community groups, charities, and town and parish councils. I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman that the pub to which he refers would be eligible, but I am more than happy to meet him following this session to get further details.

Mr Speaker, I know you know that there could not possibly be a better project to receive funding from the Government than the Rhondda tunnel, which would connect Blaencwm and Blaengwynfi—I am very happy to dangle all the Ministers down the hole and into the tunnel, if they ever want to come and see it. I know the Secretary of State knows all about it, because I had two meetings with him about it several years ago. I have met lots of Ministers who have privately been very supportive and told me to apply for this, that or the other fund, but not a single penny has yet transpired. An official has recently told Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council that it should make a specific exemption for an application for money. Is that still a possibility, to ensure that the Rhondda tunnel comes to pass?

I do not think that the community ownership fund is the appropriate fund. As I have just said to the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), the community ownership fund is open to charities, to community groups and to town and parish councils, but with regard to the hon. Gentleman’s tunnel project, I would be more than happy to meet him and identify what funding opportunities are available.

Towns Fund

As part of their town investment plan, places were required to consult extensively with local communities and to evidence how this feedback shaped their plan. The impact of the towns fund on local communities is also a crucial part of the towns fund impact evaluation, to be published in early 2026.

One success of the towns fund is the breadth of projects, which in King’s Lynn include Shakespeare’s St George’s guildhall, a new community library and adult skills centre and a school of nursing studies. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the very welcome extra £20 million through the long-term plan for towns that Lynn has just been awarded can be used to complement those schemes as well as to secure other investment into the area?

I thank my hon. Friend for his commitment to levelling up in King’s Lynn and across Norfolk. Our long-term plan for towns puts power back into the hands of local people. Each town must set up a new town board, comprised of local community representatives and the Members of Parliament for the respective area, who are responsible for developing the long-term plan for their area, underpinned by evidence of extensive community engagement. This plan can include the regeneration projects that my hon. Friend has mentioned, if that is considered a local priority. I look forward to working with him and to seeing the plans when they are finally brought forward.

I thank the Minister for his answers. He will recall that I asked some time ago about the Ards and North Down Council’s Whitespots project—a historical project for tourism that relates to the second world war and also to the history of mining in the area. The Minister said that when the Northern Ireland Assembly was up and running, he would be keen to ensure that the project could take place. Can he confirm that the moneys necessary for the project are there, and will he ensure that he, as Minister, does everything he can to make it happen?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks, but I can say that the £30 million that was set aside for Northern Ireland in round 3 of the levelling-up fund has been given to the Northern Ireland Executive as part of the Executive reformation fund. I was in Northern Ireland over the recess, where we were celebrating more than £435 million of levelling-up funding going to Northern Ireland since 2019.

It is now approaching five years since the towns fund was launched, promising £3.6 billion of investment to level up the country. Most of it remains unspent, and the cross-party Public Accounts Committee has said that the Department for Levelling Up could not

“give any compelling examples of what had been delivered so far”.

That is a damning assessment of this five years of the fund, never mind after 14 years in power—so, Minister, why are this Government such a failure?

I think that is quite poor, Mr Speaker. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency has itself benefited from £11.1 million of UK shared prosperity funding and £13.4 million from the levelling up fund. Next to him I see the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), whose constituency has benefited from £24.4 million from the towns fund. Oldham is also the recipient of £10.8 million from the future high streets fund. We are levelling up right across the country, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Government Funding: Local Authorities

8. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the level of Government funding allocated to local authorities. (902399)

In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, we make continuous assessment with regard to the adequacy of funding. In this financial year we have made £64.7 billion available to local government in England, an above-inflation increase for local authorities as their real-terms increase in core spending power is now up to £4.5 billion or 7.5% in cash terms. That includes the additional measures for local authorities, worth £600 million, that we announced on 25 January, having listened to the views of local government, to her views when she engaged in the consultation and to the views of hon. and right hon. Friends across Shropshire.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but we have seen Shropshire Council make £50 million of cuts this year, and we are told that there will be £60 million of cuts next year to avoid a section 144 notice. Local residents are particularly concerned about the potential closure of recycling centres and a likely increase in fly-tipping across our beautiful countryside. Does the Minister agree that rural councils are in danger of delivering nothing more than statutory services if things continue? Will he consider adjusting the way that funding is allocated so that rural councils are given an amount that reflects the cost of delivering services in their area?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the need to review the formula, which is a commitment for the next Parliament. She will probably be aware—I hope she is—of the £8.9 million extra that Shropshire Council received this year through the rural services delivery grant in order to deliver those sorts of services. Do I think rural councils have to reduce to statutory services alone? No. All my engagement with the sector points to a vibrancy and a commitment to innovation, shaping places and improving the lives of people up and down the country, including in Shropshire.

Trevor from the Drighlington memory café—Trevor has been ably supported by our fantastic Morley town mayor—Nicola from the Morley grief group, Dan from WF3 Kindness and Christine from the veterans luncheon club are just some of the amazing volunteers and community groups in my area who give up their time to help local people. Will the Minister join me in thanking and paying tribute to the unsung heroes in our communities across the country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should never lose an opportunity to trumpet our thanks to people like Trevor, Christine and all our volunteers up and down the country who make such a difference to people’s lives. They work alongside councils and other bodies to make life better and happier, and to make places more pleasant to live. I thank them unreservedly.

Funding cuts are adding to the clear pressures on local government around the country. One such example is developers who come armed with substantial funds and resources to contest their planning applications. Locally, Warwick District Council had an application just last week that the planning committee was essentially advised to allow because of a fear of not having the financial resources to contest it. I have written to the Secretary of State about this issue. Should we be extremely concerned about it nationally?

Each planning authority has a quasi-judicial role to adjudge planning applications against national and local plans, and I have every confidence that planning committees up and down the country do that. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to refer to a 7.5% cash-terms increase for local government in this financial year as a cut, that is a very eccentric definition even for a Labour Member.

