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Commons Chamber

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 7 May 2024

House of Commons

Tuesday 7 May 2024

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

New Member

The following Member took and subscribed the Oath required by law:

Chris Paul Webb, for Blackpool South.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Cost of Living

1. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of increases in the cost of living on households in 2024. (902662)

19. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of increases in the cost of living on households in 2024. (902683)

21. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of increases in the cost of living on households in 2024. (902686)

The Building Societies Association described the housing market as “broken”, with first-time homebuyers facing the toughest housing market conditions in 70 years. With the International Monetary Fund projecting interest rates to be around 5% for the remainder of the year and the Government rejecting the Scottish National party’s calls to reinstate mortgage interest relief, does the Chancellor anticipate any relief for first-time buyers in the near future?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Bank of England is independent. The good news is that the OBR expects inflation rates to fall to near target in the very near future.

The Warm this Winter campaign has found that households will have to pay an additional £1.3 billion to help energy companies to cover bad energy debt. What assurance can the Minister give that the extra charge will be passed on to indebted customers to alleviate their debt burden, rather than it being allowed to just alleviate debt for energy companies?

It is good news that energy prices are set to fall. The hon. Lady will know that the Chancellor abolished the surcharge in one of his first Budgets.

The UK is set to have the highest level of inflation in the G7 and the lowest rate of growth in the entire OECD in 2025. Bizarrely, the Chancellor claimed ludicrously that the Tories are winning the war on inflation. With GDP per capita continuing to fall as part of the longest unbroken decline since records began, who does the Minister think in the real world really believes that this plan is working, and that the cost of living crisis is easing?

It is important to note that inflation has more than halved since the Prime Minister took office, and is now at 3.2%. That will have a material impact on the cost of living pressures on households. In addition, support this year includes cutting national insurance rates across the UK and raising the local housing allowance. Benefits are up by 6.7%, the national living wage is up by 9.8%, and pensions are up by 8.5%. We are on the side of the British people.

As you know, Mr Speaker, it is not solely households who face increased cost pressures: businesses across our communities do as well, particularly small music venues, which are shutting at the rate of two a week. Ahead of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into that issue, what thought has the Minister given to a VAT cut for grassroots music venues across our constituencies?

I know my hon. Friend cares deeply about this matter. I know she has a report coming out in a few weeks, and I look forward to reading it.

It is crucial to bring down inflation and ensure that we create the right climate for reductions in interest rates and further tax cuts. Does the Minister agree that is the best way to tackle the cost of living pressures?

In the past financial year, Buckinghamshire Council supported 4,186 people struggling with the cost of living through the £4.8 million of funding from the household support fund. The council’s Helping Hand scheme continues, with £2.4 million of funding through to this September. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Buckinghamshire households who are struggling with the cost of living should get in touch with Buckinghamshire Council to get the help and support that they need from the Helping Hand scheme, which is funded by this Government?

My hon. Friend is completely correct. The household support fund has done so much to help people struggling with the cost of living. I commend the way that Buckinghamshire Council has handed out the money, and, indeed, will continue to do so throughout the year.

Westminster’s cost of living crisis disproportionately affects those on low incomes, young people, and people living in rural areas with limited travel options. One example is the soaring cost of car insurance, which is inexplicably higher in Scotland than in most other parts of the UK. A 22-year-old with five years’ driving experience might expect their premiums to go down, yet they pay on average £667 more than they did when they passed their test at the age of 17. Why are the UK Government doing absolutely nothing to hold insurance companies to account?

I cannot comment on the specifics of car insurance companies, but what I can say is that for people struggling with the cost of living, whatever form that struggle takes, working-age benefits are going up by 6.7% this year.

Clearly, the Minister has paid no attention to this matter at all. This issue is exceptional to the UK. While prices for car insurance have more than doubled in the UK, they have gone up by only 18% across the EU over the same period, and car insurance has gone down by 20% in an independent Ireland. What are the reasons? Is it Brexit, or shameless profiteering? Or, as we suspect, has Westminster just given up on people in the cost of living crisis?

I am, if the hon. Gentleman would just like to listen. The national living wage is up by 9.8% this year, which helps with exactly the type of costs that he is talking about.

Co-operative Sector

The Government acknowledge the vital contribution that co-operatives make to the economy. The “Co-operative and Mutual Economy 2023” report found that co-operatives generated a combined annual turnover of £41 billion, a 3.7% increase from 2022 levels.

As the Minister outlines, co-operatives are worth £41 billion to the UK economy; moreover, they are, on average, 10% more productive than other businesses, twice as likely to survive the first five years of trading, and have higher rates of investment than other private businesses. What more can the Government do to encourage more co-operatives to thrive? Does he believe, as I do, that the creation of co-operative development agencies in every region has to be part of that?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. I note his long-held interest in the co-operative sector, and the work that he does on it. So, what are the Government doing? They are doing two things specifically. First, they recently took the further step of backing the Co-operatives, Mutuals and Friendly Societies Act 2023; they also commissioned the Law Commission to review the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 to make sure that co-operatives can do as much as possible to benefit the wider economy.

Over the past two years, Rotherham Council has spent £240,000 promoting co-operatives and employee ownership. Does the Minister agree that this huge amount of money would be better spent on fixing potholes and opening youth clubs, rather than on an ideological viewpoint, with no measurable outcome for the people of Rotherham?

I do not wish to comment specifically on Rotherham, but the best way of promoting co-operatives in general is to allow them to thrive as best they can, and to support their members in doing what they do best, which is to help their local economies—not necessarily through huge amounts of public subsidy, but through doing what the co-operative movement was founded to do, which is, as I have said, to support local economies and local people.

Taxation: Living Standards

4. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of his tax policies on living standards. (902666)

17. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of his tax policies on living standards. (902681)

Thanks to a combination of national insurance cuts and above-inflation increases to thresholds since 2010, the average worker on £35,400 will pay more than £1,500 less in personal taxes this year. In addition, maintaining fuel duty rates at their current levels represents a further £13 billion benefit to households over the three years since the introduction of the freeze.

The Minister will know that people are still really struggling with the cost of living crisis. One way that the Government could help is by seeking a bespoke veterinary agreement with the EU. That would not only cut costs for businesses but stop food prices rising even more. A future Labour Government would do that, so why will the Government not commit to it?

The hon. Lady’s first comment was correct: everyone in this House recognises the extreme cost of living challenges over the past few years, and that is precisely why the Government have adopted the strategy of a laser focus on inflation, combined with tax cuts and, recently, national insurance cuts. We have a very constructive and positive relationship with the EU, and are always engaging with it on a variety of matters.

In the run-up to last week’s elections, the Prime Minister never stopped talking about national insurance cuts, and the Minister talked about them again today, but the Government have been giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Does the Minister recognise that according to the Resolution Foundation, the combined impact of all the Government’s tax changes leaves workers who earn less than £26,000 a year worse off? Will he apologise to workers in South Yorkshire, whose average earnings are close to that level, for misrepresenting the position?

Of course we recognise the challenges for those on the lowest incomes, which is precisely why we have adopted a whole bunch of other measures, including on housing allowance. If the hon. Gentleman is so opposed to the national insurance cuts that we introduced, why did the Leader of the Opposition support them?

Congratulations, Mr Chishti, on your engagement at the weekend. You are not crossing the Floor, I understand.

Most definitely not!

It has just been said that there is a real cost of living challenge, and that is absolutely correct. A key part of that relates to the war in Ukraine, which poses real challenges for energy supplies to the United Kingdom. As a former Minister who applied sanctions to Russia and looked at the oil price cap, I know that we need to ensure that what happens in Ukraine is offset by actions that hold Russia to account and address the cost of living. The US has seized Russian assets to pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine; the UK should do the same. That would help ease the burden on the UK economy and the taxpayer.

