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Westminster Hall

Volume 750: debated on Monday 13 May 2024

Westminster Hall

Monday 13 May 2024

[Martin Vickers in the Chair]

Palestinians: Visa Scheme

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 648577 relating to a visa scheme for Palestinians.

I thank all the individuals and organisations who supported the petition for their hard work in achieving the threshold, particularly Gaza Families Reunited, which I had the privilege of meeting in the run-up to this debate. For many of those involved in supporting the petition this is an issue that impacts on their loved ones.

Gaza Families Reunited is made up of 350 Palestinians living in the UK with family in Gaza. They are calling on the UK Government to establish a Gaza family scheme to enable Palestinians in the UK to bring their loved ones to safety from Gaza until it is safe to return. They note that the Government have previously introduced successful bespoke pathways for those fleeing persecution in Ukraine and Hong Kong, and argue that the same can and must be done for Palestinians from Gaza. They point to the Ukraine family scheme as something on which the Gaza family scheme could be modelled.

Since 7 October, which saw 1,143 people murdered by Hamas and around 3,500 injured, with 252 hostages taken, of whom 128 remain unaccounted for, we have all seen the devastating humanitarian consequences for all who are caught up in the conflict. It is impossible to understand the pain felt by those waiting to hear the fate of their loved ones taken hostage, or the grief of families mourning 34,000 killed in Gaza. We hear terrible statistics so frequently that they begin to lose their meaning. However, each of those numbers are people; they are people who have or had loved ones, hopes and dreams, and whose lives have been irrevocably altered by the conflict.

I thank Noah Katz, who chairs Lancaster and Lakes Jewish Community in my constituency, for giving time and sharing how we can advocate for peace rather than stoking division, as well as our common views on the need to see hostages released and a ceasefire. Although the Jewish community in Lancaster is small, it has strong links with friends and family in Israel. In the seven months since 7 October, they have provided support for local Jewish families. The local Jewish community has adopted the Bibas family, as part of the “Seder Seat For a Hostage” campaign by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. I thank Noah for the way they support Jewish families in Lancaster, including my own.

Would my hon. Friend agree that between the synagogues, mosques and churches in our constituencies we see an incredible extension of the concept of community and heart coming from our different faith communities, school groups and others? They promote togetherness and try to approach different problems from a community point of view.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. When we look at the philosophy of faith groups and, indeed, the philosophy behind every major world religion, it is one of peace and love.

To date, 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, of whom a significant majority are civilians. Over 77,000 Gazans have been injured, and over 75% of the population of Gaza—1.6 million people—have been displaced, often more than once.

I thank my hon. Friend for the excellent speech she is making. The Foreign Secretary has called the scale and suffering in Gaza “unimaginable”, yet the Conservative Government are content with sitting on their hands, watching the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left in Rafah suffer and wait to be killed without offering refuge. Does my hon. Friend agree that our constituents expect compassion from their Government, and that a vital part of that compassion is to have a family visa scheme for those trapped in Gaza with family members in the UK?

I hope that this debate will provide the opportunity to express the compassion that I believe Members of this House feel on the matter. I know the Minister is listening.

In my conversations with Gaza Families Reunited, I heard about one family in particular that had been displaced five times—each time a terrifying experience. Aid is still not reaching Gaza in sufficient quantities, and the humanitarian crisis is worsening daily. The UN World Food Programme says that due to food shortages, Gaza is entering “full-blown famine”. That will only be made worse by the beginning of the invasion in Rafah—the same place Israel encouraged Gazans to move to in order to be in relative safety. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans are yet again being displaced and are being forced to leave the only routes out of Gaza.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this incredibly important debate. There are reports that almost half of the agricultural land in Gaza has been destroyed, and this morning it was said that the health system across Gaza could collapse in a few hours. Does she agree that this only adds to the urgency of this Government doing all they can to provide safety for those fleeing this horrific conflict?

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing the debate and making a powerful speech. Like many people in this room, I was proud to be able to intervene in support of Ukrainian refugees, who were accommodated by friends and family in this country. We have a large Afghan community, and many people were disappointed at not getting similar treatment. Once again, many people who have family and friends in the Palestinian community feel that there should be parity of treatment for people based on need, rather than on where the conflict originated.

All I can do is agree with my hon. Friend. My experience was that our constituents were only too willing to be hospitable when it came to us taking Ukrainian refugees—indeed, there is that great culture. I believe we have compassion in caring for our neighbour when they are in trouble.

I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), and then the hon. Members for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas).

I am grateful to my hon. Friend; she is being generous. On family visa schemes, when I wrote to the Minister asking if there was a possibility of family visas, he wrote back saying that “our approach must be considered in the round rather than on a crisis-by-crisis basis.” Does she think that this is a fairly novel approach? When there were crises in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong, schemes, whatever their merits, were set up to deal with those individual crises. Why cannot that be applied now?

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has been looking ahead because I will come on to this, but I agree that we cannot take a crisis-by-crisis approach. There is a huge problem for many people fleeing conflict all over the world, and the lack of safe routes is something that came up in conversations I had in meetings before the debate with organisations such as the Refugee Council. I am conscious that I have taken a lot of interventions from my party, and I saw two colleagues from other parties who wanted to intervene. I will give way to my colleagues from the SNP and from the Green party.

I am grateful to the Chair of the Petitions Committee for opening the debate and framing it the way she has. She is right to touch on the situation not just in Rafah, but in Gaza. Given that the Foreign Secretary is on the record well in the past of referring to Gaza as an “open-air prison”, and with things only projected to get worse in Rafah, is it not the case that many of us can only conclude that, from the view of the UK Government, a Palestinian life is worth less than one of someone of another nationality?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the situation. Indeed, I suspect that quite a lot of what the Foreign Secretary has said in the past would serve well to influence current Government policy.

The hon. Member is being generous; I thank her for giving way and congratulate her on her introduction so far. Would she agree that the current system is simply not working, because the requirement to enrol biometrics at a visa application centre is simply impossible to meet? The one in Gaza is closed, and people cannot get to Ramallah or Jerusalem. In effect, people are caught in this sickening Orwellian Catch-22 where they cannot enrol their biometrics because they cannot leave Gaza, and they cannot leave Gaza because they cannot enrol their biometrics. This is a sickening situation to leave people in. Does she agree that this is yet more evidence of the need for a bespoke family reunion scheme, as was done for Ukraine and Hong Kong?

I very much agree, and in a few moments time, if I can make some progress with my speech, the hon. Lady will find that that is exactly the point I will make. I give way one final time before I make progress.

On that point, the Home Office says that it can offer deferral of biometrics in some family reunion cases, but sadly for many families who are waiting for those decisions, it becomes too late because they die in Gaza just waiting for the decision. I hope the Minister will tell us what he is doing to rapidly speed up the process and remove unnecessary barriers so that family members can get to safety.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; once again, I find myself in agreement. I will make a little bit more progress with my speech, Mr Vickers, and not try your patience too much.

The Government’s position, outlined in their response to the petition in December, is that the UK recognises that there are people impacted by the war who may wish to join family in the UK. However, the Government are not making plans to create a bespoke pathway for Palestinians, but continue to prioritise immediate family reunification for British citizens and for people with a pre-existing right to live in the UK for over six months. The Government state that Palestinians can come to the UK through existing immigration routes, but the petitioners wished me to draw particular attention to the lack of safe routes out of Gaza for Palestinians, and indeed for anyone in a conflict zone.

For their application even to be considered by the Home Office, people must attend visa application centres to give their biometric data, but there is no VAC in Gaza—it has closed—and they cannot get through to Jerusalem or Ramallah. Until recently, of course, people could pay thousands of US dollars to get out via a private company, over the Rafah border to Egypt, but that is now impossible due to the situation at the Rafah border. That is another option that has been closed off; Gazans are now effectively trapped with no way of giving their biometrics. There is an option to apply for a deferred biometric enrolment, but I understand that since the start of the conflict in October every single request for deferral in Palestine has been refused by the Home Office.

People living in the UK who have families in Gaza that they have not managed to get out can do nothing but watch their families suffer daily. One petitioner, Ghassan, whom I met last week, said that his family had been displaced and evacuated within Gaza many times before he managed to get them across the border to Egypt. He said that

“there is no safe place in Gaza.”

That is the tragic reality on the ground today.

The hon. Member is being very generous with her time. While she is mentioning the people affected, could I just raise the case of my constituent, Emily Fares, who has multiple family members in the region? They were in Rafah, but half of them have now disappeared because they were afraid in anticipation of the likely Israeli military campaign there. She tells me that these are people who have degrees and skills, who could offer so much here if only the door was not so resolutely closed against them. It begs the question: how is the humanitarian question being answered here in the UK, and why are we refusing the skills of these people?

I hope that the Minister has heard the right hon. Lady’s intervention, and that he might respond to some of her points in his remarks.

For those who are able to get out of Gaza and into Egypt, their future is uncertain. Palestinians have no status in Egypt, so students, teachers, small business owners and so on are left in limbo, out of immediate danger but unable to start rebuilding their lives. It seems clear to me that events in recent years in Ukraine, Gaza, Afghanistan and beyond mean that, as a country, we need to look again at how we support and protect those fleeing conflict. At present, there appears to be a grim lottery when it comes to the question of who we are prepared to do everything we can to help.

The immediate priority, however, must be Gaza, given the devastation of the conflict and the lack of support for Palestinians in surrounding countries. As with those from Hong Kong and Ukraine, we can see a very clear need for a visa scheme for Palestinians. The petitioners are asking a very basic question: why should people living in the UK not be able to apply to sponsor their family members in order to keep them safe while the conflict is ongoing? If we were able to implement a visa scheme for the people of Ukraine, why can we not implement a similar one for the people living in Gaza?

I am going to make a bit of progress.

Of course, there must be a right of return attached to any scheme. Sadly, the history of the region has all too often been one of dispossession and loss, and it is essential that any Palestinian leaving Gaza can return to rebuild their lives there as soon as they feel able to do so. There is a very real feeling among Palestinians I have spoken to, and those who have watched in horror the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, that Palestinian lives somehow do not matter as much as those caught up in other conflicts. I hope the Minister today will disabuse them of that notion—certainly as far as the Government are concerned—by responding positively to the petition.

I can see that Westminster Hall is very full and I know that many colleagues are hoping to speak today, so I will draw my remarks to a close to allow as many as possible to participate as fully as possible.

I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called during the debate. I will set no formal time limit, but as Members can see, the debate is very heavily subscribed, so would they restrict their comments to about six or seven minutes? The mover of the motion has been very generous in taking interventions, but it would help if we can limit them from now on.

I call Apsana Begum.

Thank you for calling me, Mr Vickers.

“The plight of Palestine refugees remains the longest unresolved refugee crisis in the world,”

according to the United Nations. This was the situation even before the current war on the civilians of Gaza. Through the signatories of the petition today, including a large number of my constituents, the strong feeling in our communities is evident and clear. In Gaza, we are witnessing collective punishment, destruction and displacement of human lives on a horrific and unprecedented scale. Ongoing indiscriminate bombing has turned a chronic humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe. For those who survive, there is an imminent risk of death by disease and starvation. Millions are displaced, but where are they to go? As I speak, there is simply no safe space left for those fleeing from Rafah. It would be helpful if the Minister could update us on where he thinks people are to flee to.

Previously, many of us called for safe routes when Russia invaded Ukraine, and some visa schemes were set up for Ukrainians. How can it be that there are no safe routes for Palestinians to reach sanctuary in the UK, even if they have family here?

The hon. Lady is making a very powerful point. I have been touched by the fact that many of my constituents have written to me to ask that very question: how can it be that we have a scheme for the Ukrainians but not for Palestinians? That concerns them, and they need to hear from the Government why it is the case.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I hope that the Minister addresses that point in his response.

How can it be that there are no safe routes for Palestinians to reach sanctuary in the UK, even if they have family here? In fact, humanitarian visa routes are rarely available to Palestinians in any form, despite one in six of the world’s refugees being Palestinian. I have asked repeatedly in this House why Palestinians are all too often treated differently. The dehumanisation and devaluation of Palestinian life has been stark and, to be totally frank, utterly appalling. History teaches us that a people are dehumanised so that they can be killed, displaced and starved with impunity, and indeed, so that they can be denied assistance and asylum when they are clearly in need. I know that many of my constituents have been utterly shocked at the racism, Islamophobia and double standards. Something has been fundamentally broken or revealed, however we look at it.

My constituents feel very similarly to my hon. Friend. We have rehoused a number of people from Gaza who came as family members of British Gazans when the war broke out, and I have seen the open-hearted nature of the help for those families. There has been concern about there not being resource for what is actually a relatively small group of people who this visa scheme would apply to, but in fact, all the Gazans we have resettled into Birmingham, Yardley were actually doctors, and are bringing huge amounts of resource. Our communities, even in the face of the racism my hon. Friend talks about, are ready with open arms to help.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we are a place of sanctuary, and we welcome refugees.

The political establishment has been totally out of touch with the majority of British people on this. That will not be easily forgotten. As young people across east London ask me, how is it that the Government condemn certain countries for their human rights records and crimes, but not others? Why does the right to self-determination seem to be spoken about for some, but not others? Why are some national flags celebrated but others denigrated, or even effectively banned? Why are some deaths mourned and others explained away? Why is it that, for the Government, too many Palestinians have been killed or are starving, but there is no condemnation of those who killed them or are starving them?