Ministers are aware that Maldon District Council was allocated £5 million of levelling-up funding. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale), the council and I have been informed that the funding must be spent on cultural projects, despite our having a local plan that will see the closure of St Peter’s Hospital. We want the money to be spent on levelling up health and wellbeing, which is one of the five principles of levelling up. Will Ministers urgently review all our representations so that we can work at pace to sort out this terrible issue and level up our health situation?

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and I know St Peter’s Hospital pretty well from a previous life. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young), has signalled to me that he is aware of the issue, has sympathy with my right hon. Friend and will be happy to meet her in pretty quick time to discuss further details.

Working people are paying the price of the cost of living crisis, but is it not the truth that the Liz Truss mini-Budget did not occur in a vacuum? There is a pattern of the Tories shifting the tax burden on to hard-pressed households. Council tax bills have rocketed by almost £500 since the Tories came to power, on top of which Conservative councils charge residents almost £280 more than their Labour counterparts. As voters go to the polls on 2 May, does the Minister hope that they will somehow forget the council tax bombshell facing them? Or does he expect that more candidates will follow the lead of the west midlands campaign and ditch the toxic Tory brand completely?

The hon. Gentleman wins first prize in the brass neck of the afternoon competition; I remind him gently and politely about the situation in Birmingham. It is well known by residents up and down the land that Conservative-led councils are more efficient, deliver greater improvement at pace and are far more focused on delivering for their residents. Colleagues and I will take that proud record to the voters during this local election campaign, and I have every confidence we will triumph in it.

Community Ownership Fund

Our decision-making criteria for the community ownership fund can be found in the published explanatory note on Round 4 window 1 has now closed and will be assessed according to those criteria. Round 4 window 2 will open in the coming weeks.

I was delighted to hear that so many projects have received a large amount of money to take over community centres, heritage buildings, pubs and sporting facilities. The list also includes green spaces, so will the Minister confirm that if a community group wanted to buy part of a chalk stream that is for sale for the benefit of that community, that would be within the scope of the community ownership fund?

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this matter. We have funded similar land purchases, but this will be dependent on the factors locally.

Rough Sleeping

The Government are committed to ending rough sleeping. We published our cross-government strategy “Ending rough sleeping for good” in September 2022, and we are investing an unprecedented £2.4 billion to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping over three years. Rough sleeping levels were 18% lower in 2023 than they were at the peak in 2017 and they were 9% lower than pre-pandemic levels.

This Government and Department have presided over a litany of failures. The Conservative party has pledged to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. I have to disagree with the hon. Lady, because rough sleeping numbers are yet again on the up. Instead of fulfilling their manifesto commitment, the Government have prioritised criminalising the homeless, rather than ending homelessness. Even many Conservative Back Benchers cannot support that, so when will this Department’s leadership grow a backbone and tell their colleagues in the Home Office to shelve the pernicious plans that exist within the Criminal Justice Bill?

This Government are absolutely committed to ending rough sleeping, which is why we are investing £2.4 billion. Importantly, £1.2 billion is going into prevention, so that we prevent homelessness before it happens. I want to address the point about the Criminal Justice Bill. The Government are clear that no one should be criminalised for having nowhere to live. The Bill gives powers to the police and local authorities only where behaviour causes damage, distress, harassment or disruption. Guidance will be issued that makes it clear that outreach and support should be prioritised.

I welcome the fact that the Government are investing £2.4 billion on tackling homelessness and rough sleeping. Notwithstanding what the Minister just said, does she agree that we need to help people off the streets, not risk criminalising them, as is regrettably proposed in part of the Criminal Justice Bill?

I thank my hon. Friend for his words welcoming Government expenditure on tackling rough sleeping and homelessness. The Government are very focused on helping the most vulnerable in our society, who are often rough sleepers. That is a cross-government effort. For instance, I work closely with the Department for Education on care leavers and I work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on those who have addictions. I reassure my hon. Friend that no one will be criminalised simply for sleeping rough.

As well as trying to criminalise rough sleepers, put them in jail and give them a hefty fine, it is crystal clear that the Government will not meet their target to end rough sleeping by the end of 2024. Rough sleeping is all too plain to see—as we walk into this place or go to any city or town, we see the tragic consequences of Government policies. Is it not now time for Ministers to do the right thing: end section 21 no-fault evictions for good—no ifs, no buts; no excuses and narratives about the courts—and build the homes for social rent at the scale the country needs? If they do not do that, we will.

We are abolishing section 21 and building affordable homes. Where are affordable homes not being built? In London.

Planning System

We are taking significant steps to speed up the planning system. In large infrastructure projects, that is through the nationally significant infrastructure projects action plan and the “Getting Great Britain building again” policy paper. In relation to the TCPA, we are offering greater clarity through the republication of the national planning policy framework, greater consistency through instructing local councils to ensure that they discharge their responsibilities, and greater capacity through additional support for local councils.

Can I convey the extreme irritation of two parishes in my constituency that have had five locations for a mobile phone mast turned down? Given that mobile connectivity is now an essential requirement, is it not time that local authorities advised on which technically feasible locations they would be prepared to grant planning permission? Local people could then say where they were happiest for such projects to go, and we would end this stupid cat-and-mouse game that wastes time and means people do not get the connectivity they need.

My hon. Friend is right that connectivity is vital in all our communities. It is incumbent upon local councils, including his council in Bedfordshire, to ensure that they are providing the greatest clarity possible for that connectivity and that it is put in place.