It is always a pleasure to see my hon. Friend in his place. He raises a variety of really important issues that show precisely why we work across Government—there are multiple Departments involved—on matters relating to sanctions. The invasion of Ukraine has had an incredible impact around the world, not just in the UK. Everybody in this House should welcome the fact that, because of action taken by this Government and the Bank of England, and other measures, inflation is now falling and will soon hit target.

The Conservatives’ decisions in this Parliament mean that the average family will face a tax bill that is £870 a year higher, and pensioner taxpayers will pay £960 a year more. The director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said:

“This remains a Parliament of record tax rises.”

Higher taxes, squeezed living standards and weaker public services—that is the Conservatives’ legacy. Does the Minister understand why the country has lost confidence in them?

Many people in this country remember the abysmal economic performance of the last Labour Government. The tax-free allowance was £6,475; it is now £12,570. More than 1.5 million people have been taken out of paying income tax altogether. The Government have a focus: now that the economy is turning, we want to put more money into people’s pockets. That is exactly what we are doing with the national insurance cuts and other measures, and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not welcome that.

Public Sector Productivity Programme

5. If he will use outcome evaluations to assess the effectiveness of the Public Sector Productivity Programme. (902667)

Improving public sector productivity is a major focus for this Government, which is why I announced £4.2 billion of funding to make our public services more efficient in the Budget.

As a former Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend will know that evidence-based medicine transformed health productivity, systematically cutting out ineffectual treatments and replacing them with ones that worked better. Using the evaluation task force and the What Works centres to do the same for other public services, including back to work programmes, prisoner rehabilitation and early interventions for supported families, could be the productivity-improving silver bullet that he needs, so can I urge him to beat a path to their door?

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the What Works programme, which has delivered more than 500 trials and is recognised internationally. There are some very good example in the NHS of what is working, including the NHS app. That is now used by 75% of NHS patients—including 17,000 over-90s, so let no one assume that older people are not internet savvy.

Some £8.7 billion was wasted on defective personal protective equipment during the covid crisis, much of it paid to people associated with the Conservative party. People did not have to be Conservative party members to benefit from the fast track, but it did not half help. What is the Chancellor doing to get public money back from those people who sold that defective equipment to the NHS, and does it not just show that we cannot trust the Tories with public money?

What it shows is that we took very difficult decisions in the pandemic to speed up access to PPE for frontline workers, who were literally dying at the time—but there should be no hiding place whatsoever for anyone who commits fraud on taxpayers, which is why there have been over 100 arrests.

The only productivity improvement we have seen from this Government is the awarding of wasteful contracts. On top of all the PPE waste that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) referred to, there are still £1 billion-worth of unresolved PPE contracts that this Government awarded, but that have not been delivered on. Only one company, PPE Medpro, is facing legal action. Why are the Government not taking legal action against the other companies that have not delivered on their contract with members of the public?

Let me be clear: there is absolutely no hiding place for anyone, whether they are connected to the Conservative party, the Labour Party or any other party. If they have defrauded the taxpayer, we will go after them.

The Chancellor says that he is making progress, and that there is no hiding place, but that money belongs to our public services. The Government know that the contracts have not been delivered on, but they will not reveal the names of the companies and the contracts that have not been delivered on. If there is no hiding place, why would the Chancellor not name them today?

Because we are taking legal action, and as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, when we take legal action, that information belongs to the police.

Tax Reduction

The spring Budget delivered personal tax cuts, including cuts to national insurance, for 29 million workers. That means that someone on the average salary has the lowest effective personal tax rate since 1975, and that is the lowest effective tax rate of any G7 country.

While responsible tax cuts, such as the £900 cut to national insurance contributions, are welcome, can my right hon. Friend update the House on when we can expect VAT to be abolished on high-factor sunscreen? That would not only help to protect more people from one of the leading causes of preventable cancer, but could save the NHS approximately £55 billion.

My hon. Friend and I have talked about this issue on many occasions. She will know that high-factor sunscreen is on NHS prescription for certain conditions and is VAT-free when dispensed by a chemist. With my Chancellor hat on, I should say that we have had £50 billion of requests for VAT relief since Brexit. It is great to have the freedom to make those changes, but we have to be honest about the trade-offs. In particular, we must ensure that if we do apply reliefs, the benefits are fed through to consumers.

This weekend, I spoke to a constituent who has invested heavily in a restaurant in my constituency over the last 15 years. He was in desperation because his business, like two other businesses that have already closed in the town, is being crushed by VAT, business rates and increases in corporate taxes. He finds that he can no longer sustain a business that has become the love of his life. Does the Chancellor realise that the tax burden he is imposing on small and medium-sized businesses is crushing this economy?

We are doing everything we can to support small businesses. Businesses like the one that the right hon. Gentleman mentions have received, for two years in a row, a 75% discount on their business rates. That is a massive leg up for businesses recovering from the pandemic. We have also made sure that any increases in corporation tax apply only to larger businesses. There is only one major party in British politics that wants to bring down the tax burden for businesses, and it is the Conservative party.

Green Book

7. Whether his Department has made a recent assessment of the adequacy of its guidance entitled “The Green Book.” (902669)

In 2020, the Treasury undertook a comprehensive review of the Green Book and how it is used in practice, and we have made several changes as a result. We regularly update the Green Book to ensure that it remains fit for purpose, and we published a further technical update in 2022.

I represent a rural constituency in Dorset in the south-west of England. My right hon. Friend will know that it is important to me and my colleagues in the region that the Government give due consideration to the south-west when it comes to allocating funds and investment opportunities to it. Typically, the Green Book has not adequately allocated funds in favour of Dorset and neighbouring counties. What steps will she take to correct that?

My hon. Friend is, as ever, a brilliant advocate for his local area. I note that West Dorset is getting £4.4 million from the UK shared prosperity fund, and the wider Dorset area is benefiting from a range of other significant investments, including £9.7 million from the future high streets fund, but I am happy to meet him to discuss the matter further.

Like the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder), I represent a rural constituency. Strangford is the reason I am here, and I want to represent it well. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that all updates to and volumes of the Green Book apply to Northern Ireland as well as to other areas across this great nation?

The hon. Gentleman raises an excellent point—one that I will be discussing with the Northern Ireland Finance Minister in a couple of weeks.

Small Businesses: Fiscal Support

Small businesses drive our economy, and we support them to thrive using levers across Government, whether through our small business rates relief, by increasing the VAT registration threshold, or providing reliefs such as the annual investment allowance.

In England, many small businesses receive a 75% reduction in business rates thanks to action by this Conservative Government. In Wales, the Labour Administration have cut that level of support to 40%, meaning that excellent hospitality businesses such as Martha’s Vineyard in my constituency must find thousands of pounds more in tax. Does the Minister agree that that is not the way to support the tourism and hospitality sector at a challenging time, and that it is an example of the Labour party saying one thing here at Westminster and doing another where they are in government?

My right hon. Friend is right that in the autumn statement the Government extended retail, hospitality and leisure relief in England, essentially to cut tax for 230,000 businesses—a tax cut worth £2.5 billion. The Barnett formula allows the Welsh Labour Government to offer similar relief to Welsh businesses, and it is disappointing, if not surprising, that they have chosen not to.

On Friday, I visited the K C Jones Motor Repairs garage, a medium-sized business of very long standing in Oswestry in North Shropshire. One of the many challenges that it faces, alongside astronomical energy bills and a shortage of skilled labour, is the business rates that it needs to pay because it must have a high street presence in order for people to take their cars there. Will the Minister consider fundamental reform of business rates so that businesses that need a high street presence can continue to exist? At the moment, they are under huge pressure.