Like many across the UK and around the world, I have always been opposed to the bombing and displacement of civilians, but this Government have supported it in Gaza. What did they think would happen when they supported the openly declared intent to reduce the entire Gaza strip to rubble? Whenever this Government have been asked about the long-term plan for millions of civilians in Gaza, they have been unable to answer. Instead, it was this Government who withdrew funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency shortly after the International Court of Justice’s interim ruling. It is this Government who help to ensure that Israel has the weapons to kill women and children. Indeed, it would be helpful if the Minister could update us today on the latest assessment of whether weapons from the UK have been used to kill children. Whenever asked about how UK-traded weapons are used, the Government provide pro-forma, general lines about ongoing reviews and the licensing criteria. If those reviews are actually happening, why can we not know what they reveal? Especially now, when those living the reality of this horror are reaching out for support to survive, it is this Government who turn their back on humanity.

For some time now, parliamentary political discourse has used migration—even the absolute horror of people dying in the English channel—cynically and as a political tool. It is the age-old phenomena of scaremongering and scapegoating. As the Government erode our civil liberties and democratic rights, as they disenfranchise and disempower, and as they attack the very fabric of our communities through austerity, they foster fear and division and they falsely point to migrants as the cause of our alienation. In truth, it is overwhelmingly clear that the global drivers of refugee movements are intrinsically connected to the legacies of colonialism and empire, which live on to this day. There is no doubt the British Government have a responsibility to step up for the people of Gaza fleeing collective punishment, and yet, shamefully, there is no doubt that they are still choosing complicity rather than compassion.

I thank the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for leading the debate. It is incredibly important, for a number of reasons, to consider that Palestinian individuals affected by the war should be allowed into the UK, just as we have done for Ukraine. Currently, there is no bespoke visa scheme for Palestinians to allow them to come to the UK in much the way that there has been for Ukrainians.

I will keep my remarks fairly short, and I will touch first on the international community aspect. As we saw on Friday past, 143 countries at the United Nations General Assembly voted to recognise Palestine as a state. I think that Palestine has to be recognised as a state as soon as possible. I believe strongly in the two-state solution, and only then can Palestine have the recognition and the building blocks to join the international community as a fully paid-up member. Also, aside from that aspect, I want to go back to a point mentioned by the two previous speakers in the debate, the hon. Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood and for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum). They mentioned that perhaps favouritism was shown to some communities and not others, and I very much hope that that is not the case.

I can only speak on behalf of my constituents in Bolton North East, and today in the audience I count almost a third to perhaps a half of our audience members as having a link to Bolton in some shape or form. This issue is incredibly important for my constituents. The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and I saw that on Saturday when we attended a rally at Bolton Town Hall in support of the cause of the Palestinian people, and the Gazan people in particular. My constituents care very much about this issue, and they believe that Palestinian lives are as important as anyone else’s.

Bolton is a place of fantastic diversity, and we have incredibly good form in welcoming people from all across the world. I am very proud to have a Muslim community in Bolton that numbers almost 20%, mostly from Gujarati Indian backgrounds, but also Pakistani, British and others. It seems like I and the hon. Member for Bolton South East, whose constituency is beside mine, are working as a team: we attended the opening of a new medical centre in Bolton founded by an Afghan-British national. That shows the impact that people from across the world can have on modern-day British society. We should see people not as a burden but as an opportunity.

I have to say that Orkney and Shetland does not boast the same ethnic diversity as Bolton, but I have been overwhelmed by the number of emails that I have received on this issue. The lesson to take from that is that British people as a whole, whatever their ethnic background or heritage, see people in harm’s way and want to help them. That is why there is the scale of support for a visa scheme of this sort.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. If a scheme to welcome Palestinians came out at some point in the future, there might be a challenge between us to house a Palestinian; I would be happy to do that if such a programme existed.

With my Parliamentary Private Secretary hat on, I stand with the Government on all policy issues, of course, but I have a question for the Minister that my constituents are asking. Are Home Office civil servants considering alternatives—one identical to the one for Ukraine or others—that could help the people of Gaza? At the end of the day, the Gaza strip has roughly 1.8 million to 2 million people: about the same population as my home region of Northern Ireland. People have fled to Rafah, which pretty much maps on to the same area as Heathrow airport; it has been referred to as a city of children. Action needs to be taken. We can do more, as a country and a people, for the people of Gaza and Palestine in this time of need.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that he supports the policies of the Government. Will he then ask the Government to ensure that this scheme is carried out straight away and that the centres provide local support for people who want to enter the UK? As has been said, people have not been able to register at biometric offices, so there should be additional staff at the Egypt border to facilitate those people. Above all, does he agree that there should be an urgent ceasefire so that the scheme can take place properly and be adhered to?

I thank the hon. Gentleman so much, and I agree with much of what he said. Those in Gaza trying to get to the United Kingdom or other countries via Egypt face considerable cost. I hope that we are looking into that as a Government to find a way to alleviate the pressure on those applying. My constituency office works closely with another MP in Greater Manchester. A toddler had been very unwell but was unable to come to the UK when the war broke out. We have only recently found out that they have been repatriated to the UK.

I agree wholly. For months on end now, we have been calling on behalf of my constituents for an immediate ceasefire. Obviously, the scheme that we are debating today is a short-term fix. The people of Palestine—ultimately, the Gazans—want to be in their home, which is Gaza; they do not necessarily want to be in the UK for the long term. This is a short-term fix, but we need to look at the long term: peace in the middle east—Gaza in particular—and a two-state solution.

I promise, Mr Vickers, that I will not do too much more of this, but I believe I was also involved in the case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. Any family reunification usually involves grandparents, children, husbands or wives, but there are tens of thousands of orphans in Gaza who have no immediate family and may very well be ill, but they may have aunties, uncles or cousins here in the UK. Any scheme that we design should ensure that it understands that most people’s—certainly children’s—immediate families in Gaza are all dead.

It is very sad that we have to be here today looking at what has happened over the last seven months. We were looking at figures in a meeting just held in Portcullis House for those killed—36,000 people—and a total of 100,000, including those who have been injured, since the outbreak of this. The trauma that that will cause today, tomorrow and well into the future is something that people will find incredibly difficult. Looking at our own case in Northern Ireland, 3,500 people died in the troubles over the space of 30 to 40 years, but this is compacted times 10 into the space of seven months. It is deeply saddening. I will end by reiterating that there is so much we can do as a country and as the international community, as we saw on Friday past with 143 people getting behind Palestine and calling for a two-state solution —not just as a slogan, but to be an action point.

Five hundred and sixty-seven of my constituents in Blackburn have signed the petition that led to this debate, and I am grateful for their continued efforts and support to raise awareness of this devastating situation. Over 34,000 Palestinians have now been killed since 7 October. Sadly, that includes 14,500 children. Over 78,000 people are injured and more than 8,000 are missing, presumably dead under the rubble. A catastrophic humanitarian crisis continues to unfold.

There are people at risk of serious harm, including from indiscriminate violence in armed conflict. Can they claim asylum in the UK? No, because they must be physically present to do so. The Government highlight the availability of safe and legal routes to get here, namely refugee resettlement programmes, refugee family reunion visas and nationality-specific humanitarian visa schemes. However, there seems to be a reluctance to recognise that these are very rarely available to Palestinians as they are currently ineligible for refugee resettlement in the UK, and a refugee family reunion visa depends on their having a sponsor already granted asylum.

This is a very emotional subject for me, because every day on the television I see people starving. They have no water, food or medicine, and it seems that no one actually cares. Mainstream visa options are often insufficient. Palestinians with immediate family in the UK can apply for a standard family visa, but that requires family ties to the UK, which many do not have. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) raised the issue of children who have lost their families and have nobody to look after them, sponsor them or get them here.

Sponsored work or study visas are not designed for humanitarian purposes, and the associated costs and practical requirements are often prohibitive. Visitor visas are often refused by the Home Office, which is less likely to accept visitors who may claim asylum in the UK, despite the devastation that is happening in Palestine. In 2023, the Home Office refused around one in three visitor visa applications from Palestinians. With the visa application centre in Gaza also closed, people face great practical difficulty in even lodging a visa application.

Existing visa options are simply insufficient in this case, and the Government know that. We know that they know this, because they widened the scope of the visa regime for Ukrainian citizens and their family members following criticism at the time that the system was not working. It was not working and they fixed it. Members will recall that British citizens and permanent residents were enabled to sponsor a much wider range of family members for a visa than is generally permitted, and those sponsored could bring their immediate family. The requirements to attend a visa application centre were also waived, and it would be good if that happened in Palestine.

I am aware of the Government’s response to the e-petition in December 2023, in which they said there were “no plans” to introduce a special visa scheme for Palestinians, and I ask the Minister why. I wrote to the Home Office in November seeking advice on the Government’s plans to support refugees from Gaza, and specifically asking whether his Department intends to implement a scheme similar to the recent Homes for Ukraine.

Calls for such a scheme have been growing for months. As I said, every day children are dying while we sit back and watch, and we need to act urgently. Lancashire Council of Mosques, which is based in my constituency, wrote to its members at the end of last year seeking views on its proposal to welcome orphaned Gazan children to Lancashire. Everybody knows that Lancashire is a very welcoming place, with caring and loving families who are willing to open their homes and hearts to these children. I was heartened by the generosity of that offer, which is testament to the compassion and humanity of the Blackburn community. In January, however, I received a disappointing response to my letter from the Government to the same effect.

There is no safe area in Gaza. A Rafah offensive must not go ahead, and the UK Government must do everything in their power to make sure that it does not happen. That includes immediately halting the sale of all weapons to Israel and helping with delivery of aid. Only today, on social media, I saw settlers totally destroying a delivery of aid, laughing and cheering as they did it. It is sad—it is sad that as human beings, we can stand back, watch that and not do enough to put a stop to it. We need to work towards securing an immediate and permanent ceasefire. I ask the Minister: where do the Government expect thousands of displaced Palestinians to go? Does he actually care?

Building on the precedent set by the Homes for Ukraine programme and other nationality-specific schemes that have been established previously, the UK Government now have an opportunity to extend compassion and solidarity towards the people of Palestine, and I urge them to do so urgently.

Thank you, Mr Vickers—I was not expecting to be called so early on. I thank Gaza Families Reunited and all those who signed the petition, particularly my Edinburgh South West constituents.

I want to preface my comments by saying that I am a supporter of the Balfour Project, which seeks to do three things: first, to acknowledge Britain’s historic role in shaping 20th and 21st-century Palestine and Israel, particularly in the light of the Balfour declaration and the policies of the British mandate; secondly, to support Palestinians and Israelis in building a peaceful future based on equal rights, justice and security for all; and thirdly, to work for the British Government’s recognition of the state of Palestine.

While the British Government recognised the state of Israel in 1950, Palestinians remain stateless, exiled, refugees or second-class citizens in their own land. I saw the degree to which Palestinians are second-class citizens with my own eyes when I visited in 2016 with Caabu and the charity Human Appeal, and I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in that regard. The United Kingdom therefore bears a historic responsibility for what has happened to Palestinians since the Nakba, which should be at the forefront of the Government’s and Ministers’ minds when considering this request for a visa scheme for Palestinians. This visa scheme is urgent because of the terrible situation in which Palestinians in Gaza find themselves. The United Kingdom has a historic as well as a contemporary moral responsibility to help out.

Many of my constituents in Edinburgh South West are acutely aware of that and have contacted me asking me to support this petition, a ceasefire and the immediate cessation of any arms being sent from the United Kingdom that are being used against innocent men, women and children in Gaza. Some of my constituents have a particular interest as they are exiled Palestinians or have family in jeopardy as a result of the situation in Gaza.

I, too, have been contacted by numerous constituents urging the Government to set up this visa scheme, including Lama, who has three elderly aunts sheltering in a church in Gaza, and Anwar, who has already lost numerous family members. His parting words to me when I met him were, “Are our lives so cheap?” I say to Members and the Minister that if we all agree that their lives are not so cheap, why on earth do the Government not set up a scheme on a par with the Ukrainian scheme? Importantly, there must be a right of return for those who seek refuge here or elsewhere, given the displacement trauma that so many generations of Palestinians have suffered.

I agree with the hon. Lady and particularly her last point about the right of return, but the right of return must not be cynically used by the Government to justify not having a scheme. My constituents come to see me, as they do regularly at my surgery, to talk about the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, particularly constituents with a connection. I am ashamed that the British Government have not done more to help. They have done so very little to help, and they are not honouring their historic and moral obligations.