Interfaith Dialogue

This Government are extremely supportive of efforts to bring together people of different faiths and beliefs. The faith Minister meets regularly with faith leaders to encourage these efforts, and the Department has funded a range of partners, including Near Neighbours and Strengthening Faith Institutions, to organise local level interfaith dialogue.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but two months ago the Secretary of State announced that he would pull funding from the Inter Faith Network, which is the largest interfaith charity on these islands. It will close next week, after 40 years. It is an astonishing decision by the UK Government to close Britain’s main forum for Jewish-Muslim dialogue now. The Secretary of State could still reverse that very poor decision, but that would have to happen this week. What are the chances of that?

Let me explain what occurred. The closure of the Inter Faith Network is a matter for the Inter Faith Network, as an independent charity; it is not a matter for Government. We have always made it very clear to all charities that receive Government funding that they need to have sustainable sources of other funding. In my response to the urgent question about a month ago, I made clear the reasons for the closure. To repeat, the decision to withdraw the funding was taken because of the appointment of a member of the Muslim Council of Britain as a trustee. Governments of various different hues have decided that they will not deal with the Muslim Council of Britain.

Topical Questions

SHiFT is an inspirational charity run by a visionary social entrepreneur, Sophie Humphreys. It works in order to ensure that young people at risk of engaging with the criminal justice system are diverted to better outcomes. On Thursday, two new SHiFT interventions will open in Middlesbrough and in Redcar and Cleveland, with the support of £3.9 million from my Department. That is proof that when it comes to intervening early to give young people a better life, it is a Conservative Government and a Conservative Mayor in Tees Valley who are delivering for the most vulnerable.

The levelling-up funding awarded to my constituency three years ago for the upgrade of the B714 has still not been delivered. However, when I have raised concerns that the funding is insufficient for the upgrade, given inflationary pressures, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up told me to raise the matter with the Department for Transport, which in turn referred me back to the Secretary of State. Can I have an explanation from the Secretary of State as to how approved projects can proceed as envisaged, even if funding is delivered, when inflation is not factored into the funding?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. I can offer her, and also the Member of the Scottish Parliament for North Ayrshire and North Ayrshire Council, a meeting with me, so that we can deliver this project, because I know that she is absolutely committed to ensuring that the levelling-up fund—UK Government money—is spent effectively in her constituency. That is proof that we work better together.

T4. Ynys Môn is looking forward to hosting the fourth Islands Forum on 7 and 8 May. It is an opportunity to showcase our heritage, culture and language. It is also an opportunity for Ministers to see at first hand how the £17 million from the UK levelling-up fund is transforming Holyhead. Will the Secretary of State accept my invitation to visit St Cybi’s church, the Ucheldre centre and the Newry beach shelters to see how the UK Government are creating jobs and a brighter future for Holyhead? And will he sign up to my Aldi to Amlwch campaign? (902420)

Diolch. I am looking forward more than I can say to visiting Ynys Môn. This is a fantastic example of a brilliant Conservative MP securing funding for Wales, for the Welsh language, for Welsh jobs and for Welsh investment. May I say that Anglesey has never flourished in the way it is now flourishing with her as its MP?

We know that the Tories continually prioritise their banker mates over the rest of the country. An example of that was in the spring Budget when the Chancellor announced levelling-up funding for Canary Wharf—an area that is home to some of the world’s biggest banks—which will receive more that £16,000 per head in funding commitments compared with Scotland. With the Leader of the Opposition and his Labour party backing Tory tax and spending plans and U-turning on capping bankers’ bonuses, does the Secretary of State agree that the Labour party offers no real alternative for the people of Scotland?

I think SNP press releases have suffered recently as a result of the travails that the chief executive of that party has been suffering, but as SNP press releases go, that has to be one of the weakest I have ever heard in this House. The Scottish Government are closing VisitScotland centres, they cannot deliver ferries, Scotland is plunging down the educational league tables, and, when it comes to delivering services in Scotland, theatres, community centres and councils are coming to us for cash. The Scottish Government are a disaster, and all the hon. Lady can do is repeat the failed talking points—

Order. Secretary of State, that is completely outrageous, after I had just said that we are on topicals. Please do not take advantage of your own Members. It is not fair to them and it is not fair to the rest of the Chamber.

T5. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to attract long-term landlords back to small coastal towns? (902421)

My hon. Friend has been a long-standing campaigner for balance within coastal communities. I know that both she and colleagues from the south-west and elsewhere are very keen to see some of the reforms that the Government are introducing on short-term lets and the changes to the planning system.

T2. In the 2019 Conservative manifesto, the Government made this commitment:“We will continue with our reforms to leasehold including implementing our ban on the sale of new leasehold homes, restricting ground rents to a peppercorn, and providing necessary mechanisms of redress for tenants.”That still has not happened, so either they did not believe it then, they had not thought it through, or the Minister has been nobbled by the Prime Minister. Which one is it? (902418)

Our Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill is making great progress in the House of Lords. It is being debated today and I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman supporting it when it comes back here and gets on to the statute book.

T3. Given the proximity to the local and general elections, can Ministers give an assurance that the joint election security preparedness unit has all the resources it needs to do the job? (902419)

This is a tremendously serious issue. My Department and other Government Departments, led by the Security Minister in the Home Office, are spending a huge amount of time, effort and resource in ensuring the safety of candidates; the safety, security and robustness of the process; and that all those who wish to take part in our democratic functions, in whichever fora they happen to manifest themselves, can do so safely and securely. That is a very firm commitment. The hon. Member will know that we are dealing with that as a serious matter.

T9. In constituencies such as Aldridge-Brownhills, our green belt is precious; and once it has gone, it has gone forever. But in the west midlands, thanks to the leadership and vision of Mayor Andy Street and his “brownfield first” approach, we have seen 16,000 new homes built, and thousands of new jobs on brownfield land. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that clearly demonstrates that we can build the new homes we need and protect the green belt, and that it is Andy Street who is setting the pace and leading the way in the west midlands? (902425)

That is spot on. It is Andy Street and Conservative councils in Walsall, Dudley and Solihull that are delivering houses and protecting the green belt. That is better for economic growth, better for the environment, and better than bankrupt Labour Birmingham.