As I was saying, we have a 75% relief for most high street businesses. I encourage the hon. Lady to look at the package as a whole. We have increased the VAT threshold, bringing 28,000 businesses like the one she describes out of paying any VAT at all, on top of a range of other measures.

The cherished independent shops and restaurants that line the streets of Morley serve the lifeblood of our community. In order to safeguard the very heart of our local economy, what bold measures is the Department taking to counter the oppressive weight of skyrocketing business rates imposed by the financially reckless Labour-led Leeds City Council?

I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion of all businesses in Morley and across Leeds because I have seen it at first hand. I point out to her as well that the Government have reduced taxation on small businesses, we have increased the VAT threshold, and we have a 75% rate relief for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, which she alluded to. It is this Conservative Government who are on the side of hard-working people and businesses across Morley and around the country.

In the last decade, more than one music venue closed every week, including Moles in Bath. That has resulted in the loss of 4,000 jobs, 14,250 events, over 190,000 performance opportunities, £9 million of income for musicians and £59 million in lost direct economic activity. What are the Government doing to support small music venues?

We are doing a lot. We are increasing the VAT threshold, and we have a rates relief package. The recent spring Budget was one of the biggest packages supporting our cultural industries that this country has ever seen, and I encourage the hon. Lady to look at it.

Since 2022, almost 400 communities have lost their local bank branch, which has had a devastating impact on local and small businesses. Despite witnessing the decline of the British high street, the Government have been dragging their feet on rolling out banking hubs, which would help local and small businesses. Will the Minister finally back the Labour party’s plans to provide a banking hub in every community that needs one?

Banking hubs are driven by commercial organisations. Any area that loses bank branches is entitled to get a banking hub. Of course, we want to see more across the country, but we also have to recognise that banking has changed and the ways in which people bank have moved more towards digital, so it is right that commercial organisations take commercial decisions.

Regional Economic Inequality

At the spring Budget, we built on the £15 billion of levelling-up commitments made since 2019. We announced a trailblazer devolution deal for the north-east mayoral combined authority and a £400 million extension to the long-term plan for towns.

The cross-party Public Accounts Committee has revealed that the Government’s levelling-up funds were subject to a “worrying lack of transparency”, with rules for accessing funding changing while bids were still being assessed. Will the Minister therefore apologise to the 55 local authorities rejected for funding that were not told in advance that their applications had no chance of success?

This is the Government who implemented £15 billion of support for communities outside of London and the south-east, which is one of the reasons why median pay growth is higher in every region outside of London and the south-east. Of course, there is a robust methodology and criteria for selecting places for funding, and I encourage the hon. Lady to look at those criteria.

With the Darlington economic campus now having passed 750 employees and being well on its way to providing over 1,500 roles in my constituency, what assessment has my hon. Friend made of its contribution to the local economy, to reducing inequalities and to our levelling-up agenda?

The Darlington economic campus is an important part of this Government’s operations and of our Government estate, but it is also important to the people of Darlington, and not just in terms of the jobs it has created. Of course, it builds on the back of significant funding on my hon. Friend’s watch: the £22 million town deal and the £6 million as part of the shared prosperity fund. That is one of the reasons why the people voted to elect Ben Houchen just the other day.

Regional inequality may be made worse by my constituents facing having to pay again for funeral plans after they were sold fake funeral plans by Legacy funeral directors. Many simply cannot afford to pay for those plans again and, instead of having the funeral that their families wanted for them, they will only be able to have the free service offered by the council. Does the Minister agree that banks should offer more discretion when looking at victims of fraud, and will he meet with me to discuss this specific case further?

I am very sorry to hear of the circumstances that the hon. Lady has described. My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary, in whose portfolio this issue sits, will meet with her.

For many years, coastal communities have suffered economic inequalities, and we all know that the best way of changing that is to create the conditions for investment and the jobs that go with them. Despite the good work that the Government have done, we still need more funding in areas such as Cleethorpes. Could the Minister outline what plans the Government may have for bringing forward further schemes in the near future?

It is right to acknowledge that funding has gone in. I completely appreciate the specific challenges that coastal communities face, but it is important to look at the package of measures to level up—not just funding such as the shared prosperity fund, levelling-up fund and towns fund, but the 13 devolution deals, 13 investment zones and 12 freeports. These are all packages and measures that will help areas such as my hon. Friend’s, but I will always keep his area in mind.

Cost of Living

Over the last two years, cost of living support has totalled £96 billion, or an average of £3,400 per household. As a result, living standards, which were predicted to fall 2% last year, rose by nearly 1%, and we are on track to reach pre-pandemic living standards two years early.

I welcome the support that the Government have provided throughout covid and the recent energy crisis for my constituents in Meon Valley—I thank the Government. It has made a huge difference to people’s domestic budgets, but now inflation is falling and the economy is improving, can we look forward to the Government’s continued support with a range of fiscal steps, including cutting taxes?

We can absolutely do that. I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out that the biggest single thing we can do to help people with cost of living pressures is to bring down inflation. That seems to be something that escaped the shadow Chancellor this morning, when she said it was not a big deal to get inflation down to its target. It is a very big deal for families facing a cost of living crisis, and she needs to know that inflation falls by design, not by accident.

The Chancellor can talk all he wants about inflation falling, but this is little comfort to my constituents who are still struggling to make ends meet. Even with the national insurance cut, annual post-tax earnings for the average family remain on course to be £380 lower at the start of 2025 than they were in 2021—a gap not predicted to close until 2029. This means yet more years of lost wage growth, so when will the Government get serious about tackling the low-wage, insecure work that they have allowed to become the norm in this country?

Could I suggest, if the hon. Member really thinks that inflation falling from 11% to 3.2% is little comfort to her constituents, that she might want to talk to a few more of them, because actually it is the biggest single thing that we can do to deal with cost of living pressures. If she says, “What are we doing to tackle the scourge of low pay?” we have abolished it by raising the national living wage to £11.44 this year alone. For someone working full-time, that will mean an increase in their pay of £1,800.

Child Trust Fund: Recipients with Disabilities

13. Whether he has taken recent steps with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that people with disabilities can access their child trust fund when they turn 18. (902675)

On 9 June 2023, the Ministry of Justice launched a programme to raise awareness of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 in relation to how and when to access child trust funds. The first part of this programme is a new toolkit. The Ministry of Justice will continue that programme of work to raise awareness of how to obtain legal authority to access a child trust fund, for which a court fee waiver is available.

The only way for parents of young people without capacity to access their child trust fund is through a deputyship order. After consulting on the introduction of a mental capacity small payment scheme, which would allow a suitable person temporary access to release the funds, Ministers opted not to legislate, and instead introduced a toolkit, as has been said. Over 80,000 young people in England and Wales remain locked out of their child trust fund, so would the Minister agree to look at this again?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I know how avidly she campaigns in this area. The House should know—and you should know, Mr Speaker—that I recently met my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir Jeremy Quin) and the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) to discuss this very issue. I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady as well to discuss it and to see if we can get a solution, because we do want to get this problem fixed.

I am grateful to the Minister for the meeting to which he referred. Will he compliment financial institutions that are doing their utmost to make it easier for their disabled customers to access their child trust funds and, if his ministerial colleagues can find a way of making that easier across the board, would that have his support and that of his colleagues in the Treasury?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Indeed, working with not just the Ministry of Justice, but the Department for Work and Pensions is key to deliver this, as is working with the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that any financial institution that does the right thing does not lose out or face any regulatory issues. That is indeed something that has my support and that of the Treasury, and we will work across Government to get this right.

VAT Exemption for International Visitors

As stated in the spring Budget, the Government are considering the findings of the review by the Office for Budget Responsibility of VAT-free shopping, alongside industry representations and broader data. We continue to welcome further submissions and representations in response to those findings.