I will talk about one constituent in particular; her name is Dr Eman El-Bahnassawy. She is a specialist dentist who managed to evacuate her 79-year-old mother from Gaza to Cairo at huge expense, as hon. Members will know. This old lady witnessed the Nakba as a child, and she has endured all the recent wars on Gaza. She is in very poor health and has already been displaced nine times during the current war. Her home has been destroyed by the bombing, so she has nowhere to go back to. Her daughter and her daughter’s family—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) has a relative of my constituent in his constituency—are in a position to support their mother, but they face huge logistical difficulties in getting here. They look at the scheme afforded to Ukrainian refugees and cannot understand why, in all conscience, the British Government cannot replicate that scheme for people like them. I have tried to raise this issue with a number of Ministers on the Floor of the House, and at best I get waffle, but there is really no substantive response. The Government are dodging their responsibilities.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), who opened the debate so ably, explained the Catch-22 situation in which many Gazans find themselves, unable to get out of Gaza. During the passage of the Illegal Migration Act 2023, we were promised an announcement on safe and legal routes to the United Kingdom, but I raised that in the House again last week and was given a vague, equivocal answer. I want more detail and, in particular, I want to know what urgent action will be taken in relation to this situation.

As others have said, the UK Government have introduced bespoke pathways for those fleeing persecution in Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. Where Afghanistan and Hong Kong were concerned, we had particular historic and moral responsibilities. The proposed Gaza family scheme is modelled after the Ukraine family scheme and would enable applicants to apply to temporarily join their families here. That is all we are asking, and it is not much. These people will want to go back to their homeland.

In the absence of a specific family route for people to leave Gaza and join family members in the UK, they can seek to rely only on existing routes such as the family visa or the skilled worker dependant visa, which are extremely limited. In and of themselves, those pathways involve prolonged waits and hefty fees.

I agree with what the hon. and learned Lady is saying. Does she acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) in opening this debate—that people taking one of the routes she has just suggested would need to apply for biometric deferral, and every single application since 7 October has been refused? Is she baffled by that, as I am, and will she ask the Minister to explain why?

Cynically, I am not particularly baffled by it, because I know that this Government have a strange attitude towards their international legal obligations in relation to refugees. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, has commented on that. The weight of the evidence we took from a number of different sources was that this Government do not really properly respect their obligations under the international treaties that they are signed up to—so, cynically, I am not baffled but I would like to know the Minister’s reason for that.

Whatever the reason, the reality is that, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood said, these people are in a Catch-22 situation. Of course, the Rafah crossing is now closed and the situation is rapidly deteriorating, which makes this request all the more urgent, but even those who, like my constituent’s mother, manage to get to Egypt are trapped in limbo once they are there; they cannot join their loved ones in the UK, for reasons I have already outlined, and they also lack access to state support to rebuild their lives, meaning that many of those who have fled the war are now living in uncertainty and destitution in Egypt.

In addition to the questions I have already posed to the Minister today, I want to ask him: when will the British Government facilitate the safe evacuation of people applying under existing routes, both now and in the longer term? If they will not do so, why not? Why will they not set up a bespoke route for Palestinians in Gaza to reunite with their immediate and extended family in the UK, including a waiver or deferral of the biometric requirements, until it is safe to return? What is the justification for not setting up the short-term scheme that we envisage? Does the Minister acknowledge the United Kingdom’s historic debt to the Palestinian people, and what, in their most dire hour of need, is he going to do about it?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for leading the debate. She has championed the cause of Palestinian people since we served in Young Labour maybe 20 years ago, and I am really pleased to see that she is still championing this cause in the Chamber—maybe I have given away how old we are.

Before I speak about a specific case that I want to draw to the Minister’s attention, I pay tribute to the bravery of those who have been living in Gaza throughout the conflict. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) said, everyone has seen the appalling scenes on TV, but whereas we go about our everyday lives, that is the reality for the people who are living there. I hope that, when making policy and speaking in the House, we remember the trauma and conflict that they are going through every day.

Let me turn to a constituent of mine, whose brother’s family have been forced to leave their home in southern Gaza after it was destroyed by aerial bombardment due to the fighting in the area. He moved with his wife and his four children—the youngest is primary school age—because he could not live there any more and it was too dangerous. They arrived in Khan Yunis and were forced to flee once again, with the four small children, to the border in the city of Rafah due to the extension of the aerial bombardment to that area. The family are now living without access to water, food or basic hygiene facilities, and my constituent is receiving regular updates from his brother, who describes bombs landing less than 1 km away from where he is sheltering with his wife and young children. We know that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is catastrophic. My constituent is desperately worried about the safety of his brother and the young family, and he has been doing all he can to try to enable them to move to this country and be with their immediate family members.

I wrote to the Home Office about the situation, and am grateful for the speedy response I received, but the reply made how desperate the situation is even clearer. The Government’s answer was to inform my constituent that the visa application centre in Gaza is closed, and to pass on the opening hours of the centres in Ramallah and Jerusalem. This seems to have been done without any understanding of the complete impossibility of getting out of Gaza, and it is clear that families like the one I am talking about cannot access these centres, meaning that the Government’s advice is completely unrealistic. Although I appreciate the detail of the Government’s answer, it is sadly nothing close to a solution for this family. Does the Minister have any practical advice that desperately worried family members in the UK can pass on to immediate family members who are going through this trauma?

That desperation has led other constituents in similar situations to ask me for advice on paying up to $5,000 per person to a private company in Egypt to get family out of Gaza. The companies have put their prices up fourteenfold since outbreak of the conflict. That is complete exploitation. It is not clear what someone in that position should do. They are ultimately being forced to consider extremely risky and extortionate routes, because there are simply no other options available. There is no way of knowing the legitimacy of such routes, or of guaranteeing that they will get them to safety. Even then, they are an option only for people who can get hold of that extortionate amount of money.

Does the Minister have any information about using such private companies as a route out of Gaza, and can he share the official Foreign Office advice regarding the companies? Can he set out exactly what my constituents—British citizens living in Hampstead and Kilburn who have immediate family in Rafah—should say to their terrified and vulnerable relatives, as well as any Government assessment of what support these immediate family members of British citizens should be entitled to? I am sure that people in the Chamber, which is packed, know that my constituent’s family are not alone.

My hon. Friend is right to make the point that her constituent is not alone. Many of us have taken up cases on behalf of Palestinians trapped in Gaza, and have met the inflexibility from the Government that she describes. Does she agree that that inflexibility is completely out of line with the feeling of the British people, who, looking at the appalling situation in Gaza, would want the Government to respond to the petition by saying, “Yes, we do now need to create routes for Palestinians to come to this country” along the lines that she describes?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. My mother came to this country as a political asylum seeker in the 1970s, because this country—our country, of which we are proud—has always been seen as a safe haven for people who are escaping conflict or places that are too dangerous to live in. We now need to show the same compassion to people who are fleeing unimaginable situations and trauma. I hope that the Government will listen—I know that the Minister will—when we say that the advice that we have been given is not realistic on the ground. We need practical advice that we can give to our constituents, who are constantly writing to us, petrified about their immediate family members.

Nearly 75% of Gaza’s total population has been displaced by this terrible conflict, and over 33,000 people have been killed. Everyone in this Chamber will agree that the fighting needs to stop. There must be a ceasefire, the immediate release of hostages and a serious political process towards a two-state solution. International law must be upheld, and it is has been deeply shocking to see reports that indicate that it may have been breached. The Government must ensure that Israel is complying with international law, as well as with the provisional measures set out by the International Court of Justice in January. Ministers have a duty to ensure that the UK Government themselves are fully compliant with international law when it comes to the clear licensing criteria that apply to arm sales to Israel, given the developments in this conflict.

Finally—I know that lots of people want to speak—we know that almost no aid is entering northern Gaza, and it is vital that aid is allowed in as quickly as possible. The bleak picture in Gaza is the situation of my constituent’s family right now, and I am desperate to help them. We need the UK Government to take the strongest possible position to ensure that we get an immediate ceasefire. We also need the Minister—I know that he will listen to this debate—to look seriously at the desperate situation that people are in; they have no one to turn to. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s advice on what I should say to my constituent, who is desperately worried about his immediate family, who are living in a war zone when they could be joining their brother and his family in Hampstead and Kilburn.

I do not need to reiterate how dire conditions are for Gazans; other Members have already set that out ably and movingly. There is nowhere for Gazans to go, there is very little medical assistance and there is almost nothing to eat—and ahead of its latest brutalising assault, Israel has designated the desert strip of al-Mawasi as a “humanitarian zone”, although it degrades that word in the same way that it degrades the hundreds of thousands of people who are trying to exist there.

At other times here and in the main Chamber, we have debated the other things that need to happen now—an immediate ceasefire; the release of all hostages; the restoration of aid; the suspension of the sale of arms; hopefully, in time, the recognition of the state of Palestine, which I am pleased to say Ireland is due to do in the coming days; and meaningful progress towards a two-state solution, which is the only way that the people of the region are going to escape these cycles of hell—but this debate is about the small things that we can do to support the small number of Gazan residents seeking to leave, and with direct and established relatives here.

As all Members know and some have set out, the current arrangements are not working and people are literally dying for want of a solution. Members have set out that, of course, Gazans cannot access biometrics. I wrote on behalf of a constituent of mine and was cheerfully pointed to the other centres working throughout the region. We wrote to the British embassy in Jerusalem, which did not reply, and to other centres, and my constituent Ahmed has been advised by immigration lawyers that his application will cost thousands of pounds per person. Of course, there is also an extremely high rejection rate, and that excludes the approximately $5,000 payable to a private company, Hala, which manages the border crossing from Gaza into Egypt.

I will not share the last name of my constituent, Ahmed—he is going through the unimaginable at the moment; we do not need to add the invasion of his privacy to that—but I will say that he has lived in Belfast for many years, working in industry and in academia, and contributing to the economic and civic life of our city and the future of our region. Ahmed told me how the last few months have been for his family: his father lost his hearing in a bombing and his mother sustained an arm injury, which continues to be infected. They were, of course, displaced from their home. They also lost their business—a pharmacy—and Ahmed has just told me about the impossibility of maintaining anything approaching a dignified life.

We can barely comprehend the toll on individual families. Ahmed spoke to me about the loss of his uncle, a blind man, and about his cousin’s niece and nephew, aged five and seven; as so many of us have heard, the old and the young are bearing the brunt. Ahmed has also been telling me about his family’s daily struggle to meet their most basic needs, notably for food, water and sanitation, and even if—please God—this war, or this phase of this war, ends soon, we know that the infrastructure in that part of the world has been devastated.

Not everybody in Gaza is seeking to leave—of course they are not; they just want to live peacefully in their home place. Small numbers will leave and go elsewhere in the region, but some in Gaza have their closest relatives here, with the means to give them comfort and some sort of a future. Who of us in this room would not do exactly that for our parents or other close relatives if they were living in such circumstances?

The current impossible barriers—biometrics, visa fees, high rejection rates, and border crossing fees—effectively mean that we have no scheme. That is not just, it is not proportionate and it is not moral. I say to the Minister that there is a lot we could do that we are not doing and there is a lot that we are still able to do. The creation of a visa scheme is something practical that we can do, but I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reasons why we should not proceed.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I thank my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), for bringing this debate to the House today.

I will not repeat just how severe the situation in Gaza is; we have already heard powerful speeches about that from many Members from across the country, including from my near-neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum). I will just say this: Israel, the only democracy in the middle east, has really now destroyed its moral integrity. Many of us who talk to people in both Palestine and Israel know that if there is not a just solution, recognition for what has gone on and consequences for those who have advocated —in the most extreme terms, in the case of the Israeli Government—for the utter and complete destruction of Gaza, and the human cost of that, with tens of thousands of children slaughtered, then it is the beginning of the end of the international rules-based order.

I could not agree more with what my hon. Friend is saying. The forcible displacement of civilian populations is always immoral, and it is unlawful, but it is what Israel has been doing to the Palestinian people. Does he agree that we need to hear in the Minister’s response, in addition to an agreement to the proposed scheme, a clear confirmation from the Government that the forced displacement of millions of Palestinians by Israel cannot be allowed to be permanent?

Absolutely. All of us in this House must recognise that our country, more than any other, has a historic duty because of the role that we played in the creation of the problem and the conflict 75 years ago. No one in this House can stand and say they support international rules-based systems if they do not also say the perpetrators on both sides of the conflict must be held to account, and that the Palestinians must one day be able to return to a country that is rebuilt, free and recognised by this country—as the Irish are about to do, and as was done last week in the UN. There is a moral as well as a humanitarian duty on all of us to do that, and I will continue to push those on our side of the House to go as far as possible on that basis.

My hon. Friend has made reference on a number of occasions to the international rules-based order. Does he agree that the blatant disregard and mockery of that order, which has happened right before our eyes over the last few weeks and months, should cause the international community to hang its head in shame? Does he also agree that, in this debate about the proposed visa scheme, once again, double standards are being exposed?

My hon. Friend makes a very pertinent point. It is no help at all to our international diplomatic and development efforts that many countries in the global south are now able to turn to Russia or China and say, “Look at the double standards of Britain and the west.”

It is for that reason, as well as because of the tens of thousands of constituents in Ilford who have written to me, that we need to consider a scheme very similar to the one under which so many Ukrainians have been welcomed into our country. That scheme showed that the people of Britian have a great deal of compassion for their fellow humans, and that they understood and saw the savage butchery going on in Ukraine. In the same way, people in my community would welcome to their homes, even if just temporarily, Palestinians who need the shelter of our nation and our people.