T6. Over 1,000 families in Luton South are stuck in temporary accommodation, with wait times ranging from three to nine months for a one-bed property to eight to nine years for a three-bed. Across the country there has been a staggering 119% increase in temporary accommodation numbers since 2019. Does the Minister agree that that is just a direct cost of 14 years of Conservative failure on housing? (902422)

The Government are very focused on temporary accommodation. That is why we are investing £2.4 billion, of which £1.2 billion is specifically for the homelessness prevention grant. In the last Budget, we increased the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile. That is worth £1.2 billion. We have also increased the local authority housing fund.

Please can my right hon. Friend set out what the Government are doing to ensure that more young people can live in their own home as early as possible in their adult lives, and specifically whether greater consideration can be given to mechanisms that result in only one affordable payment being made a month, rather than one mortgage payment and one rental payment?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We need to look to reform both the mortgage market and our planning system. We will bring forward further steps on both in the coming weeks.

T7. In communities such as Kendal, Appleby, Allithwaite and Milnthorpe, developers have used viability assessments to renege on building desperately needed and genuinely affordable homes, so will the Government give planning authorities the power to declare null and void any planning permission where the developer cannot or will not deliver the affordable homes that they had promised? (902423)

I know how important it is to deliver affordable homes in the Lake district, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We will take a close look at the examples he cites, to ensure that we are not killing the geese that lay the golden eggs.

Tourism is vital to Bournemouth’s economy, and half our visitors come by car. A few choose to park on double yellow lines for the day, as the parking penalty is only £35, unlike here in London where it is £65, increasing to £130 if not paid promptly. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be immensely helpful, and would ensure that emergency vehicle access is not blocked, were Bournemouth allowed to operate the same penalties as we have in London?

My right hon. Friend is right: antisocial parking is a blight outside London, and we need to review extending the powers that are currently exercised in London to other parts of the country.

T10. Time and again, leasehold owners come to me with unfair bills for service charges. They are inflated, and they are even for undelivered services. When I get involved, they are often dropped by a third instantly. What will the Government do to ensure that developers are not trying to rip off homeowners, and instead get bills right the first time? (902426)

Fair point. Frank Dobson said that he was going to reform the leasehold system in 1995. We are doing it now. The Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill, which the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley), is piloting, will bring relief to leaseholders.

A raft of Labour councillors in Kirklees have resigned from their party, with one of them describing their leadership as a “toxic swamp,” so it will come as no surprise to my right hon. Friend that the local Conservative campaign to split Kirklees and get better leadership and accountability is really gathering momentum. Does he agree that leadership needs to be locally driven, and that the best way to achieve that is to vote for more Conservative councillors on 2 May—

Order. This is not fair. Just tell me which questions you don’t want, and it will make my job easier.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need change in Kirklees. The best way in which people can demonstrate their desire for change and the reconfiguration of Kirklees is by voting Conservative on 2 May.

Today is Earth Day. The Government introduced the zero carbon homes standard and the code for sustainable homes and then scrapped them. The future homes standard now has centralised support, but local authorities such as Leeds want to go above planning policy to reach higher standards. Why will the Secretary of State not allow Leeds to build even better zero carbon homes?

We have a good relationship with Leeds City Council, and indeed with its leader and chief executive, so let me investigate.

Ben Houchen has done a remarkable job of saving our airport, overseeing the redevelopment of Teesworks, and securing new jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given Ben’s record of delivering and the promise of more, voters should back him on 2 May?

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), for his reply to my letter of 21 March. He said that a short paper on the topic of the Union was prepared by officials and presented to the UK Government in July 2020. However, a media report at the time suggested that an employee of Hanbury Strategy had provided data and helped to prepare that paper for the Cabinet. Was public money used for the insights that Hanbury Strategy prepared for that paper, and when will the public get to see them?

Once again, I have to admire the sheer chutzpah of Scottish National party Members talking about the misappropriation of cash. However, as I mentioned earlier, the Scottish Government’s budget has led to the closure of 25 tourist information centres and a variety of other ventures that are trying to get investment into Scotland, whereas the UK Government are providing investment in Scotland—proving once again that we are better together.

My constituents are increasingly concerned about the number of planning applications being approved—particularly in rural areas—when the infrastructure and public services quite evidently cannot cope with the demand. What plans do Ministers have to ensure that local residents have more say in future?

The new national planning policy framework, as enacted by this Front-Bench team, will ensure that local voices determine the shape of local communities.

My constituents who live on the Abbottsmoor estate in Port Talbot are locked into paying unjustified and extortionate ground rent fees and charges for poor maintenance. Will the Secretary of State commit to strengthening the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill by ensuring that all leaseholders have the right to vary their lease, setting ground rents to a peppercorn, ensuring that premiums are as cheap as possible, regulating managing agents, and abolishing forfeiture?

I always listen with respect to arguments made by a Kinnock, and in this case, I think the hon. Gentleman is broadly—broadly—in the right territory.

What steps are being taken to ensure that planning authorities and, more importantly, the Planning Inspectorate are utilising the powers in the new NPPF to protect land use in food production?

The NPPF could not be clearer about that. The new chief executive of the Planning Inspectorate is very aware of how important it is to ensure that there is public confidence in the NPPF.

My constituency has some of the highest levels of health inequalities in the country, which have been further increased by the cost of living crisis and the continual cuts to our council budgets. If the Government are serious about levelling up, why was Bradford East’s bid to reduce health inequalities knocked back?

The Labour leadership in Bradford Council must look to its performance. I think there is a distinction to be drawn between the Labour leaderships in Leeds and in Bradford—Bradford could learn a lot from what Leeds has done. This is not a party political point; it is a point about failure specifically in Bradford.