Data from Heathrow, the United Kingdom’s largest and busiest airport, shows that despite a near-full recovery in passenger volumes post lockdown, retail spend on affected goods is 32% below pre-pandemic levels. That figure is shocking. Heathrow airport joins hundreds of businesses in calling on the Government to reintroduce VAT-free shopping for tourists, or similar incentives. Will the Minister acknowledge the figures, listen to the industry and reinstate that popular policy, as British businesses are demanding?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I will not only listen to the industry, but I met Heathrow just last week to hear its representations. The challenge is the way that modelling, and forecast and behavioural changes can be confidently assessed. Government estimates suggest that a worldwide scheme could cost as much as £2.5 billion. The challenge is the so-called deadweight cost that could happen by subsidising spending that otherwise would exist anyway, versus the incremental benefit that we could get from new visitors coming to the UK. Of course that is a behavioural change based on a tax change. It is based on a variety of assumptions, and therefore the modelling and assumptions underlying it vary, but I am listening to all representations.

High income Child Benefit Charge

16. What assessment he has made of the impact of raising the high income child benefit charge threshold on household incomes. (902678)

The high income child benefit charge threshold was raised to £60,000 on 6 April 2024. The point at which child benefit is fully withdrawn was also increased to £80,000, and the Government estimate that that will take 170,000 families out of paying the charge in 2024-25. The Government also plan to administer HICBC on a household rather than an individual basis by April 2026.

I have been contacted by many South Derbyshire parents who are caught in this unfair situation. Can the Minister be even more precise about the savings that this will now mean for my affected constituents?

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and continual interest in this area. The changes to the high income child benefit charge mean that almost half a million hard-working families will gain an average of £1,260 towards the cost of raising their children in 2024-25. She will recognise that that is a meaningful difference for her constituents, and for those across the country.

Topical Questions

The shadow Chancellor often likes to ask what has improved over the past 14 years, so I thought I would update the House on some of the latest statistics about the British economy. According to UN conference data, we have now overtaken France, the Netherlands and Japan to become the world’s fourth largest exporter. The International Monetary Fund says that we will grow faster over the next six years than France, Italy, Germany or Japan, and there are 200,000 more people in work compared with a year ago, which means that, for every single day Conservative Governments have been in office since 2010, there are 800 more people in work, many of whom will be very pleased that we are sticking to our plan.

We should add to the Chancellor’s statistics that we have the widest economic inequalities in Europe. Last week, Professor Sir Michael Marmot published new analysis showing significant increases in health inequalities—how long we live, and how long we live in good health—and that is particularly the case between the north and south-east England. That is of course driven by the economic inequalities that I have just referred to. What assessment has the Chancellor undertaken on the loss in productivity directly as a result of that increase in health inequalities?

If the hon. Lady is concerned about economic inequalities, she will be horrified to know that they were even worse under the last Labour Government. They have been reduced under this Government. When it comes to health inequalities, it is this Government who are phasing out smoking for everyone under the age of 14—one of the biggest single things in a generation that will reduce health inequalities and mean that poorer people live longer.

T6. The Government’s plans for a carbon border adjustment mechanism will create a level playing field for British manufacturers facing un-green, high-carbon competition from abroad, but to comply with free trade rules, the CBAM must be an environmental measure, rather than revenue-raising trade protectionism. Will Ministers confirm that it will be fiscally neutral and that any net receipts will be returned to taxpayers, perhaps even by cutting fuel duty or green levies on energy bills? (902692)

I can confirm that we are very alive to cost of living pressures caused by fuel duty. In fact, we spent £6.4 billion freezing the duties on fuel, which will save the average motorist £50 over the coming year.

At the Budget, the Chancellor set out his intention to abolish national insurance—a £46 billion annual commitment with no clear plan as to how it would be paid for. One way to do it would be to merge income tax and national insurance. Does the Chancellor agree with analysis from the House of Commons Library that shows that merging those two would increase income tax by 8p in the pound?

That is strange, because the day after the Budget, the Chancellor told Sky News that

“you can end that unfairness of taxing work: you can merge income tax and national insurance.”

The late Chancellor, Nigel Lawson—the Prime Minister’s hero—warned that merging them would

“destroy the contributory principle and create many losers, especially among the elderly.”

In fact, a retired pensioner with an average occupational pension income of £198 a week would pay an additional £738 a year in tax. Is the reason that the Conservatives will not come clean not that they are planning to pick pensioners’ pockets to fund the abolition of national insurance?

If the right hon. Lady listened to my comments carefully, and I do not always give her credit for that, she would know that our policy is to abolish employees’ national insurance, and that means we want to bring it down to zero. If Labour’s strategy is to win the election by frightening pensioners with fake news stories, I would just say that Britain deserves better.

T8. The taskforce on nature-related financial disclosures came out with its framework last year. I would like an update on where we are with the International Sustainability Standards Board approach, because just as it has been a huge success for companies and for UK plc to switch to the recommendations of the taskforce on climate-related financial disclosure, it is vital for our planet that we also start to have the TNFD framework as standard right across the board. (902694)

My right hon. Friend is right that this issue is critical. I am pleased that the ISSB recently announced its intention to commence a research project on a nature thematic standard, carefully considering the TNFD’s recommendations. His Majesty’s Government have established a formal mechanism to assess the ISSB standards for suitability for the UK to ensure that with a general sustainability standard, and more specifically with a climate sustainability standard, we are doing the right thing for the UK. The Government will publish an implementation update on sustainability disclosure requirements shortly to provide further information for industry—watch this space.

T2. We have all seen it: the richest Prime Minister in history has spent the weekend telling the public that his plan is working. Well, it is not working for people in Leeds East, whose taxes are going through the roof while our public services are on their knees. Would a better plan not be to go after the tax dodgers, rather than making ordinary people pay the price for this Government’s abject failures? (902688)

I have to say that I find this hypocrisy astounding. First, if the Opposition objected to the national insurance cuts, why did the Leader of the Opposition say that he supported them? If the Opposition are so keen on abolishing tax dodging, why did they not support our Finance Bill, which had measures in place to do just that? They did not support it; they abstained on it.

The Bank of England has said that quantitative tightening is not an official part of its monetary policy targeting, yet it is at risk of costing, fiscally, £179 billion in losses underwritten by the Treasury. That is having a major effect on the fiscal situation of the country. Will His Majesty’s Government encourage the Bank of England to hold these bonds to maturity, taking the carry cost rather than taking the hit from selling them in the market and crystallising an enormous loss?

In relation to the asset purchase facility and how that has worked over recent years, it is not His Majesty’s Government’s—or indeed the Treasury’s—intention to change the way in which that works with the Bank of England, but as with all measures, the Chancellor keeps everything under close review.

T3.   According to the Bank of England, a typical family remortgaging this year will pay £240 a year more in mortgage payments. Does the Chancellor accept that even if the Bank cuts rates, those homeowners will still be paying a penalty because the Government crashed the economy? (902689)

What I would say to those families is that the most damaging thing of all is to have inflation at 11%. Now we have reduced it to 3.2%, and indeed we expect it to go lower. Interest rates are also starting to fall. If the hon. Member is worried about families in her constituency, she might be extremely worried by the shadow Chancellor saying that if interest rates fall, it is somehow not a big deal. It really is.

May I encourage my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to revisit his decision to change the tax arrangements of furnished holiday lets in rural constituencies such as my own? Those businesses make an important contribution to the local economy, provide jobs and enhance the tourism offering. Indeed, they stop depopulation rather than adding to it. His decision is creating much concern among those who operate such businesses.