Like my hon. Friend, I am strongly supportive of such a bespoke scheme for Palestinians. Does he agree that, as well as looking to recent Government policy, we could look to the policies adopted by countries around the world? For example, Canada has given approval in principle to those seeking visas under family reunion schemes and supported them to get to Egypt, so that all people eligible under the scheme can get there, rather than just those who have the money to do so. Does he agree that if that support were in place then all Palestinians, on an even basis, could get out to a place of safety here in the UK, admittedly on a temporary basis?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Canadian scheme has a lot of merit, and I hope that Ministers look into it properly. Let us remind ourselves that it was just two years ago that the Government swiftly introduced the Ukraine family scheme, as part of that which British citizens and permanent residents were able to sponsor a wide range of family members—parents, siblings, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews—for visas. That sponsorship scheme was open to Ukrainians with no family ties to the UK, it was free of charge, and the visas last three years. Many of us, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), have given specific cases of individual Palestinians who have family members, both in the west bank and in Gaza, who are suffering so badly. Surely, those things could be brought forward as an immediate way for them to be given a safe and legal path to refuge.

Nobody should have to pay tens of thousands of pounds to get across the border at Rafah. We should be able to put in place arrangements in our immigration system so that people can provide their digital fingerprints and make applications in a way that is right for our country, but allows them to leave quickly and arrive at a safe haven on our shores as quickly as possible. On top of that, where they are able to, I believe that those people should be permitted to work immediately. Many of them are doctors, academics and so on. The Gazan people are a highly skilled, incredibly intelligent and well-educated workforce, and many of them would love to make their contribution in return for safety and refuge from the barbarity that they are facing.

Last Friday, I held a public meeting in Dennistoun in my constituency of Glasgow North East on what more people can do to help the people of Gaza. My constituents, like everybody else, are feeling utterly helpless and it was important to get people together to talk about it. Several of my constituents have family members trapped in Gaza right now. Some came along to that meeting, and they took great comfort in seeing so many people with no particular connection to Palestine turning out on a cold, rainy Friday night in Glasgow to ask what more they could do to help. We heard unique perspectives from my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), who lived and worked in Gaza for three years, and from Dr Ibrahim Khadra, who is the chair of Palestinian Community Scotland. He told us that he has lost 70 members of his family. I thank them both, and I thank my constituents for turning out to support Palestinians.

I was also honoured to be asked to host a meeting here in Parliament for the Gaza Families Reunited campaign in March. The meeting gave the campaign group a platform to speak directly to MPs and peers about how and why we need a temporary family reunion visa scheme for Palestinians trapped in Gaza. I cannot tell Members how moving and upsetting it was to hear directly from Amira, Roba and Ghassan, who are desperately trying to get their families out of Gaza. Those family members are starving and under continual bombardment, and they just do not know where is safe and where is not.

In the UK Government’s response to the petition, they said that there are

“no plans to introduce bespoke arrangements for people arriving from the region”

and that those

“wishing to come to the UK who currently have no visa can apply under one of the existing visa routes.”

I have come to this debate directly from a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees. It was the first meeting of our inquiry into the so-called safe and legal routes to the UK that we hear so much about. I am sure we will hear about them again. If I were to write down the safe and legal routes to the UK, I would not even fill half a sheet of A4 paper. I could do it in really big writing and I still would not fill half a sheet. I find the Government’s response to the petition quite insulting. We are used to a lack of humanity in official responses, but this one is particularly cold. The description of people “arriving from the region” does not begin to do justice to the true horror of the situation for the millions of people in Gaza who are desperate to escape to some kind of safety.

If I had one question for the Minister, it would be this: what are the Government so afraid of? As we have heard, we opened our doors to all Ukrainians fleeing that war, and rightly so. Guess how many fleeing Ukrainians came here? Only 3% of the total. So what are they so afraid of? Although we are finding lots of words, no words are adequate to describe the horror of what is happening in Gaza, and it just gets worse and worse. Israeli forces have closed the only way out, meaning there is no way out for people and no way in for essential aid. They have invaded the only supposed safe space in the entire region, after explicitly directing millions of people to go there.

This morning, we have been told that what remains of the healthcare system in Gaza is about to collapse due a lack of fuel and aid. I mentioned my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire, who spoke on Friday night of the Scottish-Palestinian health partnership that has been set up via a memorandum of understanding between Glasgow University and the Arab American University of Palestine. I encourage everyone to read up on that really useful work.

The majority of people I speak to are stunned into silence when they discover that we are not helping people to escape Gaza. The assumption is that, like we did with Ukraine, we have some kind of scheme set up to help refugees find safety. Earlier I mentioned the APPG on refugees inquiry into so-called safe and legal routes, which started today; we heard that the public assume that we have a similar scheme for anyone fleeing war anywhere in the world. Well, they are going to be surprised when they discover the truth.

This morning, on my way into this place, I had a conversation with a random person I bumped into in the street about this debate and the petition, and the conversation went from general disbelief to the inevitable question, “Why are the Government letting that happen?” I told him about the rigmarole that people are required to go through, and which we have talked about today: to get out of Gaza, people need to enrol their biometrics at a visa application centre, but that means travelling to such a centre because it cannot be done remotely—but guess where the nearest such centre is from Gaza? Egypt. People cannot travel there because they cannot leave Gaza without a visa, and if they do find the money to get out of Gaza and find themselves in Egypt, they will be at the mercy of a painfully slow decision-making process, or maybe even find that they are ineligible under any of the existing routes to safety. It is a terrible system, where profiteering is put before people, and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is letting it happen.

Most of my Gazan residents and constituents who got out did so during the initial phase of the war, with British family members. They were allowed to bring their families with them, as they were in Israel, where the British Government laid on flights for British Israelis to be evacuated. I have to leave and go to another debate, but will the hon. Member seek from the Minister an answer on what the costs were for our Gazan Palestinian constituents compared with the scheme for those in the exact same conflict?

I absolutely will ask the Minister to answer that question. That does not mean that he will, because I quite often ask questions that never get answered, as do we all, but I hope he tries to answer.

Roba from the Gaza Families Reunited campaign lives here in the UK, and she crowdfunded to try to save her family’s lives. She travelled to Egypt to pay the ransom. As far as I know, her family are still not here. I recommend that Members look up her story; it is harrowing. The petition is a call for a temporary solution—just to help keep people alive. These people do not want to live here. They want to live in a free, rebuilt Palestine. They deserve the right to do that, and we need to help them to do so.

The Minister has been shaking his head every time someone suggests that he and his Government seem not to care.

He’s shaking his head at me again. Some things are a political difference of opinion, right? This is a point blank refusal to offer protection to human beings at risk of death. There is no other way to describe it. He should be fighting for these people; he should be using his power and influence as a British Government Minister to save their lives. He can shake his head all he likes, but if he continues to refuse, he and we will all know the truth. As I have asked him on other occasions about other issues, are he and his Government really content in years to come to look back on what they did and what they did not do? If not, do something. Do something!

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for opening what has proved to be an extremely well attended debate—at least as far as the Opposition parties are concerned.

I want to challenge some of the false premises that the Government have relied on in denying a visa scheme and some of the myths that have been put forward. The first is that, in this aspect of their migration policy, the Government are doing something popular. The number of people who signed the petition in my constituency and the hundreds of people who wrote to me in advance of the debate suggest that that is far from the truth.

I try to work closely with the refugee organisations in my constituency; I visited a couple of them a few days ago. Ukrainian open house is organised every month by two of my constituents, Belinda Mitchel-Innes and Christian Howgill. It provides a raft of services and advice to Ukrainian refugees in the UK. West London Welcome, run by Joanne MacInnes and Leyla Williams, caters to a wide range of asylum seekers, particularly those living in appalling conditions in hotels. It supports them in every possible way, from providing food to counselling. For reasons we all know about, they are not entertaining Palestinian refugees at the moment, but clearly the same rights should be extended as have been extended to other groups who have sought refuge in this country.

I am pleased to say that the Ukrainian open house was awarded a civic honour last week, as indeed the West London Welcome was in previous years. They are wonderful organisations that have the grassroots support of many of my constituents.

One of my more famous constituents, Lord Dubs, who led a debate on this subject in the House of Lords last month, brings a unique perspective to the issue. There were some very good contributions from noble Lords of very different parties, but I am afraid to say a flippant and dismissive response from the Minister there, which I hope will not be repeated today.

I raised the issue with the deputy Foreign Secretary a few weeks ago on the Floor of the House. As I did not get an answer, I will ask the Minister the same question now. I said:

“Every month in Hammersmith, we hold ‘Ukrainian open house’ to bring together all those supporting Ukrainian families who have fled that war. Every month, I am asked why there are not similar visa schemes to allow Palestinians to join their relatives in the UK, or to be hosted by families who wish to give them refuge here. What is the Government’s answer to that?”

I have a great deal of time for the deputy Foreign Secretary, but his answer was inadequate. He said:

“The Government’s answer is that the two positions are not analogous; they are very, very different. The hon. Member will know that we are doing everything we can to help individual cases in both instances, and we will continue to do so.”—[Official Report, 19 March 2024; Vol. 747, c. 817.]

If the two situations are not analogous, I would like to hear an exposition from the Minister on why that is the case. I will challenge him, as others have already in this debate, on whether the Government are doing everything they can, because that is another myth that is being perpetuated.

I know how passionate my hon. Friend is about this issue. Hearing from colleagues today about individual cases has really brought home what it means for the families who are involved and trying to contact people stranded in Gaza. The impression that I get from talking to the community in Bristol is a sense of community injustice. Obviously they care about individuals, but unless the question about why we are not treating them the same as we treat refugees from Ukraine is answered, the suspicion is that they are somehow being blamed for the crisis in Gaza. They are not to blame. They are innocent civilians in the grip of a terrible humanitarian catastrophe. They need our support just as much as people in Ukraine.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will come on to that in a moment.

To return to what the Government said, this is a quote from the Government’s response to the petition today:

“There are currently no plans to introduce bespoke arrangements for people arriving from the region who do not hold permission to come to the UK. That means that immediate family members of British citizens, and those settled in the UK, who wish to come and live in the UK and do not have a current UK visa can apply under one of the existing family visa routes. Individuals who meet these criteria should apply for a visa to enable them to enter the UK in the normal way.”

Then it helpfully tells people that the visa application centres in

“Egypt, Jordan and Turkey are open and offering a full service.”

Well, they are probably not too busy because there are not many people from Gaza turning up there. I regard that as a cynical and callous response to what the Government have been asked. Again, I hope we will hear something a little better from the Minister today.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent point. After years of casework experience, would he agree that it was unusual to hear from another Member in the debate, the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), that the mission in Jerusalem failed to reply to a Member of Parliament? Does he think that is lacking respect and understanding of what we as MPs are faced with daily with our casework?

I do not know whether it was the embassy in Tel Aviv or the consulate in Jerusalem. I have always found the consulate in Jerusalem very helpful; the other, perhaps not so much.

The last point I want to make on these false premises is about the idea that the scheme would be a way for Gazans and Palestinians to come to the UK and live here permanently. That has never been alleged against Ukrainians. We know the passion with which Ukrainians want to return as soon as they can to their homeland. The same is true to a greater extent for Palestinians, as is clear to anyone who, like me, has visited the region; I have visited Gaza several times, and I have visited the west bank and spoken to Palestinians. Above all, they want the right to live in their own country, recognised internationally and governed by the rule of law. The Palestinians have been campaigning for the right to return to their country for nearly 80 years, and it is frankly insulting to say that they are looking at a way to permanently settle elsewhere. There is a Palestinian diaspora around the world; there is a Palestinian diaspora in refugee camps throughout the middle east. Most Palestinians want to live in a free and democratic Palestinian state.

I will bring my remarks to a close. This is a very important debate, but it is on one—perhaps not the most brutal—aspect of what is currently going on in Gaza. I begin to get sickened at the way our Government are dealing with this matter. It is as if they are a passive observer: “Is Israel breaking international law at the moment? Have they, in fact, crossed a red line by what they are doing in Rafah at the moment? As we are not sending very much by way of armaments, perhaps it does not matter or make a big difference to the number of people killed.” These are deeply degenerate and obscene attitudes, when we see every day on television or social media how children are being killed in their thousands.

We have not said the right things. The Government have not even called for a ceasefire, as yet. If they had done all those things, maybe it would not have made a difference, but at least we should be on the right side of the argument morally. What we are debating today is one thing we can do. We can give relief to those Palestinians who are in such extremis and need to come here, who will be welcomed by people in the UK whether they are their family or people who just generously want to give them aid and succour.

I urge the Minister to both respond fully to this debate, which his colleagues have avoided doing, and to show some sympathy and humanity to those suffering in Palestine.

I am going to leave aside the fact that this is all entirely hypothetical at this point, because Israel has seized the Rafah crossing in absolute breach of the Camp David accords, which have the power of international law, having been adopted by the Security Council. The Philadelphi corridor is completely sealed, and this is the fourth day in a row on which exactly no food or medical aid—none—has entered Gaza. Therefore, even if the British Government move their show to the border, no Palestinian would be able to get biometric tests anyway.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on securing the debate and commiserate with the Minister, who will have to try to answer the literally unanswerable to defend the literally indefensible. Sometimes one detests a Government policy but can understand why they are doing it, but it is impossible to fathom why the Government are resisting the entirely inexpensive demand that this debate and petition ask for. Hundreds of the signatories—391 of them—are my constituents in Rochdale, who are always looking for ways to demonstrate their support for the Palestinian cause, as you will know, Mr Vickers. I declare an interest: one of my parliamentary staff is one of those trying to get their family out of Gaza to no avail.