My constituents have significant concerns about crime and antisocial behaviour in the town centre. Public space protection orders can play an important role, but the local Labour council refuses to use the powers it has. We have groups of men drinking alcohol in the middle of the town centre, and the council does nothing. Does the Secretary of State agree that, yet again, Ipswich Labour should step up?

It is sad, but not surprising, that Labour in Ipswich has failed again. That is why it is so important that people vote Conservative at the police and crime commissioner elections on 2 May. There are few more effective scourges of crime than the Conservative police and crime commissioner, Tim Passmore, and my hon. Friend, who does such a brilliant job in Ipswich.

Sudan: Government Response

(Urgent Question): To ask the Deputy Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the Government’s response to the crisis in Sudan.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question.

Britain is pursuing all diplomatic avenues to press the warring parties into a permanent ceasefire, allow unrestricted humanitarian access, protect civilians, and commit to a sustained and meaningful peace process. I visited eastern Chad last month, where I met with refugees who had lost everything and were fleeing conflict and hunger. I was greatly moved by what I saw, and reaffirmed Britain’s steadfast commitment to the people of Sudan. Some 88% of those crossing the border were women and children.

On Monday, to mark one year of brutal conflict in Sudan, Britain announced its third raft of sanctions, targeting two entities linked to the Rapid Support Forces and one entity linked to the Sudanese armed forces. On the same day, my noble Friend Lord Benyon represented the UK at the Paris humanitarian pledging conference for Sudan and its neighbours. On behalf of the UK, he pledged £89 million, a near-doubling of UK overseas development aid for Sudan from the previous year. He delivered a strong message with international partners, which—along with Britain’s sanctions—sends a clear signal to the warring parties that they must stop fighting and meaningfully engage in the peace process.

We continue to lead at the United Nations Security Council, where we hold the pen on Sudan. On 8 March, the UN Security Council adopted a UK-drafted Ramadan ceasefire resolution calling for immediate cessation of hostilities. On 20 March, we warned that obstruction of humanitarian access by the SAF and RSF is resulting in the starvation of the Sudanese people. Over the past year, Britain has provided £42.6 million in humanitarian aid to support people in Sudan, including £12.2 million to UNICEF for nutrition activities and approximately £23 million to the Sudan Humanitarian Fund for multi-sector response, including a high proportion of food security interventions.

Britain has also helped those fleeing to neighbouring countries: last year, we provided £7.75 million to support new and existing Sudanese refugees in South Sudan, and £15 million to Chad. We continue to advocate for a return to a civilian-led Government, and we urge all Sudanese stakeholders to engage in an inclusive dialogue that will deliver the peace and stability that the Sudanese people deserve.

I am grateful for that answer.

The sheer horror unleashed by the generals’ war in Sudan is appalling to recount. We are approaching 9 million people forcibly displaced, with evidence of systematic sexual violence and heinous mass atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere. Some 3.5 million Sudanese children under the age of five are acutely malnourished, and massive famine is now seen as almost inevitable. Some models project up to a million deaths. As the UN Secretary-General said, this is

“a war…on the Sudanese people”,

and it must end with an immediate ceasefire.

I strongly welcome the sanctions from last week and the additional humanitarian funding, but is there going to be a dedicated high-level Sudan envoy, and what conversations are Ministers having with those who continue to fund and enable this war, because greater co-ordination has to be the priority? All states must recognise the truly disastrous consequences if Sudan collapses not just for the Sudanese people, but for the entire region.

But there is hope, because through all the horror and the destruction, despite the blocks on humanitarian access, the Sudanese people are still standing together in their own communities. The resistance committees and the emergency rooms are sometimes the sole source of relief, as famine spreads and medical access runs out for the sick and injured, and they are the undaunted spirit and hope of a Sudan free from the generals and their catastrophic war. How can we correct the mistakes of the past and back Sudanese civilians directly?

I thank the hon. Lady very much for the eloquent way in which she has outlined the position in Sudan, and she is absolutely right. On the subject of the Sudan envoy, let me assure her that there is a very strong and very experienced envoy who covers the horn of Africa, and she focuses particularly on Sudan. The hon. Lady eloquently set out the wider effects of Sudan continuing on this path in the region, and I agree with her, and she also made clear the benefits that the emergency rooms, sometimes the only source of relief, are providing.

The hon. Lady asks about the mistakes that have been made in the past in respect of civilian rule. Britain has called—I think from across all parts of this House—for a ceasefire so that the generals take their troops back to barracks and the political space has a chance to advance. She will know that Abdalla Hamdok and Taqaddum, the civil society political grouping, have been working together, supported by Britain, in a conference in Addis Ababa and elsewhere. We are very committed to trying to work with them, so that there is one sensible but broad political offer for Sudan, as and when the chance of a ceasefire and the political track re-engaging takes place.

Do the Government have any evidence that they can share with this House of the involvement of major foreign powers in what is happening in this terrible conflict in Sudan?

My right hon. Friend will have seen the open-source reporting of various outlets. The point the British Government make on all occasions is that any arms supply into Sudan merely prolongs this conflict, and we urge anyone who is thinking of supplying either side or supplying either side to think very carefully and to desist.

Last week, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights released a detailed report on the genocide in Darfur. The report describes atrocity crimes—including massacres, sexual violence, the burning of villages and the destruction of key infrastructure—all targeting Darfurians in the region. The authors of the report say:

“Just twenty years after the first genocide…the same perpetrators are committing the same atrocities against the same innocent groups, all while evading accountability.”

Can I ask the Minister whether he has read the report, and is his Department planning to meet the Raoul Wallenberg Centre? What is the Government’s own assessment of the risk of genocide in Darfur, and how are they planning to implement their obligations under the genocide convention? Finally, has a joint analysis of conflict and stability been carried out on the situation in Sudan, and if not, why not? If it has, will he share those findings with the House?