We recognise the important role that FHLs play in the tourism ecosystem right across the country. The problem was that there was not a level playing field with long-term lets. We are making sure that there will continue to be tax incentives and benefits from such letting, but they need to be on par with short-term and long-term lets.

T5. The consistently high price of fuel is making drivers dig deep just to go about their daily business. With a rise of 10p reported since the start of the year and the average cost of filling a family car now £82.50, what efforts will the Government make to help those people in my rural constituency and across the United Kingdom who have little or no access to public transport and are dependent on their vehicles for work and family life? (902691)

The hon. Member is entirely right. That is why we froze fuel duty at the last fiscal event: a measure that costs £6.5 billion and will save the average driver £50.

May I place on record my thanks to the Chancellor, who in his Budget devoted funds to Bournemouth for a police violence reduction unit? Does he agree that these units have a track record up and down the country of tackling knife crime by not just seeing extra police on the frontline, but engaging with schools to ensure that youths and students understand the folly of carrying a knife in the first place?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: violence reduction units reduce crime and save lives. I want to thank him, because he was one of the first colleagues who, ahead of the Budget, brought to my attention how impressive the results are. As a result, I was able to make it a national policy in the Budget.

T7. Many of those campaigning for justice in the contaminated blood scandal will have been encouraged by the reporting in The Sunday Times over the weekend. Given that time is of the essence, will the Chancellor please indicate by which date the promises will be fulfilled? (902693)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the Government are taking this issue very seriously, and we completely understand that speed is of the essence. It is now only a matter of days before the report will be published; we have always said that we want to publish our response very quickly after that and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will not hang around.

The best way for a business to thrive and for customers to receive a great service is for companies to employ individuals on merit. Does the Chancellor agree that the recent overreach by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority regarding their equality, diversity and inclusion policies is a step too far, and that it is inevitable that those policies will have a negative effect on us all?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that the FCA bears in mind that it should not be distracted from its core focus on conduct and regulation by things that are more marginal for the people and businesses it oversees. I urge the FCA to take into account the representations made by my hon. Friend and by industry in that regard and many others.

T10. The Chancellor recently claimed that £100,000 a year is not a huge salary. Does he realise how out of touch that sounds to families in my constituency who are working hard, earning much less than that and really struggling because they are paying 25% more for their weekly shop than they were two years ago, and whose mortgages soared after the Tories crashed the economy? (902696)

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that he has taken my comments out of context. I will tell him what is really out of touch: the shadow Chancellor saying it is not a big deal if inflation falls.

Cramlington has a world-leading pharmaceutical company, Organon, which employs 700 people and produces medicine for the UK market as well as abroad, with a particular focus on women’s health. Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor please meet me to discuss the impact on pharmaceutical investment?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The pharmaceutical industry is worth some £14 billion to our economy. I am pleased to tell him that the industry has seen a twelvefold increase in equity financing in just the past decade, and I would be pleased to meet him to discuss that further.

Soaring rent costs are the biggest reason why my constituents in Bath are struggling. The average monthly rent in Bath and north-east Somerset has risen by more than £200 in the past three years. What support will the Government give to people who rent in the private sector?

That is why we need to build more houses. The hon. Lady will be reassured to know that we are building record numbers of houses—in fact, more in the last year than in any single year under the previous Labour Government.

I would like the Chancellor of the Exchequer to know that high business rates are having a devastating effect on small and medium-sized businesses in historic market towns, such as Romford, that are large retail centres. As the Government are business friendly, will he please look at ways to reduce the burden of business rates on local businesses in constituencies like mine?

May I say what a pleasure it is to be asked a question by my hon. Friend? I think this is the first time it has happened since he has been back. There is no more formidable a champion for Romford. He speaks about business rates, and we have indeed been doing what we can to bring them down at every fiscal event.

What steps have been taken to support pensioners to know what benefits they are possibly entitled to? I understand that 1.4 million people access pension credit, but a great many more are entitled to it.

The hon. Gentleman will know that this is an issue that is close to my heart, as a former Pensions Minister. We did a huge amount of work to increase the uptake of pension credit. I know that this matters a lot to Members, and work is being done in everyone’s constituency, including the hon. Gentleman’s.

The lifetime ISA is a positive instrument, but I understand that under its terms there are circumstances under which savers lose not only the benefits of the ISA but also part of their capital investment. That does not seem right; will the Minister please meet me to discuss it?

I am happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss the lifetime ISA, which is a fantastic product brought in by this Government to help young people to get on the housing ladder. I am happy to meet him to discuss ways in which we can make it more accessible for more people in more circumstances.

Yes. In his response to me, the Exchequer Secretary said, “Any area that loses bank branches is entitled to get a banking hub”, but I have numerous examples of towns that lost bank branches, applied for a banking hub and then had their application rejected. Please could you advise me, Mr Speaker, on how I can get some clarity on this matter and what the Minister said about “any area that loses bank branches”?

Obviously, we cannot continue the debate. The hon. Lady has certainly put her point on the record. I do not think this will be the end of it; she knows how to carry it on through the usual channels, which I expect she will use, no doubt starting with the Table Office.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Chancellor, in answer to my question, said that economic inequalities actually increased under the previous Labour Administration. A House of Commons Library publication released last month shows that that is categorically not the case. Would he like to take this opportunity to correct the record?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Lady may have misunderstood me. What I said was that economic inequality had fallen since the last Labour Government.

War in Gaza

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for his urgent question.

We want to see an end to the fighting as soon as possible. Well over six months since Hamas’s terror attack against Israel, it is appalling that the hostages are still being held. Very many civilians are also dying in Gaza, and this weekend Hamas rockets killed four Israeli Defence Forces soldiers and injured others. As we have said, the fastest way to end the conflict is to secure a deal that gets the hostages out and allows for a pause in the fighting in Gaza. We must then turn that pause into a sustainable, permanent ceasefire.

Regarding the situation in Rafah, our position has been consistent. We are deeply concerned about the prospect of a military incursion, given the number of civilians who are sheltering there and the importance of that entry point for aid. Entry points for humanitarian aid, including Kerem Shalom, must be reopened quickly to allow aid in. Israel must facilitate immediate, uninterrupted humanitarian access in the south, especially the entry of fuel, and ensure the protection of civilians and safe passage for those who wish to leave Rafah. As yet, we have not seen a credible plan to protect civilians.

We are, of course, following closely the latest developments on the hostage talks. At this stage, while events are still shifting, I cannot—as the House will understand—provide a detailed running commentary. As the British Government have said, we want to see a deal agreed that would ensure the release of hostages and a pause in the fighting. A generous offer was on the table last week, proposed by Egypt and accepted by Israel. We need to see Hamas accept a viable deal and we can start building the momentum towards a permanent sustained ceasefire.

In parallel, we continue to push as hard as we can to get much-needed aid into Gaza via vital land routes, alongside sea and air, to alleviate the suffering. Israel has now committed to significant steps to increase the amount of aid getting into Gaza. We now need to see that turned into action to ensure that aid actually gets over the border, and that it is safely and properly distributed. We look to Israel to meet its commitments to flood Gaza with aid.

Ultimately, we need a long-term solution to this crisis. This means the release of all hostages; Hamas’s rule dismantled; their ability to attack Israel removed; a new Palestinian Government for the west bank and Gaza; and a political horizon to a two-state solution. Israelis and Palestinians should be able to live together side by side, in peace and security. This is our goal. We will continue working tirelessly to achieve it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, but I have to say that it is extraordinary that the Government did not come forward with a statement today. This is a profoundly concerning moment in this awful war. Ceasefire negotiations appear to be going backwards. Today the war is not just continuing, but escalating.