The attendance at this debate is evidence of the massive support that there is in the country for the plight of the Palestinian people to be at least palliated by our Government, and that could be done so inexpensively that I literally cannot fathom why the Minister is going to rise and resist the demands made by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. Leaving aside all the historical reasons why they should, there is the fact that it was in this very building that the entire Palestinian tragedy was authored, when on behalf of one people our Government promised to a second people the land that belonged to a third people. You would think that that was a matter of historical guilt for our Government that they might want to mitigate in some way, leaving aside the fact that hundreds of our soldiers, police officers, civil servants and staff of this very House were murdered in the King David hotel. Our soldiers were left hanging by piano wire in the orange groves of Jaffa, booby-trapped. Should the Government not have a scintilla of guilt and responsibility for what has happened to the Palestinian people in the past and in the last seven months?

It is not true that our military aid to Israel is minuscule. If we define it by completed pieces of ordnance, it may be, but our components are in most of Israel’s bombs and rockets that are falling down on the poor people in Gaza, who are defenceless prisoners in what the then Prime Minister, now Foreign Secretary David Cameron described as the largest open-air prison in the world. He went on to say that it must not be allowed to remain so, and that was in 2010. Now that he is the Foreign Secretary in 2024, he turns his face away from the people in that prison camp that he said must not be allowed to remain so.

[Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

It is not just ordnance: we have flown 200 missions from our sovereign base in Akrotiri in Cyprus. Who knew that we had a sovereign base in independent Cyprus, a European Union and allied country? We have the right to fly whatever we like out of that sovereign base, and 200 times we have flown spying missions over Gaza for the edification of Netanyahu and his gang in power in Tel Aviv.

Our contribution to this massacre is very significant, both historically and contemporaneously. What are people from all sides asking here, some of them actually capital-F friends of Israel? They are all asking for one small thing: that you at least allow people who are citizens here and contributing here to get their old mother out of Gaza, rather than see her, perhaps on their telephone, being torn to shreds by a bomb that would not have been as effective if it were not for the components being given from British factories and targets being assisted by RAF jets flying out of Akrotiri.

For goodness’ sake, Minister, have some political nous. Millions of people in Britain want you to do something. This you can do with the stroke of a pen, and it would not cost you anything in your popularity stakes with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

I congratulate everybody who has been involved in supporting the e-petition and the Committee Chair, the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), for her excellent introduction to the debate. I proudly put on the record my full support for a Gaza family scheme.

It is impossible to imagine the fear and terror that every single morning must bring to people who have loved ones living in the midst of the utter carnage in Gaza. In the face of this humanitarian catastrophe, is it really the Home Office’s response to do nothing and change nothing? That cannot seriously be an acceptable response. The Minister in his reply will almost certainly point to how the Home Office responded and engaged positively in light of the horrors unfolding in Ukraine or, indeed, Hong Kong. However, as others have pointed out, those welcome measures simply prompt the question: why on earth not Gaza as well? It is really not a big ask; in fact, it is the very least we could do.

The existing rules are simply not working and are not sufficient. Whether a person can join family members here depends first on the category of leave or visa that the family member has—whether that is as a refugee or with humanitarian protection, whether it is as a UK citizen or with settled status, or whether it is with some form of temporary leave such as for study or work. Given the hellish circumstances in Gaza, the right to be joined by family fleeing catastrophe should not depend on the type of leave that a person has. We must be much more generous about the category of family members who can apply to join so that it is not just immediate family members, but parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, and so on. We in this room would all want—indeed, we would all demand—precisely the same if it was our relatives in the same situation.

Similarly, the fees and charges that generally apply to many applications, often amounting to several thousands of pounds when the immigration health surcharge is included, should be waived. In the face of such untold horrors, we cannot make family unity dependent on a person’s wealth.

Regardless of what changes the Home Office makes, or even if it refuses to make any changes at all, the practical processes for dealing with the applications must be fixed and improved. Even for those fortunate enough to qualify for family reunion or another visa that enables them to get here, the applications take far too long, with many being left in destitution and in limbo, usually in Egypt, where resident rights are often quick to expire, along with any access to education for kids or to healthcare or housing. That is of course if people are lucky enough to get as far as Egypt—as we have already heard, the closure of the Rafah crossing makes that almost impossible.

Even while the crossing was open, while the UK Government would provide lists of British citizens who were thereby entitled to cross at Rafah into Egypt, no such facility was granted to many Palestinians, even if they were, or could have been, able to join family here in the United Kingdom. Instead, they were left to be subject to essentially extortion by an Egyptian company called Hala and forced to pay $5,000 per adult or $2,500 per child in cash to cross, and only first-degree relatives of people physically present in Egypt could even do that.

The cost meant that people were having to make absolutely impossible choices. They were having to start their journeys with a crowdfunder, and then ask themselves, “Well, we’ve got enough to bring a parent, but perhaps we should take a niece instead.” What a choice to leave folk to make. The ability to reunite with family in safety should not be open to such extortion, and people should not be left to face such choices. We call on the Government to work with counterparts to secure an evacuation from Gaza of individuals with UK family members, without them being subject to that additional worry, just like the Canadians have managed, as we have heard.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Like others, I have been trying to get people out of Gaza and here to a place of safety with their relatives in the UK. Like others, I have been advised by the Home Office that schemes are available that people should apply to. Like others, I have found that the barriers to those schemes, the level of evidence required and the costs involved mean that they are simply not appropriate or effective. Is it not really the case that, by design, the existing schemes cannot work in an emergency situation in which there is ongoing conflict? That is why we need a new scheme.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The existing visa schemes were not designed to help people out of a war-torn hellhole. They were designed to allow folk to come here as family members, as spouses, to study or to work. We need a bespoke arrangement that is designed for the catastrophe that is unfolding before our very eyes.

Surely it is actually worse than that. The rules are so outrageous that even a person who was unfamiliar with them would see instantly that they are not going to work, because people simply cannot get to the place they need to reach to they get the required documents. Does the hon. Member agree that the tragedy is that we first saw this with 1 million Rohingya people in Cox’s Bazar, where similar restrictions were put in place, and we are now seeing the same restrictions on 1.4 million people in Rafah, further exposing the double standard?

I thank the hon. Member for the intervention. I simply repeat the point: the system is not designed for the circumstances that are unfolding, and it is imperative that the Government get their finger out and design a suitable bespoke scheme.

I join other hon. Members in calling on the Minister to rethink his Department’s utterly wrong-headed approach to biometrics in war-torn countries. A few months back, I had an Adjournment debate similar to this one on Sudan, with the Minister’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). In Gaza, as in Sudan, there is no possibility that in-country biometrics can be provided alongside a visa application, so surely the common-sense approach is to consider applications and to defer biometric enrolment, as we are all arguing. If, subject to those biometrics, an application is to be allowed, the applicant can then commence their journey and provide the biometric information either on arrival here or, if the Home Office is not willing to go that far, in a third country such as Egypt.

However, rather than making things easier, the Minister seems to have made the position tougher through new guidance about when exceptions to biometric enrolment would apply. That is why not a single application to defer biometrics has been granted by the Home Office since Israel began its offensive in Gaza, as we have heard. In the circumstances, that is utterly incomprehensible. Given that the general country situation makes it impossible to have biometric enrolment there, people are left with a choice: either they have to take an almighty gamble and make dangerous and often illegal journeys to neighbouring countries to enrol their biometrics, without even knowing whether they will then be allowed onwards to the United Kingdom, or they give up. Making people take that decision is astonishingly cruel.

The Minister subsequently wrote to me to set out reasons justifying that approach in relation to Sudan, and I suspect that we will hear the same today in relation to Gaza. The letter repeatedly made the point that biometric information is vital for security. But nobody is disputing that point. We are just asking for a reasonable approach as to when biometric information needs to be provided; we are not asking for it to be waived altogether. We understand the importance of the checks, but the Minister cannot be oblivious to the horrible problems that his Department’s approach is causing people who want to leave Gaza. Frankly, the absence of any other good reason creates the impression that the Home Office is more bothered about suppressing the number of applications than it is about any real point of principle. That is a depressing thought.

Reuniting people from hellish warzones with family here in the UK is something that we should celebrate. We call on the Government to facilitate that, rather than to obstruct it. A family scheme for Gaza has my full support. It is not a big ask; it is the very least the Government should be doing.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for the diligent way in which she started the debate and highlighted many of the issues. I point the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which shows that I received help in this area from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project. I am also the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration.

That thousands of people have signed the petition that triggered this debate should be a sign to everyone here that there is significant support and compassion for those who are fleeing the violence and destruction of war, and for welcoming refugees into our communities. We saw the same with Ukraine, with people opening their homes and the reunification of families meaning so much to people. I have raised questions about schemes for other conflicts, such as Sudan. The Home Office’s approach is seemingly case by case, but the underlying policy is simply not fit for purpose for those who are fleeing from war and persecution.

With Ukraine, the Government rightly responded by waiving all fees, salary thresholds and language tests under the Ukraine family scheme. That programme opened applications to all civilians in need, and it significantly reduced the visa paperwork. Those who could not reach a visa application centre were swiftly issued with permission-to-travel letters on the basis that applicants could finish the process in the UK. The Government also extended the use of the “UK Immigration: ID Check” app to Ukrainian nationals, which allowed applicants to enrol digitally with their biometrics using a mobile phone. Those measures demonstrate what can be done when the public support for those trapped in conflict meets the political will that something can be done in Westminster, showing that there are solutions to the challenges that we will no doubt hear about from the Minister shortly.

However, despite the mass support for the family scheme for Palestinians, we have seen no action from Ministers on Gaza. In fact, not only have the Government refused to implement a similar scheme, they will not even waive the fees or relax the biometric requirements for making a standard immigration application. I would like to use this opportunity to ask the Minister: whose crisis counts? What is the difference between a Palestinian fleeing the bombs overhead in Gaza and a Ukrainian doing the same in Kyiv? In his response about whether the Government would consider introducing a similar family scheme for those in Gaza, the Minister stated:

“In any humanitarian situation, the UK must consider its resettlement approach in the round, rather than on a crisis-by-crisis basis.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 14.]

The inaction of Ministers suggests that they have not considered their approach at all, let alone “in the round”.

People in Gaza with family members in the UK remain trapped, with no safe or viable routes to reunite with their families. Without a specific family route, they can rely only on existing routes, such as family visas or skilled worker dependent visas, but to make those applications is nearly impossible. The closest and most viable visa application centre is in Egypt, on the other side of the Rafah crossing, which we have heard is currently under assault and for some days now has been completely closed. I understand that it is possible to apply for deferral to biometric enrolment requirements, which I am sure the Minister will say, but could he please tell us how many of those deferrals have actually been granted? Is the number still standing at zero? Given the unparalleled threat to civilian life in Gaza and the UK’s historic involvement in Palestine, it is hard to understand why the British Government have not simply adopted the approach they took in Ukraine. To the people out there, it looks completely wrong.

It would also be wrong of me not to stress that, rather than ad-hoc schemes for individual crises and countries, a solution would be to lift the Government’s in-practice ban on asylum applications. We need more safe routes and more safe passage to the UK for people facing war and conflict, the majority of whom are children, have injuries or have family here. In the absence of either safe routes or safe passage visas, it is time that the Government did the bare minimum and introduced an emergency family reunion scheme for those seeking shelter from the bombing and the crisis in Gaza.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) on securing this important debate. As the Israel Defence Forces ramp up operations in Rafah, there are no remaining safe zones left in Gaza. Nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, over 75,000 have been injured, and more than 1.5 million have been displaced. I know that Members have heard those figures before, but I think it is important that we repeat them as often as possible.

People who have already been forced out of their homes are having to flee once again. According to an interim damage assessment conducted by the World Bank and the UN, $18.5 billion-worth of damage to critical infrastructure has been done, and 74% of that is housing. Eighty-four percent of health facilities in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed, and those that are left are barely functioning. Doctors are having to perform amputations on children and perform C-sections without anaesthetic. It is worth restating that under the Geneva conventions, the forcible transfer of a civilian population is a war crime, as is the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure. Yet, even after the ICJ ruling, our Government’s decision to keep supplying military hardware to Israel and their failure to push for a lasting ceasefire mean that the UK is wholly complicit in creating the conditions for the humanitarian crisis we are now witnessing. We have a responsibility to help those who are suffering.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. A number of Members have highlighted the fact that the Ukrainian scheme was dependent on our local councils helping families and welcoming them into our boroughs. My hon. Friend and I share the borough of Lambeth, which was awarded borough of sanctuary status in 2022 in recognition of the fact that our constituents want to help, aided by the council. Does she agree that in response to the issues she is highlighting the Government need to do a full, proper assessment of why they do not have a scheme in place, as mentioned by many Members this afternoon?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Government should do a full assessment.