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on what is happening in Darfur. He will know that we have funded the Centre for Information Resilience, which investigates attacks on civilians, and is monitoring and keeping records wherever possible, so that—at some point, one day—there can be accountability and no impunity. He will also be aware that the position in Darfur—he asked me this question specifically—bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. I first visited Darfur in 2005, and again in 2006 with the Foreign Secretary. It has been a significant preoccupation of this House, and rightly so. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that we are doing everything we can to support the poor and long-suffering people of Darfur in every way we can, but he will equally understand the physical constraints on being able to do that in the way that we would wish.

This has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in decades, and the war that the world chooses to ignore. Last week, members of the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan heard from eyewitnesses and aid workers. We heard of 5 million people on the brink of famine, of aid convoys being held at gunpoint, of aid being looted, and of 50 aid workers murdered. The war, the misery, has gone on for a year, and it is getting worse. People want to know what the UK, as the penholder at the UN, is doing to try to shift the dial and bring peace. On behalf of the all-party group, I ask: what pressure are we putting on the United Arab Emirates and Iran to stop them supplying arms? What actions are being taken to enable the aid convoys to move? What is being done to end the culture of impunity? Why have those already indicted for genocide never been held to account, and why will the UK not appoint a dedicated envoy, so we can show that we put all our diplomatic weight behind efforts to find peace?

We always consider whether the issue of the envoy could be boosted, and as I said to my right hon. Friend, we think that the position at the moment is providing maximum effect, but we keep such matters under review. I pay particular tribute to her and the APPG for the work they do. She is entirely right in what she says: the UN issued a white note on 15 March, warning of the risk of conflict-induced famine. At least 21 humanitarian aid workers have been murdered, 8.6 million people are displaced, and nearly 18 million people are suffering acute levels of food insecurity. That is 40% of the population, and among them are 730,000 children who are facing the deadliest form of malnutrition.

As has been said, almost 25 million people in Sudan are in need of assistance, more than 8 million people have been left displaced, and the lives of 230,000 children and new mothers are at grave risk due to famine. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that $2.7 billion is needed to meet the huge humanitarian need in the country. I note from what the Minister said that the UK has doubled the humanitarian aid that it has committed, but does the Minister agree that that still falls far short of the threshold? Ultimately, it will achieve very little if there is not a ceasefire and an end to the fighting, to allow that aid to be distributed safely. What are the UK Government doing, along with our international partners, to ensure that we achieve that immediate and lasting ceasefire sooner rather than later?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a ceasefire is essential, with troops returning to barracks and the opening up of a political track, and that is the central thrust of the British Government’s policy. He acknowledges that we have managed nearly to double aid to £89 million this year. For South Sudan—this, of course, also addresses many of the problems of Sudan—the figure for this financial year is £111 million, which is more than double what it was. That includes multilateral and bilateral spend. The fact that Britain has doubled its contribution gives it a locus, which was well used by my noble friend Lord Benyon last week in Paris at the Sudan conference, to make the point about other countries also supporting, given the desperate plight in which so many in Sudan find themselves.

I welcome this urgent question and the Government’s response. We regularly talk about what is going on in Ukraine and the middle east, but we do not focus on the continent of Africa, or Sudan, which is turning into a failed state. There is every prospect of what is going on in Sudan spilling out into other parts of central Africa and the Sahel. Will the Deputy Foreign Secretary update the House on whether we have any presence in Port Sudan? He talks about peace talks. Egypt has also engaged in those, so can he update the House on the prospect of what is happening bringing the necessary parties together?

In respect of my right hon. Friend’s final point, we are hopeful that the third set of negotiations in Jeddah will take place. The Saudis committed on 15 April to that happening in early May, and we are extremely grateful to the Saudis for that and for inviting the UAE, Egypt, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to be part of the negotiations. The former Chairman of the Defence Committee is right about the danger of contagion across the region. We are doing everything we can to support Abdalla Hamdok and the Taqaddum, as I mentioned earlier. In terms of our support within Sudan, the ambassador is currently based in Addis Ababa and is working energetically with all the relevant parties to try to make progress.

The Sudanese community in Liverpool, Riverside, will be decidedly underwhelmed by the Minister’s response to this urgent question. He mentioned supporting people moving to neighbouring areas, but he did not mention the Sudanese who have lived, worked and contributed for years to the UK bringing over family members who are fleeing the conflict, or extending student visas or protections for Sudanese asylum seekers. What will it take for the UK to provide a visa programme for Sudanese asylum seekers, similar to the Ukrainian scheme?

The two situations are not analogous. If the Labour party wants to launch a campaign for extra visas and a special scheme matching the one in Ukraine, I look forward to hearing details of it.

My wife and I spent a wonderful holiday in Sudan a few years ago, and it was wonderful to see the amazing people there, as well as the rich cultural heritage that Sudan has to offer. There are many world heritage sites, such as the pyramids of Meroë—there are more pyramids in Sudan than Egypt—ancient cathedrals, and even Lord Kitchener’s boat. We hear that fighting has spread to some of the world heritage areas. UNESCO is protecting two world heritage areas, Meroë and Gebel Barkal, under the heritage emergency fund, to which the UK Government contribute, but what further work and money can the UK put in to protect this world heritage, bolster UNESCO and protect these ancient and important aspects of our civilisation?

My hon. Friend is right about the great heritage and deep links, including heritage links, between Britain and Sudan over many years. The truth is that we have to do everything we can, holding the pen on Sudan at the United Nations as we do, to achieve this ceasefire and the reopening of political space. If we can do that, we can focus directly on the points that he makes.

What discussions has the Minister had with other countries to apply pressure to stop the flow of arms into this conflict, and to try to bring it to an end as soon as possible?