Labour has been clear for months that we oppose an offensive in Rafah, which risks catastrophic consequences. The United States has said that it would be a disaster, the European Union has said that the world must prevent it, and the United Nations Security Council has called for an immediate ceasefire. Benjamin Netanyahu is ignoring the warnings of Israel’s allies and partners, the United Kingdom included.

So can the Minister tell me what the consequences will be? We are already seeing the consequences for civilians: airstrikes in densely packed areas; the Rafah crossing—as well as Kerem Shalom, shamelessly attacked by Hamas—now closed; aid reportedly being blocked; and northern Gaza in full-blown famine. Some 1.4 million people are sheltering in Rafah, many of them ordered to go there by the IDF in the first place. Half the children in Gaza are in Rafah. Where can they go to be safe? The French Government said yesterday that the forced displacement of any civilian population is a war crime. Does the Minister agree?

Hamas are a terrorist organisation and their cowardly tactics are reprehensible, but that does not change Israel’s obligation to follow the rules of war, or the Government’s obligations on arms exports, so can the Minister say why he thinks that an attack on Rafah does not present a clear risk of a serious breach of international humanitarian law? Can he also confirm whether he has received any assessment—not legal advice, but any assessment or policy advice—from Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials that the threshold has already been met? Now more than ever, we need an immediate ceasefire, the release of all hostages and unimpeded aid to Gaza.

The shadow Foreign Secretary has set out in eloquent terms what is effectively the policy of the Government and the entire House. He chided the Government for not offering a statement today, but I suggest that the Government have not been slow in coming to the House with frequent statements and responses to urgent questions, and we will of course continue to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Government’s discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the entire Government have been very clear about our advice to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and I have set it out repeatedly in the House. When I last answered questions from the right hon. Gentleman here, I made very clear our position on Rafah as well. He asked about the consequences and how we deal with those. Britain and our allies, through the United Nations—and I remind him that Britain was pivotal in securing Security Council resolutions 2720 and 2728—are working together to try to improve what is a terrible situation, and we will continue to do just that with, I hope, the support of the whole House.

I welcome the efforts made by the Foreign Secretary, the Deputy Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Middle East, who have been in and out of the middle east many times over the past two weeks in order to hear from our allies. However, as we see the launch of the Rafah offensive, what reassurances have been received that aid access and, above all, aid workers will be protected? We cannot see the entire aid industry flee from Rafah junction, as is currently being predicted. There is speculation about Al-Mawasi as a safe zone for civilians, but there is no infrastructure in what is essentially a desert, and it was not safe on the last occasion when, as we saw, the British charity Medical Aid for Palestinians was bombed—on which we have still had no answer. Finally, have we had any proof of life for those Israeli citizens who have now been held for seven months? For many, there has been no proof of life since at least Day 20. What are we doing to push for that proof of life, which families so desperately need?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to make that last point. We do seek proof of life. The families to whom she refers are desperate for information, but that information has not been forthcoming. We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian position in Rafah. Any plan would have to respect international humanitarian law, and we have yet to see such a plan. The immediate priority, as I set out in my opening remarks, must be a humanitarian pause in the fighting. As the House well knows, such a pause would allow us, potentially, to get the hostages out, but also to get aid into Gaza.

A week ago from that Dispatch Box, the Minister said:

“Given the number of civilians sheltering in Rafah, it is not easy to see how such an offensive could be compliant with international humanitarian law”.—[Official Report, 30 April 2024; Vol. 749, c. 141.]

Despite repeated appeals for Israel not to attack Rafah, just hours after the dashed hopes of a ceasefire, that offensive is happening. Is this the breach of international humanitarian law you referred to last week, and will that breach immediately end UK sales of arms to Israel? Or is this yet another example of the UK declaring a red line only for Israel to completely ignore it without condemnation or consequence? We know how this plays out, Minister. You plead with them, they ignore you, they do what they want and you find excuses for them. A blind eye will be turned to the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, and while the UK Government call for more aid to the survivors, they will continue to issue arms export licences. That has been the pattern of behaviour for seven months. Can we expect anything different now?

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, he will know that we are working flat out in these very difficult circumstances to achieve something different, and we will continue to do so. He quoted what I said the last time I was at the Dispatch Box, and I would point out that the words I have used today, in answering the same question, are virtually exactly the same. I have made it clear that there would have to be a plan that respected international humanitarian law, and we have not yet seen such a plan. That is entirely consistent with what I said before.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the sale of arms. The Foreign Secretary announced on 9 April that the British position with regard to export licences is unchanged. We do not publish the Government’s legal advice, but we always act in accordance with it. I would point out that we publish data on export licensing decisions transparently and on a quarterly basis.

Yesterday I met survivors of the Nova festival massacre—people who had fought singlehandedly for hours in Israel on 7 October against brutal Hamas terrorists. We all want peace, and we all want to see the end of civilian fatalities, but sometimes countries must fight for peace. Israel has a right to defend herself and a duty to protect her people from the brutal terrorist cult of Hamas. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will maintain steadfast and resolute support for Israel as she finishes the job of eliminating Hamas from Gaza?

I am very pleased to hear that my right hon. Friend had the chance to meet those survivors yesterday, so that she can share with the House the hideous circumstances that they suffered. She makes it clear that Israel has the right of self-defence, and she set out eloquently why that is the case. But Israel must also abide by international humanitarian law.

I say to the Minister, if I may, “You’re better than this.” We all condemn Hamas’s attack and we all want to see the hostages released, but we are on the edge of witnessing a massacre, a mass murder of innocent men, women and children at the behest of fanatical zealots in the Israeli Cabinet. We need this Government to lead an international exercise to prevent this attack now. One way to prevent it is to make it clear to Netanyahu that if it goes ahead, this Government will pursue him as a war criminal at the international courts.

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the Government are working with their allies, with the powers in the region and through the United Nations precisely to ensure that that does not happen. He also knows that the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and other Ministers who are in close contact with the Israeli Government have made it absolutely clear what the effects of a military campaign conducted within the small confines of Rafah, where so many people are kettled, would be. I have made very clear from this Dispatch Box the view of the Government in that respect.

A couple of days ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, an Israeli commander reminded his men that on that day 80 years ago, the Nazis led Jews to the ovens for the sole crime of being Jewish. On 7 October, at dawn on a public holiday, Hamas and their supporters invaded Israel and murdered 1,200 more Jewish people, including children, and raped, dismembered and tortured people—and yes, they put one baby, alive, in an oven to murder it. They took dozens of hostages, and still have many in savage confinement of a medieval nature.

Many voices put pressure on Israel to do what they believe Israel should do. Does the Minister agree that more pressure needs to be put on Hamas to do what they should do—what any civilised human being would call for—which is to release the hostages and stop attacking aid points? One such aid point was attacked at the weekend, killing four Israeli soldiers—an aid point that, by the way, British aid comes through. They are silent about that, with every focus on Israel and none on Hamas.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. I want to emphasise to him, but also to the House, that the hostages are not an afterthought. They are at the very centre of this—there are more than 130, including women and children, and a holocaust survivor. The Government are trying to strike a balance. There is an urgent requirement for a pause in all the fighting to enable aid to get in and to negotiate the hostages out, which might then lead, as a process, to a sustainable ceasefire, which is what we are trying to achieve.

I think we all want an immediate ceasefire, and as we see the start of the destruction of Rafah and the impact that it will have on the civilian population, we are horrified. I want to ask the Minister a practical question that might get us a step further. How optimistic is he that a sufficient number of hostages will be released to ensure that agreement between the two sides can be reached and that Israel will then accept an immediate ceasefire?

The right hon. Lady, who speaks with authority and understanding on these matters, will know that the question she has asked me is at the heart of the negotiations, which still continue, and which we very much hope will be successful. As I have said before, I cannot give the House a running commentary on those negotiations, but I can assure her that the logic she brings to this debate does inform the Government’s support for getting a resolution to those negotiations.