Unfortunately, the Government’s response to the plight of Palestinian refugees has been typical of their punitive approach to people seeking safety. I found this out for myself when a constituent of mine attempted to apply for his family members to join him in February. They were rejected because they could not provide biometric data. I was appalled to find out that the Home Office actually put down in writing that this was because the Government expect Palestinian refugees from Gaza to apply in Ramallah, Jerusalem or a nearby country. They are effectively telling people to travel through an active war zone to submit information.

Besides the current conflict, Gaza has been under blockade for years. People from Gaza do not casually leave and travel to different parts of the country. They simply do not. His Majesty’s Home Office should be embarrassed to send such a ridiculous and ignorant response—if not, I am thoroughly embarrassed for the Home Office. Those seeking to leave Gaza are trapped in a Catch-22 because of this situation. They cannot enrol their biometrics because they cannot leave Gaza, and they cannot leave Gaza because they cannot enrol their biometrics.

According to the Gaza Families Reunited campaign, at least two Palestinians are now known to have died while waiting for the Home Office to decide on their applications. My constituent said:

“I do not think I’m being treated fairly at all. I came to the UK on a work permit and never applied for assistance from the UK Government.”

He just wants the UK Government to help his family. It is hard to argue with what he says, because when millions were displaced by Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine in 2021, the Government had the Homes for Ukraine scheme live in a matter of weeks. It is right that that happened, and I believe the Government have not done enough for Ukrainian refugees, but when the conflict began in Gaza and thousands of Palestinians were displaced, and then more than a million, where was the homes for Palestine scheme?

All options are closed to my constituent’s family. It is worth repeating that the Home Office has rejected every single request for biometric deferral and predetermination since 7 October. When I wrote to the Home Office again, the response to my constituent was:

“I have considered whether there are compelling, compassionate circumstances in your case which would warrant a grant of leave outside of the Immigration Rules; however, based on the information you have provided, I have decided there is no such circumstances in your case.”

We have 35,000 people killed, over 75,000 injured, people starving and 1.5 million people displaced, but our Home Office can see no circumstances for a grant of leave outside the current immigration rules. That is an absolute disgrace.

In comparison, between 15 March 2022 and 7 December 2023 Ukrainian nationals could apply online without the need to enrol their biometrics until after they reached safety in the UK. Again, this was absolutely the right thing to do, but why are Palestinians being denied the same conditions and compassion? When the Minister responds, I want to understand the Government’s justification for these double standards, and I want the Minister to understand why there are so many people right across the country who believe that those reasons revolve around racism and geopolitics.

There is nothing that Palestinians want more than a safe return to their home. However, the inordinate civilian death toll in this conflict sadly means that many Palestinians simply will not be alive to exercise that right. From the Sykes-Picot agreement to the Balfour declaration, the betrayals of McMahon to the invasion of Allenby’s forces, we have to acknowledge that it was long-standing British policy to displace Palestinians from their homes.

Our shared colonial history means that we have a unique responsibility towards Palestinian refugees and a particular responsibility to push for peace in the region, but it is a responsibility that this Government have completely shirked so far. I urge the Minister to listen to the thousands who signed the petition, including hundreds of my constituents, and create a Palestinian family reunion scheme. As well as supporting people displaced by the war in Gaza, we need the Government to do something about the root causes of that displacement, which means suspending arms sales and pushing for an immediate and permanent ceasefire.

Look at the number of people who have been here for this debate, remembering that a lot have had to go because another important debate is about to start in the main Chamber, and consider the fact that almost two hours into it not a single word has been spoken in defence of the Government’s position on Gaza family reunification visas. A lot of Members are trying to understand their position. I struggle to understand.

I do not want this to be the answer, but I think it is because the Government have become so obsessed with the view that any immigration is a bad thing that has to be stopped if at all possible, and so obsessed with the way they calculate net immigration. They have worked out that if we allow a small handful of desperate Gazan citizens to come here, that will increase net inward migration, and that is a bad thing. Is that where we have come to? Has the toxic, poisonous debate over immigration in this place over the past seven or eight years taken us to a place where we have a Government who would quite literally—I make no apology for saying this—see innocent, defenceless and desperate people die rather than allow them safe passage and sanctuary among families in these islands who would look after them for as long as they have to.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned an elderly lady who has two daughters in the UK, one living in Edinburgh. My constituent Dr Lubna Hadoura has given 30 years of service as a consultant in our NHS and has never asked for anything. She has saved the lives of my constituents and others, and now she needs our help. The response that came most recently from this Minister was the same as those that have come from other Ministers—I suspect it is word for word the same as the response that every MP present has had, and it is almost identical to the response, or non-response, to this petition.

The Minister was very upset when my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) said some quite unpleasant home truths about the Government’s attitude. I will say to the Minister that if he wants to take the last response he sent to me, as Dr Hadoura’s MP, and sit down with her and read to her the reasons why her mum is not allowed to come here to be looked after, then let him do it. I have not given that letter to my constituent yet; I cannot bear to inflict on her the absolute horror that she will feel when she sees how unfeeling this Government—the Government to whom she has paid taxes for decades—are to the plight of her elderly mother and, by clear implication, to the plight of well over a million of our fellow human beings. I cannot understand it. I cannot even begin to explain to my constituent why it is that her mum and so many others are just being abandoned.

In this case, this lady has managed to escape from Gaza. I have not asked questions about how they got her out; it is maybe better that I do not know. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West said, this 79-year-old lady has had more home addresses in the last seven months than I have had in the 63 and a half years that I have been alive. She is 79 years old. Most of the time she has been displaced, it was under fire—very often literally running the gauntlet of Israeli snipers who would take it on themselves to shoot random civilians just to make the point that they could. Yet that is not sufficient grounds to say that these people have to be got out of Gaza while there is still a chance.

I know it is not comfortable for my constituent to hear her mum talked about in this way, but I need to go through some of what she has experienced. She has spent six months without any privacy—and I mean literally no privacy at all for a 79-year-old woman. There are no toilets and no sanitation. She has gone six months without a bath or a shower; six months without the medicines she needs to maintain any kind of standard of living; and six months without being able to sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time. In those six months, every single time she went to sleep she said, as well as the prayer she says every night, the prayer of submission before death, because for six months when she closed her eyes she never knew whether she would ever open them again.

This lady is desperately traumatised. She is so confused that when my constituent managed to go over to Cairo to spend some time with her, she found her sitting in the dark because she had forgotten that there were electric lights and that just pressing a switch on the wall would make the light come on. For so long in Gaza there had been no electric lights, just as there had been no power, no heating, no water, no sanitation, no shelter, no food, no medicines—no anything.

One of the previous speakers said this is maybe not the most brutal aspect of the horrors of Gaza, but I think it is, because the fact that these people are not able to get out of Gaza is something that this Government have the power to change on their own. We do not need the permission of anyone else, we do not need intense diplomatic efforts and we do not need the threat of sanctions or embargos or anything like that. All we need to do is to say to people: “It’s difficult to get your families out of Gaza, but you get them out of Gaza and we will get them here.” It is not international law, or treaties, or anything else that is preventing the Government from saying that. They are not saying it because they have decided that their political priority is not to bring these people to these islands. I have to say to the Minister that if that is the Government’s genuine view, it is clear from this debate that it is not the view shared by the majority in the House. I do not think that view is shared by the Government’s own Back Benchers; where are they to speak on behalf of this policy? Nobody wants to defend it publicly.

If my constituents are anything to go by—and I do not believe they are any more decent, caring or humanitarian than the constituents of the other 649 MPs—there is a massive majority of the people of these islands who are saying to us, “Yes, we know it will cause difficulties, and yes we know it is an exceptionally unusual step to take, but it is what we have to do. We can’t go on watching more and more innocents being killed on our television screens, knowing that we have it within the power of our Government to get some of them out yet they are doing nothing about it.”

The elderly lady I spoke about is now in Egypt, so she is not going to be killed tonight, but she still has no entitlement to food or healthcare. Her family had to spend a lot of money on the healthcare that she desperately needed when she escaped from Gaza. Egypt does not owe her anything. Why is it up to Egypt? It is simply because of an accident of geography that Egypt is where she landed up. She has no ties to Egypt whatsoever; she does have ties to Fife, to Edinburgh and to the United Kingdom. She has family in those places who will look after her for as long as it takes and who will do whatever they have to do for her, until the one day in her life that she now longs for arrives and she can go back to a Palestinian homeland that is once again fit for human beings to live in. Right now, thanks to this country’s great ally Israel, Gaza is not fit to sustain human life on any scale and it is certainly not fit to sustain human life on the scale of the numbers who are trapped in Gaza just now.

Why cannot the Government, in among all their rhetoric, just own up to the fact that there is no safe legal route out of Gaza? There is none. There is absolutely no safe legal route for people to get out of Gaza. The Government do not want to admit that—why not? As I have said, they are clearly out of touch with the people of Britain, they are very clearly out of touch with the will of Parliament, and I think they are out of touch with the will of their own Back Benchers. They are becoming increasingly out of touch with any kind of humanity or any kind of care for our fellow human beings, wherever they might be on this planet.

The Government give excuses for not acting. They suggest that the law says that they do not have to, and that international diplomacy says this and treaties say that. I am not asking the Minister to agree to a visa scheme because the law says that we have to. I am pleading with him—begging him—to do it because the collective conscience of this House and, I am convinced, the collective conscience of the people of these islands is saying, “Get these people out of Gaza, not because we have to, but because we can.”

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for securing this debate today.

We have heard from many colleagues who have stated what is happening in Gaza; indeed, we see what is happening in Gaza on our screens every day. It is not that what is happening is being done in secrecy; it is being done very openly and the whole world is watching it happen. Indeed, the whole world has been watching it happen for months and months and months.

The whole world has heard the comments of the various leaders of the Israeli Government, such as saying that the Palestinians or Gazans are the Amalekites, or the fact that leaders, defence Ministers and generals are saying, “They are not human beings; they should be in the Sinai desert.” They heard the Minister who looked at the complete devastation of Gaza and said, “This is such a beautiful site. We are looking forward to building our homes there.”

We have seen the relentless bombing—bombing and bombing and bombing. We are seeing children with their limbs blown off, and women and other adults damaged. We have heard of people’s skin peeling off. We have seen real crimes being committed in front of our eyes, yet all we have are platitudes from world leaders. They say, “Well, Israel is going to abide by international law,” or, “The IDF is the most moral army in the world.” I do not know whether it is a moral army or not; all I am saying to people is that people should see what is actually happening in Gaza and draw their own conclusions.

We now have a situation where water, food, clothes, medicine and generators are available and we can help the people in Gaza, who are now stuck in a tiny space—1.5 million of them are displaced. However, it is not a natural famine or disaster; it is purely and simply because the Israeli Government will not let aid in, with the illegal Israeli settlers playing their part to stop aid getting in. What are our moral international Governments doing about that? We can see it, so why is it that no one seems to be taking real steps to help the Palestinian people and to get food in? We have had some food aid drops, but they are nothing compared with what is needed.

I will come on to the topic of this debate. It is only a small number of people who are able to leave Gaza and join their families in the United Kingdom; why is that not happening? We see the destruction, and as many colleagues have said, those people are not going to be a burden on the taxpayer or the state, because their family and friends will look after and pay for them. I know that those people will go back to their homeland. One of the reasons why so many Palestinians are stuck where they are in Rafah is that they know that if they left Palestine the chances of them being able to return are virtually negligible.

We saw what happened in the 1940s with the Nakba, where 700,000 people were expelled forcibly and not any have been able to come back. Now their families and children are languishing in tents in Lebanon, Jordan and the rest of the surrounding countries. There are now approaching 4 million or 5 million of those displaced people. For 75 years, everybody in the international community has talked about how the Palestinians would be able to come back, or about a homeland for the Palestinians. Nothing has happened. That is how I know that of those people who will leave Gaza, virtually all of them will want to go back—although, as someone has said, the level of devastation in Gaza is absolutely horrendous.

I am sorry to say that the Home Office’s attitude to Palestinian refugees—or even Palestinian visitors—over the years has been incredibly harsh. I thank Julia Simpkins, who is a teacher in Bolton. Every year, she gets young Palestinian students to come over from the West Bank, Gaza and other places, to Bolton and Manchester and they are taken around for about a week. Last time she tried to do that, a few years back, visas were declined without any reason whatever given. These are children, but no explanation was given—that is the complete high-and-mightiness of the Home Office.

With Ukraine and other places, we rightly intervened to help people, yet we do not seem to be able to offer the same degree of courtesy or help to the Palestinian people. What is it about the Palestinians that is so different from the Ukrainians? I can assure the House, their perils and suffering are as great, if not greater—not that one should be comparing the sufferings of any one group of victims with those of another.

I say to the Government, this will not cost money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood and other colleagues have said, the scheme already exists. It is literally copy and paste to apply it to the circumstances in Gaza and to make the rules easy as well, so that people can get out.

I have a final thing to ask of the Government while they are looking at this whole issue of Gaza, which we know is a big issue. In Ukraine, many children were severely injured and had amputations, and about 150 of them were accepted in British hospitals by the British Government, who paid for them to have limb reconstruction and other surgeries, or chemotherapy to treat cancer patients, yet not a single Palestinian child has been accepted. Not a single Palestinian child has been offered that service, despite the fact that in hospitals, such as Great Ormond Street Hospital management, are happy to take the children. None, however, has been taken. I ask the Government to examine their conscience—why? What is the difference between a Palestinian child and a Ukrainian child?