These discussions are taking place in the margins of the United Nations, and at the conference that took place in Paris on Monday last week. The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise that we need to ensure that arms do not fuel the conflict, and that is why Britain urges everyone to ensure there is no further arming of either party. The arms embargo goes all the way over Darfur, and would be over the whole of Sudan, if the Chinese and Russians were willing to sign up with the rest of us to implementing it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You have caught me off balance; I was just about to take my diabetic tablets when you called me. I thank the Minister for his answers to the UQ. He will be aware that more than 9,000 people have been killed, and nearly 6 million displaced, and Christians are facing persecution. What support are the Government offering to non-governmental organisations on the ground, such as Church missionaries, who seek to help displaced Christians not only feed children, but provide them with a semblance of an education and, most importantly, hope of a future life?

The hon. Gentleman will understand the great difficulties in helping directly on the ground; I know the matter is of great interest, both to him and to the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). We must continue to find every possible way of supporting the important groups that he mentioned.

I draw the Minister’s attention to a report on the BBC website, in case he has not read it, by Zeinab Mohammed Salih, a Sudanese journalist. She recalls:

“People have told me of ethnically targeted killings and sexual violence. They remain traumatised, months afterwards.”

The Minister may be aware that months before the war broke out, sexual violence and gender-based violence was being used against women. In June 2023, it was estimated that there were more than 60,000 survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Sudan, and we continue to see reports of sexual violence. What steps are the Government taking to address that really important issue, and to prevent further cases of violence, and of rape being used as a war weapon?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is entirely right. We have read these reports and many others with horror. That is one of the reasons why we are supporting the Centre for Information Resilience, so that we can do everything we can to deter there being any question of impunity, but it is extraordinarily difficult. As she rightly said, what is happening in Darfur bears all the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.

The attention paid to the conflict in Sudan does not reflect the enormity of the suffering there, with millions displaced and facing famine, violence and insecurity. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) for securing the urgent question. The Minister spoke about the limited arms embargo, such as it is. Is he aware that it is being broken on a grand scale, and that there is a pervasive flow of arms into Sudan? What is he doing to monitor that, and to try to reduce that flow of arms, which is fuelling the conflict?

On the hon. Lady’s second point, I have set out the clear message from the British Government about the supply of arms,. On her first point, she is right that conflicts elsewhere in the world—particularly in Ukraine and Gaza—have to some extent taken attention away from Sudan, and indeed Ethiopia, on which, in Geneva last Tuesday, Britain was leading the effort to raise money to head off a famine. Part of the benefit of the urgent question is that we can make clear the threat, what is happening in Sudan, and what Britain is doing to try to assist.

Sudanese students at Heriot-Watt University in my constituency were desperately worried about their family members in Sudan when I met them last year at the request of the university chaplain. Many of their family members needed help fleeing to neighbouring countries, and others have sought family reunification with British citizens already living here. What are the Government doing to help British citizens to save the lives of their relatives in Sudan?

The hon. and learned Lady will know the steps that Britain took a year ago to help those who were seeking to leave, but since then the vast amount of migration has been across the border into Chad and South Sudan, and indeed into Ethiopia. Britain has contributed £15 million to help those whom I saw near Adré, on the border between Sudan and Chad, at the end of last month. In respect of South Sudan, where there is a significant and increased programme of humanitarian support, we have directly contributed nearly £8 million.

I recently met the community president and secretary general of the Sudanese Community Association of Greater Manchester. We discussed the horrific civil war in Sudan and the desperate need to bring about a peaceful and sustainable end to the conflict. The war may be taking place in Sudan, but it has huge implications for Sudanese communities in Britain, like the one in Manchester. What support is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office providing Sudanese communities in Britain, who are trying to support their loved ones who are fleeing from violence to reach a place of safety?

There is very little we can do until those people reach a place of safety. As I said, many have fled across the border into Chad and South Sudan. We are actively helping those people in the way that I described.

Sudan is experiencing the worst displacement crisis in the world. It is not so much a civil war but a war on civilians, who are losing their homes, livelihoods and lives on a scale that is hard to comprehend. The Sudanese people feel forgotten, so it is vital that both aid and political focus are forthcoming. Will the Minister work with his Home Office colleagues to support Sudanese people in the asylum system, who are beside themselves with worry about family members? Will he better facilitate reunion for those UK citizens who have family among the most affected and who are able to leave?

We will do everything we can to assist. The hon. Lady will understand the constraints we work within, but I will note what she said. If she has any specific cases that she wishes to raise, I hope she will do so.

Given the level of death, despair and starvation, we need an immediate ceasefire in Sudan. Cross-border and cross-line humanitarian aid access is being blocked and impaired by both sides, even though they are, in effect, starving their own people to death. What steps are the Government taking to get the Adré crossing open, and to expose the impact of RSF extortion on humanitarian aid convoys?

I was in Adré when I visited the border between Chad and Sudan. I saw the weight of human misery crossing that border—88% of those crossing were women and children, which shows that the men had either been murdered or gone into hiding. The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the importance of Adré. He is right about the two generals effectively waging war on their own people—starving their own people, as he said. That is why everyone is urging the two generals to desist, get their troops back to barracks and give a chance for a political track to reconvene and re-emerge.

What assurance can the Minister give the Sudanese community in Newport—who, as others have said, feel that the conflict and its catastrophic consequences have gone largely unseen—that the Government are doing all they can to get aid in through the Adré crossing, and are trying as hard as they can to build consensus among neighbouring and regional states that the war must end?

I hope that today’s urgent question will be of some comfort in respect of what the Government are seeking to do and the role we play at the United Nations—where we are the penholder—and in the Troika, with Norway and the United States, to try to bring this awful crisis to a conclusion.