Over the past few months, Members from all parts of the House have questioned the Deputy Foreign Secretary on the notion of consequences, and we have heard that again today. He is an experienced Minister, so he knows that every equivocation, every hesitation and every set of diplomatic niceties has led us to this calamitous moment for the hostages, for the Palestinian people and for the interests of both peoples in the long term. On 7 April, the Foreign Secretary said that support for Israel was not unconditional. I shall ask the question in a different way: is there any red line? Is there anything the Israeli Government could do that would so appal this Government that they would feel the need to act? If so, what is it?

My right hon. Friend talks about the calamitous situation that we have reached, and no one in the House will forget that it started on 7 October with the brutal events that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North (Sir Michael Ellis) just described. My right hon. Friend asks me a rhetorical question, but the evidence will show that the Government have done everything we possibly can to try to alleviate the situation, sometimes unpopularly, and that our logic was accepted at the United Nations in the two Security Council resolutions that I mentioned.

The Israeli Opposition leader Yair Lapid said at the weekend:

“A government that wants to return the abductees”

would be

“sending the teams to Cairo, not…crushing the hearts of the families.”

Lapid is right, but it is not only the hearts of the hostages’ families that are being crushed; it is those of the Palestinians who want nothing to do with Hamas terrorists. Many of them are being chased around the Gaza strip. The UK rightly defends Israel from the threat of attack by Iran, but will the British Government also suspend arms exports to Israel?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, he will have seen that both sides have sent teams to Cairo, and we await developments on that with a degree of hope and optimism. On his second point, I have made it clear to the House where the Government stand on arms exports. We follow the legal advice—we do not publish it, in accordance with precedent—and we will continue to do so.

Members have said that the situation in Rafah needs to come to an end, but what needs to come to an end is the fighting. UNICEF has said today that Rafah is a city of children, and we should not be dancing around the issue or playing with words as though it were a game of Scrabble. We should call this what it is and call for an immediate ceasefire. Families of hostages want the fighting to end now, and my constituents in Bolton demand that it does. The international community is demanding an immediate stop. We are one of the most influential countries on the conflict, so will the United Kingdom call for an immediate end to the fighting?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for keeping in touch with me on issues that are brought to his attention by his constituents. As he knows, it is exactly the Government’s policy to try to achieve that pause, which can then lead to a sustainable ceasefire. We will continue to do everything we can to achieve that.

What is the Government’s plan to get aid into Gaza now that both Rafah and Kerem Shalom are inaccessible? Even if they were accessible, with an invasion now started there would be no way to distribute aid. What is the Government’s plan to get aid in to alleviate the appalling suffering of the Palestinian people?

The hon. Lady is right to identify that yesterday, Rafah and Kerem Shalom were shut with no aid able to get in. That is a matter of immense concern to the Government. She will know that as well as trying to get aid in ourselves by road transport, we have been a leading nation in assisting with the maritime route and with airdrops. Some 11 airdrops have been made, 10 of them by the Royal Air Force.

Constituents are understandably devastated by what is happening in Gaza right now, which is desperate for those on both sides. I am conscious of what the Minister has just said about aid being distributed, but will he ensure that all the resources possible are there to enable us to carry on with maritime delivery and airdrops? Does he agree that ultimately, it is in Hamas’s hands to return the hostages and remove any excuse for further actions in Gaza by Israel?

We will certainly continue to boost the maritime efforts, which, as my right hon. Friend knows, are ongoing using both British military assets and our stores in the region, particularly in Cyprus, as well as technology for clearing the kit that is available there. We will continue to do everything we can in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, as we have been, to achieve greater entry of aid into Gaza.

The real concern now is that Netanyahu has one objective, which is to raze Gaza to the ground. That is what he is intent on doing, and it will include Rafah. This Government, along with all other western Governments, have told the Israelis that they must not go into Rafah. I ask the Minister once again: what are the consequences if they do? Will it be a slap on the wrist and a “Don’t do it again”, or is serious consideration being given to banning the sale of arms and to sanctioning individuals and the Israeli Government collectively? What are the Government going to do? Are they going to do anything at all?

I have made it very clear what the Government are seeking to do. The hon. Gentleman has outlined what Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying, but there are many different voices in Israel, as we have seen this weekend, including significant demonstrations in support of the policy of getting the hostages back. Britain is doing everything it can to help achieve that.

For me, the defining feature of this appalling tragedy in Gaza is that the civilian population is trapped between the oppression of an appalling terrorist organisation and an appalling military onslaught. Given the increasing compression of that population within Rafah, in a much smaller geographical area, the need for precision, restraint and proportionality from the Israelis is ever more acute. Will the Minister please assure the House that he is doing everything possible to convince the Israelis of the need to preserve the sanctity of human life?

My hon. Friend will know that the Government have repeatedly underlined the importance of Israel abiding by international humanitarian law. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have underlined that point in their frequent contacts.

Despite the blatant disregard that we have seen for international law over the last few weeks, the international community has warned that the Israeli ground offensive in Rafah will be a red line. Even the Deputy Foreign Secretary told this House last week that he could not

“see how such an offensive could be compliant with international humanitarian law”.—[Official Report, 30 April 2024; Vol. 749, c. 140-41.]

With Israeli troops now ready to move into the world’s largest and most densely populated refugee camp, where 1.4 million people sit starving and fearful for the lives of their children, I have to ask the Minister just why he did not come to the House today to announce a strong UK response that immediately supports the International Criminal Court’s war crimes investigation and immediately ends arms sales to Israel.

Frankly, it is shameful that the Government have again come to the House with nothing. Will the Minister please answer the question that we have all come to hear answered? What are the UK Government doing to stop the bloodshed and the massacre that are about to happen hours from now in Gaza?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, there is no difference between what I have said today and the response I gave on the last occasion I was at the Dispatch Box, to which he refers. He sets out, in eloquent tones, the nature of the problem we face, but he must recognise that Britain, along with a large number of regional powers, the international community and the UN, is trying to stop the very position he sets out.

Seven months ago today, many of us began receiving the most alarming messages from friends and/or family in Israel. By the end of that day, every red line of international law had been breached by the monstrous Palestinian terrorists who raped countless women, murdered 1,200 people and took hundreds of innocent people hostage.

Within hours, people in this country, and some pro-Palestinian activists, were on the streets cheering what happened that day. Since then, we have seen the dehumanisation of Jews through the dehumanisation of Israel. “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” has been dusted off and every antisemitic trope has been trotted out. Some people in this House, whom we would have expected to be allies when it comes to gender-based violence, have had little or nothing to say about the horrors of that day.

Now, we hear calls for Israel to be denied the right to defend itself, while arms continue to flow to Hamas from Iran and North Korea. There is nothing kind or compassionate about that message. Will the Deputy Foreign Secretary confirm to me that any ceasefire, which we all want because we all want this tragedy to end, will include the complete removal of Hamas from governance in Gaza?

My hon. Friend is right in what he says. The rightful aim of defeating Hamas will not be achieved by allowing a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, as I am sure he would agree. He mentions gender-based violence; he will recognise that the Government have supplied funding particularly to try to tackle aspects of that, where we are able to make a contribution and have some impact. On what he says about the nature of some of what has been said in this House and outside, the Government make it very clear that we are absolutely opposed to antisemitism and Islamophobia in all their forms.