I will follow up what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) said with regard to the evacuation of children, but I first echo what others have said: there has been absolute unanimity in this Chamber, across all political parties as well, with representatives present from each of the parties. I have not seen that in this Chamber, possibly ever. The Government need to recognise that, and that it is born of—to be honest—accumulating concern, anger and distress about what we have experienced.

Some months ago, when the initial proposal came up, many were conflicted about whether it should be supported. They were conflicted in the Palestinian community as well, because people did not want to be seen to be complicit with what was—exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East said—a second Nakba. At that stage, many Palestinians remained within Gaza, because they thought that it would be a limited action. They thought—all of us thought, naively—that the world would not stand by and watch this take place on that scale; a Nakba. I do not think that anyone calculated the level of killings that were to take place, and no one had any understanding of the scale of the deaths among children in particular.

That is why I think there was that sort of conflation, or a real contradiction in people’s minds about whether to go forward. Interestingly, as time has moved on and as the situation has got so desperate—we have heard the stories today—people are desperate to do anything to help and to save life. The obvious solution to this is peace, a ceasefire. The obvious solution is that this Government, along with others, tell the mass murderer—at the moment, that is the Prime Minister of Israel—to halt the attack on Gaza. That is not forthcoming, so the least that the Government can do is to allow people to gain access to security.

Some Palestinians have gained access to security, some in hotels in our constituencies, but they have not gone through the route allowed by the Government; they have come on the boats across the channel. Here is the irony: they are now part of the categories that will be targeted for Rwanda. There is an inhumanity about the way the Palestinians have been treated—not just by the Israelis, but by the Government as well. There is an opportunity now for the Government to do something that is effective in providing relief, comfort, succour and security to those desperate people.

Some months ago I raised the question of the evacuation of injured children with the Deputy Foreign Secretary. Voluntary organisations here and in Europe were willing to work together to secure access to health facilities for the most injured—not just in Egypt, but in Europe and Britain. We were assured that a group was being formed, co-ordinated by the FCDO, to enable the evacuation to happen. My understanding is that that has not happened on any scale yet, and today we discovered that the health service in Rafah has virtually collapsed because of the lack of fuel.

There were two hospitals operating yesterday; I believe there is only one today. The bombs are still dropping. The children are still being killed and mutilated, yet we provide no assistance to allow those children access to health facilities beyond Gaza itself. The least the Government could do is ensure that there is an effective evacuation scheme for injured children, and have a scheme, as has been set out today, to enable people to gain at least some access to security.

I do not know how much more we can take from the Government. Our constituents feel stressed and angry about the inaction of the Government and by their complicity in supplying arms to the butchers who maim the children. I ask the Minister to listen to what has been said today on a cross-party basis, listen to the individual cases, recognise the suffering that is going on and, for God’s sake, in the name of humanity, introduce a scheme that gives some comfort, succour and safety to those desperate people.

We now come to the Front-Bench contributions. The guideline limits are 10 minutes for the SNP, 10 minutes for His Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Then Cat Smith will have three minutes at the end to sum up the debate.

Somebody asked me earlier what a Westminster Hall debate is. I told them that, quite often in Westminster Hall, it is when everybody comes together to agree and disagree with the Minister, and so it has proven today.

We have come together in this place, cross-party, to agree that there must be a Gaza families reunion scheme, allowing people to come out of the hellish, unimaginable war zone of Gaza to get to safety with those they love here in the UK. I think every street in my constituency has written to me on this. More than 3,000 people have written to me on the ongoing situation in Gaza to call for a ceasefire, the return of hostages, for aid to get in and for a lasting peace and a two-state solution. The Government have not done anything practical to respond to the concerns raised by our constituents.

A constituent, Sama, came to see me in November. She has been studying and working in Glasgow and is desperately afraid for her family, who were living in the north of Gaza. They have been moved and displaced multiple times—she does not know how many times because she cannot contact them. She cannot hear from them and does not know at any given time where they are or whether they are safe. The last time I heard from her they were in Rafah, which does not bode well for their ongoing safety, given what is going on. She wants her mother, father and teenaged brother to come to Scotland to be safe with her. That should not be too much to ask.

I wrote to the Foreign Secretary and got the boilerplate reply, as many others have done. It was not even from the Foreign Secretary, but from the Minister of State, Lord Ahmad, and it did nothing to help my constituent. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, it is difficult even to give these constituents replies from this Government, because they do nothing to offer them any comfort whatsoever. I appealed to the aid agencies on the ground in desperation to ask whether there was anything that they could have done to help, but they regretted that they could not; they did not have those powers.

Sama’s father has a severe heart condition. He has high blood pressure and diabetes and cannot get the medication he needs. As the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said so eloquently, there are no hospitals there either to help him get the treatment that he needs. The home that this family had built for 30 years lies in rubble and ruin. Sama showed me with pride pictures of what that house looked like the last time that they were all together in it.

Why is it that I have no answer that I can give to Sama to bring her family to safety? She knows that there is no safe and legal route, and other Palestinian constituents who were in touch also have no certainty. One applied for asylum back in December 2022 and is still waiting for a response. They are not going to send him back there: grant him the security that he needs. Another gentleman has been in the UK for 18 years and as yet has no certainty about his status. As Sama put it to me after one of my surgeries, “There is no money, there is no food, there is no ceasefire. There is no hope for those living in Gaza.”

More than 35,000 are dead and 80,000 are injured. The Gaza Families Reunited campaign has brought a very reasonable request before the Minister, and I commend it for all the work that it has done on this. I will say something about the practicalities of what it proposes. Hon. Members across this Chamber have said that existing routes do not cut it and are not working. Family reunion visas, visitor visas and student visas are not working at all.

As the hon. Lady knows, the Home Office allows applications for family visas only for immediate relatives, defined as partners, children or parents of children under 18. That excludes other close relatives such as siblings or parents of adult children, for example. As a result, perhaps the only surviving relatives of people with families in the UK might be stuck in Gaza with no way of joining them. Does she agree that it is beyond time that the UK Government introduced a Palestinian family scheme, just as they did with the Ukrainian family scheme, and that in fact they have a historical colonial responsibility to do so?

I entirely agree with what the hon. Member presented. The Gaza Families Reunited campaign has set out the eligibility, saying that it would include an immediate family member, an extended family member or the immediate family of an extended family member. That is so important, because we know that there are people who now have nobody left. There are children who have been orphaned and have not a soul in the world that they can rely on, but they may have somebody they know is here, and they should be allowed to come to safety. It is cruelty beyond measure not to permit that to happen.

A recognised Palestinian refugee won a recent court case on this issue, challenging the Home Office’s refusal to decide the family entrance clearance applications of his wife and children under refugee family reunion rules on account of their inability to enrol their biometrics in Gaza. That was described as being “irrational and unreasonable” by the courts, and it is entirely irrational and unreasonable. People are stuck, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, in a Catch-22 where they need their biometrics to be able to leave, but they cannot get their biometrics because they cannot leave. It is impossible and illogical that that is the position, and it is in the Government’s hands to waive that requirement. It is in nobody else’s hands; it is in the hands of this Government and this Minister to make the decision to waive the requirement for biometrics. He could do it at the stroke of a pen this afternoon if he so wished, and I would like him to explain why he will not. As yet, we have not had an explanation of why, if it was good enough for people in Ukraine to get that biometric requirement waived, it is not good enough for the people of Gaza, whose circumstances are absolutely grim.

The people in Gaza are having to bribe their way across the border and are being smuggled out. This Government are supposed to be against people smuggling, but people have no choice. It costs $5,000 per adult and $2,500 per child, if anybody can even scrape that money together. People are crowdfunding on the internet to pay themselves across the border. What kind of system is that? None whatsoever. And as my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned, they then get stuck somewhere else. They get stuck in Cairo waiting for something else to happen because this Government will not move with the paperwork. It is absolutely ridiculous and cruel. People could be here, safe and looked after, but they are not.

Turning back to the court case, disclosures were made that every single entry clearance visa application from Gaza made from 7 October has been refused by the Home Office. If this is about safe and legal routes, why are they automatically being refused? We know from experience that even visitor visas—a third of those last year—were refused because the Government do not believe that people are going to go back to Gaza, and in the circumstances, why would they? But even if someone could get a visitor visa, the Government are quite likely to refuse it.

The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned people coming over in small boats, but given the difficulty of even getting out of Gaza, that is not a prospect for most. The House of Commons Library briefing for this debate spoke about the rarity of that. Palestinians accounted for 0.14% of the people on boats, or 53 out of 36,704. They may well be sent to Rwanda after fleeing a war zone, getting across continents, getting in a small boat and getting to safety here. Can the Minister say whether anybody who came in such a way will be removed to Rwanda? Will he at least rule that out for some kindness to the Gazans who have managed to make it to our shores to safety? Again, it is just cruelty.

Hon. Members also raised the issue of people accessing medical treatment here. The Children Not Numbers campaign has done a huge amount of work to evacuate people in the past, including children whose medical needs are absolutely dire. We have all seen on our television screens, at a remove, the horror of children having amputations without anaesthetic, and children whose lives have been devastated at such a young age. They cannot even get those children out for the medical treatment that they so desperately require for their futures.

I am sure that the Minister will come out, as he always does, with how Britain is a welcoming country, how we have done so much to resettle people and how we should look at all these other things we have done in the past. What we are asking is for something now. It has been six months. He has had quite long enough to come to a conclusion. He has had quite long enough to design a scheme.

The Gaza Families Reunited campaign has given the Minister the work on this. It will not be difficult for him to create such a scheme. It was done for the people of Ukraine much more swiftly than this. He is out of excuses. He needs to give the Gazan people some kind of certainty that they can come to safety. Otherwise, we will all know that this Government do not care and are prepared to ignore the people of Gaza. It is despicable.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for bringing forward this extremely important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and the 103,000 constituents across the country who signed the petition. I also thank all hon. Members present for what has been an incredibly powerful and moving debate. We have all been struck by how heavily subscribed it has been and the high degree of unanimity in the views that have been expressed across the House.

The terrorist atrocities conducted by Hamas on 7 October 2023 killed over 1,100 innocent civilians. They included cases of rape and sexual violence, and the kidnapping of 250 people, the majority of whom have still not been released. It is almost impossible to comprehend the fear and anguish felt within those families who have been torn apart, and the unimaginable pain of the relatives of the hostages.

As has been stated so clearly today, the Israeli Government’s response and the subsequent war in Gaza has ended the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people, many of them women and children. It continues to cause untold misery and heartache to hundreds of thousands more who have lost loved ones or had to flee for their lives, and now over 1 million people in Gaza face famine.

We should never forget that at the heart of this conflict are human beings who simply seek to live their lives free of violence, fear and intimidation, who want nothing more than to protect their families and loved ones, and build a successful future for them and their children. The urgent imperative is therefore to bring an end to this war, and we urge the Government to use every ounce of their diplomatic leverage to create the conditions needed for an immediate ceasefire observed by both sides, with the immediate release of hostages and immediate, unimpeded aid to Gaza.

We have also been absolutely clear that the forced displacement of the Palestinian people is unacceptable. The priority following an immediate ceasefire must be for Gazans to be able to return to their homes and their land, to begin to rebuild all that they have lost during this devastating war, and to ensure that their displacement does not become permanent. This will be made exponentially harder by an Israeli offensive in Rafah, which risks catastrophic consequences, and therefore, the Labour party passionately opposes any intervention by the Israeli forces in Rafah. Indeed, the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), said in the main Chamber on Tuesday of last week:

“The United States has said”

that an offensive in Rafah

“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.” —[Official Report, 7 May 2024; Vol. 749, c. 444.]

The Rafah crossing is, of course, essential for moving humanitarian assistance into Gaza, and therefore the safety of those operating aid deliveries and of those receiving the aid must not be compromised.

In tandem with that essential diplomatic work, and as the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza continues to worsen, the UK must consider the impact on British residents and citizens who have family in Gaza and are desperately seeking to ensure their safety. We have heard the indescribable anguish of British Palestinians regarding the fate of family members, including orphaned children who are trapped in Gaza, and their struggle to bring their relatives to safety.

For instance, we know of one father who is here in the UK, desperately trying to reunite with his wife and three young children who are currently trapped in Gaza and sheltering in a house with more than 200 other people. His twin babies are suffering with health issues, and his wife fears that she will run out of milk to feed them. We have heard of the plight of an unaccompanied 14-year-old boy who is alone in Gaza, having lost both his parents and been separated from wider family, who seeks to join his brothers in the UK, who are British citizens. His brothers are settled and working in the UK, and are desperate to have him join them. These are harrowing and horrific tales.

At the moment, these families and others like them have been unable to leave Gaza. Even where they should qualify for family reunion under UK immigration rules, they are facing insurmountable barriers. For example, we have heard reports of long delays in getting decisions or visas issued, and families are also being told that they will not be given their visas—even though they are eligible—until they have submitted biometrics data. However, there is no infrastructure left in Gaza at all, and it is completely impossible to get biometric data submitted from within Gaza itself. Although biometrics could be submitted from Egypt, the vast majority of these individuals and families are not able to travel to Egypt without some kind of visa or assistance from the UK. As a result, they are trapped.