The information that we have received via al-Jazeera and others about the situation in Sudan is truly horrendous: 8.2 million people have left their homes, 17.7 million are experiencing food shortages, and cholera, measles and other diseases are rife. Unless there is a rapid ceasefire, the planting season simply will not begin, and there will be even greater and deeper hunger, not just in Sudan but in neighbouring countries. Does the Minister have any realistic hope that the combination of the UN and the African Union—and anyone else who can intervene—will bring about a ceasefire to allow, at least, people to return to their homes and to be able to feed themselves?

The former Leader of the Opposition makes the case very clearly. The figures he sets out show the scale of the disaster that has engulfed Sudan. When I was on the border between Chad and Sudan near Adré, I saw for myself the work that was being done by organisations such as the World Food Programme, which Britain strongly supports, but also the International Rescue Committee and Médecins Sans Frontières. The work is going on wherever it can, but it is extremely difficult because of the circumstances he set out.

What assessment has been made of the potential levels of food insecurity and the level of response needed if the conflict goes on through the summer and disrupts the next planting season?

The hon. Lady is entirely right. The World Food Programme told me, when I was in Chad, that it effectively had supplies of food only until the end of May. That is one of the reasons why Britain has increased so substantially its bilateral aid, and why my noble Friend Lord Benyon went to the Paris meeting on Monday last week to make sure that others, too, put their money where their mouth is and supported the desperate situation she described.

This morning I had the pleasure to meet some brilliant organisations working on behalf of people in Sudan who are desperate to be reunited with family here in the UK. They want answers to two questions. First, given the circumstances people are having to live in, why is it taking over a year for many applications to be decided? Secondly, why do the Government demand that these people make dangerous and illegal cross-border journeys before they will even consider their applications, because they have to enrol biometric information? That seems completely counterintuitive. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the Home Office a polite kick up the backside and urge a change in approach?

If the hon. Gentleman would like to give me details of any specific cases, I will of course make sure they are looked into.

What steps are the Government able to take to stem the flow of resources—not only weapons, but fuel—to the RSF across the border from Libya? Are the Government monitoring the potential for onwards flow to Sudan as a result of continuing Russian supply of arms within Libya?

We urge all parties not to supply weapons to the belligerents in Sudan. It will merely extend and continue the appalling situation that exists there. That is why Britain is so clear that we should seek to starve this conflict of any additional weaponry.

The Opposition welcome the Government’s atrocity monitoring and prevention work in Sudan, even though it is belated. It is important to join up that work with our diplomatic efforts in support of talks in Jeddah next month that are inclusive and effective. Is there a strategy to use targeted pressure to help isolate those responsible for atrocities and bring them to justice, and to bring both warring parties to the table?

In respect of targeted pressure, the hon. Lady will have seen the recent announcements about sanctions against both the RSF and the SAF, and the earlier steps that were taken. She is right to focus on Jeddah 3, which looks to be the best bet at the moment for progress. Britain is giving very strong support to that process.

On Monday, the Government announced three sanctions against businesses supplying the SAF and the RSF. What assessment has the Deputy Foreign Secretary made of how effective they will be in the greater scheme of all the arms that are being supplied to those two warring factions?

The hon. Lady is right to focus on the sanctions. Although we do not talk about future plans on sanctions across the Floor of the House, the way these things work is that when we see that sanctions are not working as well as we had hoped, we will always seek to reinforce them. That is the nature of imposing sanctions, as we have seen in other areas. We will do everything we can, through the sanctions regime, to advance the objective that she and I share.

The Minister referred to the problem of food security. It does seem very likely that the planting season will be disrupted again this year. What are the implications for food security in Sudan and South Sudan this autumn and into next year? Has a target been set for the amount of international aid to be gathered to deal with that looming crisis?

The targets that are required are the subject of continuous discussion, particularly with the World Food Programme and at the United Nations, and they helped to inform the discussions that took place in Paris last week. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right about the dangers of the harvest failing. The lean season approaches in other parts of Africa too, including Ethiopia. This is the nature of climate change and sometimes factors like El Niño, and it is extremely worrying. The effects of the harvest failing and the onset of the lean season are very serious in terms of nutrition and food dependency.

I thank the Minister for his previous engagement regarding a number of my constituents whose family members have been stuck, and affected by the ongoing conflict in Sudan. May I ask what conversations he has had with his counterparts in Egypt, who, as far as I understand, are still suspending the issue of visas to Sudanese nationals who are holding UK travel documents, with the result that people are stuck in Egypt when they could well be here with their families right now if that were not being held up by the Egyptian authorities?

We have an extremely effective embassy team in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, with very close relations across the top of the Egyptian Government and in all parts of it. If the hon. Lady wishes to raise any specific cases with me again, I hope that she will do so, and I will certainly take them up for her.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last week, on 15 April, I said:

“All trans children and young people deserve access to high-quality and timely healthcare and support. Around 100 studies have not been included in the Cass report, and we need to know why.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 65.]

I was quoting from Stonewall’s briefing. There was some fallout from that, so I have spent the weekend in conversation with Stonewall and Dr Cass. It seems that by quoting from the briefing, I may have inadvertently misled the House. As you know, Mr Speaker, I have been thrown out of Parliament for calling the then Prime Minister a liar, so it means a lot to me to be able to come back and correct the record, and practise what I preach.

I spent the weekend speaking to Dr Cass, and I am very grateful for her time. She has made it clear—not just to me, but to the trans and LGBT+ communities in a number of valuable clarifications on the radio and in other media—that all reports were included and that research of both high and moderate quality was considered as part of the evidence review. Dr Cass has also said that her report is being misrepresented and hijacked—but not by me, Mr Speaker; let me make that clear. My question to the Secretary of State for Health was about additional funding for children’s mental health services. The report is being hijacked by anti-trans groups, and that is why it is important that we can be as factual as possible about the research.

I was also concerned about the advice that Dr Cass was given about her safety, and was shocked that some people implied that I was partly responsible for—