Last October, the Israeli Defence Minister disgracefully described the Palestinian people as “animals”, and that is exactly how Israel has treated them, forcibly displacing men, women, and children from the north to the south of Gaza and now forcibly displacing people again, slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians and creating famine conditions. Now there is the risk of a massacre. What we are witnessing this week is a clear escalation of Israel’s total disregard for civilian life and international law. We need an immediate ceasefire, but will the Minister finally agree to impose stringent sanctions on Israel, not simply on individual settlers, by ending support for its military capability in Gaza, suspending arms export licences and offering support for ICJ and ICC processes investigating Israel’s criminal actions? Where is our humanity?

Order. Emotions are running high. I want to get everybody in, but I am concerned that we will not achieve it at this rate. Please can we help each other?

The hon. Lady sets out in lurid terms the issues we face and the problems the entire international community is trying to address—

She shakes her head, but the fact is that the Government are doing everything they can, as we have set out—the Foreign Secretary has set it out, the Prime Minister has set it out and I have set it out from this Dispatch Box—to try to effect the change that she and I so desperately wish to see.

I welcome the Minister’s statement with regard to the United Kingdom supporting the people of Gaza with humanitarian aid. The Minister knows that I have written to the Foreign Secretary asking that the United Kingdom hosts an international donors conference for Palestine, as it did with the international Friends of Syria group, which was the largest convening of humanitarian donors at a conference held in the United Kingdom. I understand that the Foreign Secretary thought that it was a good idea, so where is the UK in leading the way in setting up an international donors conference for Palestine?

My hon. Friend is right to identify a political horizon that is constructive; when this ghastly fighting is over, we hope that people will lift their eyes to a political horizon. Britain is doing a lot of work to try to support that opportunity when it comes, and at that point there may well be a role for Britain in the international community to convene something of that sort.

The invasion of Rafah by the Israeli army comes alongside further discoveries of more than 390 bodies in mass graves at the al-Shifa and Nasser hospitals, with the UN confirming evidence of torture, summary executions and instances of people being buried alive and others buried with intravenous needles still in their arms. At the most recent Foreign Office questions, the Deputy Foreign Secretary said that it would be hard to see how an invasion of Rafah would not be in breach of international humanitarian law. Given what I have just outlined, do the UK Government finally consider the invasion of Rafah to be a breach of international humanitarian law—yes or no?

Alas, such questions are not susceptible to yes or no answers. We have made absolutely clear our view about an invasion of Rafah. The full reality of the specific incidents the hon. Gentleman mentions is not clear. We need to recognise, as the British Government have made clear, that full and transparent investigations of those matters is required.

Hamas have apparently said to mediators that they do not have 33 living hostages who fall into the categories of women, children, elderly and sick. That is an appalling body blow for the relatives of those held captive in Gaza for more than 200 days. Will the Deputy Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to acknowledge Israel’s right to take military action to get those people home?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on the awful plight of the hostages, as she has done repeatedly in this House. She is also right to make it clear that, under international law, Israel has the right to self-defence and to take proportionate action to recover hostages.

Like many others, I pray that pressure from this House and elsewhere can bring this conflict to an end, but we all know that that will require agreement on an Arab-led body to maintain peace, order and security. How close are we to that agreement?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to try to lift people’s eyes to the political horizon so that from this intolerable misery can come hope for the future. A great deal of work is going on to pinpoint and augment the sinews of such a political future. The Foreign Secretary has been in the region repeatedly—especially on the west bank and in Ramallah. We will continue to do everything we can to plan for that, alongside trying to resolve the desperate situation in Rafah, on which I have tried to set out to the House what Britain is doing.

The Deputy Foreign Secretary reminds us that we are now in the seventh month. Talks are not making progress, the hostages still have not been released and border crossings are closing; we are entering another dark chapter in this terrible conflict. The UN World Food Programme warns of a full-blown famine unless more aid can be delivered. This House is asking what we can do, so will the Deputy Foreign Secretary update us on the building of that new maritime port off Gaza? That is something that the international community can control, of which we can have full stakeholder ownership. Once it is operational, will British troops be involved in aid delivery?

In respect of my right hon. Friend’s final point, we will have to see what is required. Securing the temporary pier off the coast of Gaza is a way of getting additional aid in swiftly. He will know that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay is in the area, and is effectively the command post for this maritime effort. Britain is also thoroughly involved, just as it is from the air and from land, in detail in the maritime effort.

The UK Government have long warned Israel that an invasion of Rafah must not happen. Civilian lives must be protected and aid must enter Gaza. Prime Minister Netanyahu has shown once again that he is not listening to his allies or the ICJ, and that he is hellbent on turning the whole of Gaza into a graveyard. Will the UK Government urgently impose a full arms embargo on Israel, which is the only thing the UK can do to try to stop the starvation and potential genocide of those left in Rafah?

The early part of the hon. Gentleman’s question set out what we are all trying to address. On an arms embargo, he will know that the amount of arms that Britain supplies is negligible. Equally, we operate an arms sales regime that is strictly governed by the rules that I have previously set out to the House. We act in line with the legal advice we receive, and we will continue to do so.

Of course I am greatly concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza right now, but I am also greatly concerned that nothing happens that gives Hamas an increased foothold in Gaza and puts them in a position to inflict more evil and misery, like that we saw on 7 October. I am also concerned that some of the proposed ceasefire agreements seem to involve releasing hundreds of Hamas terrorists and do not involve all of the hostages being released. Will the Deputy Foreign Secretary give me a commitment that we will intensify plans for a Hamas-free Gaza, so that innocent people in Gaza can look forward with hope to a future of peace?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that Hamas can have no role in Gaza in the future. Much of the work we are doing in that respect is designed to help to build up the Palestinian Authority, so that it can be involved in governing both the west bank and Gaza, as soon as the time is right.

The Deputy Foreign Secretary’s answers today are virtually identical to those he gave, including to me, last Tuesday. The situation has escalated, but the Government’s response remains the same. There are 600,000 child hostages in Rafah alone. There is no proof of life from them, but millions of our people are watching on their phones today the proof of death and mutilation of many of them. The Government say they are doing everything they can, but they are not. You could now stop sending weapons to the people who are raining down this death and misery, and the Labour party could ask you to do that, but did not.

The hon. Gentleman says that the answers I gave to him and others last Tuesday are the same. Those answers reflect, in so far as the parameters of the situation are the same, the fact that we are pursuing long-term policies designed to tackle the evils that have been set out so clearly this afternoon in the House. He also makes a point about the number of children who are denied food and medicine in Rafah. He will know that through medical aid and the British contribution, not least through a field hospital, Britain has been careful to ensure that where we can bring medical help, particularly to children, we are doing so.

The 130-plus hostages have now been held for 214 days, in barbaric conditions, subject to rape and torture, and denied medical access from the International Red Cross. The sad reality is that Israel put a deal on the table that could have led to there being a ceasefire right now, in return for the release of some—not all—of the hostages and of Palestinian prisoners who have been convicted in courts of law. Secretary Blinken described that as an “extraordinarily generous” offer, yet Hamas refuse to accept it. Does my right hon. Friend take the view that Hamas have it in their power to accept the position of a ceasefire, so that the violence and war can come to an end naturally as a result?

The point that my hon. Friend makes, which has been echoed in different ways across the House, is that we must ensure we do everything we can to make certain that the negotiations that are taking place at the moment in Cairo make progress and are successful. That is what everyone should be hoping can be achieved tonight.

What I think the Deputy Foreign Secretary has been saying to us today is that we have not seen a credible plan for evacuation from Rafah, and that there is currently an incursion into Rafah. If I add those two things up, what he is saying, between the lines, is that Israel has currently breached the rule that the UK has set. I do not think he wants to say it here, but that is what I am hearing. If there is no credible plan to move those people and the attack is ongoing, when can we expect, if not today, an update from the Dispatch Box on the UK’s position towards Israel, arms sales and other things that have been mentioned?