This is a desperate and deeply distressing scenario, and I therefore urge the Minister to look rapidly at the following issues. Will the Home Office now defer the biometrics requirements for those who are eligible for family reunion, but cannot physically get out of Gaza, until they can get to a visa application centre in Egypt or another country? Similar arrangements were rightly made for Ukrainians, and could be replicated for Gaza now, as other countries such as Canada are already doing. Will the Government now urgently operate a scheme whereby individuals in Gaza can have their family reunion visas assessed either online or by telephone, as is the case with the Canadian Government, and approved in principle before being assisted to leave Gaza, with biometrics data then being submitted in Egypt prior to travel to the UK?

Secondly, will the FCDO work urgently to ensure that all those who hold UK visas or are eligible for family reunion, but must leave Gaza in order to submit biometrics, are assisted to leave? What co-operation has there been with Egypt on that issue, and how will it be managed if the Rafah crossing closes altogether? Will the Home Office and FCDO look urgently at wider obstacles to family reunion for the family members of British citizens and residents who are trapped in Gaza? What more could be done to help British Palestinians get their relatives to safety? British Palestinians have made it clear that their families who come here will want to return home to Gaza as soon as it is safe to do so, so right of return must be built into the process.

Given that the Prime Minister only has to give a month’s notice before a general election, and we are expecting that the Labour party will be in power, I am waiting to hear the hon. Member’s answers to those questions. I am assuming that, if the Labour party gets into power, the answer would be yes, but I want to hear him say that: give us some reassurance.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. We are saying that there is a family visa scheme that exists but that is not operational, so we have to make it operational. We are proposing the method of in-principle assessment, followed by assistance, so that we can then have the biometric tests in a visa application centre.

The UK Government must continue to push for an immediate ceasefire, the immediate release of all hostages, and immediate and unimpeded aid to Gaza, and to work towards a two-state solution, with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.

It is fair to say that all of us in this House are deeply concerned and moved by events in the middle east. The barbaric attack perpetrated on 7 October by Hamas was an affront to humanity. At the same time as we condemn Hamas, lament the loss of life they inflicted and demand the release of the hostages, we are also united in our horror at the civilian casualties and the scale of the suffering in Gaza. Israel has a right—indeed, a responsibility—to defend itself against the threat from terrorists. As we have made clear repeatedly, it is important that it does so in accordance with international humanitarian law. I reiterate that point today.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Government have mounted, and continue to mount, a large-scale effort to facilitate the flow of aid that is so desperately needed. As the Deputy Foreign Secretary said in the House less than a week ago,

“We want to see an end to the fighting as soon as possible… 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…

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.”—[Official Report, 7 May 2024; Vol. 749, c. 443.]

The Minister has outlined the many threats and dangers that innocent civilians in Rafah are facing. Does he not accept that he is actually making the case for the Government to introduce a Gaza family visa scheme?

I will come on to address various points that have been made during the course of the debate today, and I will answer the various questions that have been asked about the Government’s position on this issue. It is of course the case that we continue to keep under close review the arrangements that we have in place, as Members would expect. I will also ensure that the various wider points that are pertinent to colleagues in the Foreign Office are raised directly with them following this debate. It is important that the points made by the House that are directly relevant to Foreign Office colleagues and their diplomatic engagement with leaders overseas, as well as the Israeli Government and others, are properly heard.

The Minister is being very generous in giving way for a third time. Would he accept that, given the estimates from charities that there are 17,000 orphans, we are dealing with an extreme situation, and that there should therefore be a special scheme in this regard, especially given our historic link with the region and with this particular conflict?

One of the points that I was particularly struck by in various remarks during the course of the debate was the issue of admitting children to UK hospitals to access treatment and support. Presently we have not received any specific applications, but we understand that NGOs—such as the International Committee of the Red Cross—are able to support those requiring urgent medical treatment out of Gaza. Likewise, Children Not Numbers supports children in Gaza to secure evacuation and delivers aid to families. If applications come forward, they will be treated with the utmost seriousness, in the way that I think the House would want to see; I undertake to give very careful consideration to any applications that come forward in that regard.

In one of the Government responses to the petition, they said that applications could be made through “Egypt, Jordan and Turkey”. Are we to understand from the Minister that there might be a way of making applications without having to go from Gaza to Egypt, Jordan or Turkey?

If I may, I want to come to that point in full later in my remarks, because there are various related aspects that I think are important to address fully. The arrangements are important and I know that they are of real interest to colleagues.

To finish my wider point that is important contextually, we now need to see all the various points that I raised in my introductory remarks turned into action to ensure that aid gets over the border and is safely and properly distributed. We look to Israel to meet its commitments to flood Gaza with aid. Turning now to the real substance of the debate—

Does the Minister accept that food on the border is of no aid to those who are starving, and medicine on the border cannot heal those who need it, and that not being able to guarantee the safety of civilians is essentially the reason that we need this scheme urgently?

I would argue that the principal, most important thing is to have a durable ceasefire that brings an end to the hostilities, and one that is durable in the long term. That is the best outcome for everybody in the region, but the House will recognise why that is impossible with Hamas in charge in Gaza. We continue, as a Government, to make these arguments, and we will continue to make the argument that it is imperative that that aid is able to flow in order to properly support people.

Let me turn to the substance of this debate. It is the case that we are assisting British nationals and other eligible people to leave Gaza, liaising closely with the Israeli and Egyptian authorities. However, we do not control the Rafah border crossing, and it is the Israeli and Egyptian authorities that make the final decisions on who can exit Gaza. We are aware of the unique circumstances affecting those who would like to exit Gaza, and the unusual role of foreign Governments in seeking permission to leave on behalf of individuals. The FCDO has, therefore, been able to facilitate the departure from Gaza to Egypt of Palestinians who have both strong links to the UK, by having either a spouse or children under 18 currently living in the UK, and currently hold valid permission to enter or remain for longer than six months.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am listening carefully to what he is saying. The fact is there is no safe and legal route for Palestinians to come to the UK. Not only does he refuse to set up a Palestinian family scheme—as every Member in the debate has called on him to do, and as the Government did with Ukraine—but, because of his Government’s Rwanda law, any Palestinians who come here by small boat, because they have no other means of getting here, will be criminalised and deported. Does he not regret—even a little bit—voting for that law?

I would argue that no hon. or right hon. Member should in any way give credence to the business model of evil people-smuggling gangs, who are frankly taking people’s money and sending them to sea in unseaworthy vessels, with no regard whatsoever for the lives of those individuals. Terrible criminality is responsible for those crossings, and all those crossings—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Lady has had her intervention, and the Minister is responding to it. She might not like the answer, but we cannot have shouting across the Chamber, or the debate will become disorderly.

It is a fact that all those individuals leaving French shores in small boats are leaving what are fundamentally safe countries. There is no justifiable reason for anybody to be making that perilous crossing and putting their life at risk in the way that we have seen. There have been catastrophic consequences yet again: only within the past fortnight, that young girl lost her life in the most appalling of circumstances. Evil criminality is responsible for that, and we must be very careful in everything that we say and do to ensure that the evil individuals responsible for that criminality are not able to encourage people to make those crossings. That is a very important point.

Let me return to the point I was making. Decisions as to who can leave Gaza and enter Egypt remain with the Israeli and Egyptian authorities. We will obviously keep the position under review, as I have said. There are a couple of challenges that we have to be mindful of: first, the practical challenges that are apparent in getting people out; and secondly, the need to maintain biometric checks to protect people here in the United Kingdom.

I think that the House will recognise that the security relationship with, for example, the Ukrainian authorities is very different from the one we have with the authorities in Gaza, who are a terrorist organisation. I have referred to that previously in various other debates in the House. There is an important distinction, which has to be made, regarding the security co-operation we had in the context of the immediate evacuation from Ukraine of vulnerable people via that safe and legal route; we have subsequently reintroduced the biometric checks required, but in the immediate circumstances with which we were presented, that security relationship and dynamic helped us make those changes in response to that very specific crisis.

I will say a little more about those challenges because they are materially important. First, on enrolling biometrics, setting up a route would not address the wider challenges facing people unable to exit Gaza to complete the application process by submitting biometrics. Any change to the biometric requirements would cause critical identity and security checks to not be completed, which could expose the UK public to heightened levels of harm. Regardless of that, it would not address the fact that it is the Israeli and Egyptian Governments who make decisions on who can exit Gaza and enter Egypt.

There is a strong basis for why biometric checks are vital. As I say, they are critical to identity assurance and suitability checks on foreign nationals subject to immigration control. Checks are made against immigration and criminality records. We have a duty to uphold national security as a Government and to guard against public safety risks. There have been various references to ongoing litigation. The House will understand why it is not appropriate for me to comment on ongoing litigation.

As I said in my speech, nobody is arguing that there should not be biometric checks, but they can be done in an intermediate country, such as Egypt. The Canadians operate like that, and the Canadians are also much more successful in getting people out of the country because they are on a specific list. Why cannot the UK Government just do what the Canadians are doing?

There would have to be agreement around that. The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of deferral in his speech. What I can say on that is that we have agreed to predetermine a small number of cases in line with published guidance. We will predetermine an application where a person confirms that they are able to travel to a visa application centre, they can satisfy us about their identity and there are compelling reasons for doing so in the way I have described.

There was also reference to fee waiver applications during the course of the debate. People need to apply for a visa by filling in the form and contacting UK Visas and Immigration; then the compassionate element to predetermine or waive fees will be considered.

The point about wider relatives was mentioned in a number of contributions. Under the adult dependent relative rules, an applicant must show that, as a result of age, illness or disability, they require long-term personal care to perform everyday tasks and that this can solely be provided in the UK by their relative here. If this is not met, however, a decision maker will consider whether there are compelling, compassionate and exceptional circumstances to grant leave outside the rules.

On visa application centres, although UKVI has a visa application centre in Gaza, I recognise that it has been closed since 7 October due to the conflict. Therefore, those who exit Gaza into Egypt can access UK visa application centres in either Cairo or Alexandria. Both locations have good appointment availability, with Cairo having 43% of capacity remaining for the week commencing 12 May and 76% in the week commencing 19 May and Alexandria having 74% and 93% respectively.

Statistics are very interesting, but we are here to talk about people. Will the Minister accept my invitation to meet my constituent and the constituent of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), so that he can explain to them directly why he will not allow them to look after their mum?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the point that I made earlier. It may well be that he wishes to encourage his constituent to make an application, reflecting on that point that I was able to set out in response very directly to the points that he made in his remarks. I think it is relevant in cases such as the one he described. He knows, and his colleagues know—

My hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) mentioned that we have constituents who are sisters and who have an elderly mother. We have both spoken about this, and asked whether the Minister would be prepared to meet our constituents. Would the Minister be prepared to meet them and, if so, will he be prepared to give them an estimate of the likelihood of the kind of application he is talking about being successful?

I did not have the opportunity to finish the point I was making, but the hon. and learned Lady will appreciate why I am not in a position to be able to give authoritative immigration advice on individual cases. What I can refer colleagues to are the points that I have made and the various routings that people may wish to explore in order to take their cases forward. I think she knows from previous dealings that we have had, and her colleagues likewise, that I am always very happy to engage with colleagues in the House about issues and concerns relevant to their constituents. That is absolutely no different in this particular circumstance. I will very gladly meet both hon. Members to talk about this matter.

Can I take the Minister back to the issue of children? In January, I tabled an early-day motion asking the Government to meet and support the organisation, Save Gaza’s Children. I was assured by the Deputy Foreign Secretary at the time, on the Floor of the House, that that organisation would be linked to the FCDO’s group that was working to facilitate the evacuation of children on medical grounds. This Minister has said today that there have been no applications whatever, so clearly the system established by the Foreign Office is not working. The information that we have at the moment is that the European Hospital, which was functioning, has now run out of fuel and is in blackout. The Kuwaiti Hospital in Rafah received orders from the Israeli military to evacuate this morning. The Al-Helal Al-Emirati Hospital has stopped admitting patients over the last few days. The health service is in crisis. Children are being maimed; children are being injured. Yet the Minister has said today that the system that we were promised some months ago is not operational.

I will want to go and pick up that point with colleagues in the Foreign Office and understand the specifics around it, but I will refer the right hon. Gentleman to the point that I made at the outset of my remarks, in relation to those very vulnerable children. I am more than happy to engage with him on this particular point; I would equally be very willing to engage with the charity that he references in relation to this specific point, so that we can fully understand the circumstances and fully understand the needs. The position as I understand it, as I am advised currently by officials, is as per that which I set out earlier, but we will most definitely pick up that engagement with the right hon. Gentleman and with the charity.

Further to the Minister’s comments earlier about visa application centres, he may recall that I have been writing to him about the parents of a constituent of mine, Maysara. He is a British citizen and his parents had visas to visit the UK last autumn. Those visas have now expired, and when I asked the Minister what my constituent’s parents should do, he said that they should reapply by visiting the

“nearest accessible visa application centre”

to submit their biometrics, but as many Members here today and indeed the Minister himself have acknowledged, there are no functioning visa application centres in Gaza, so can the Minister explain to my constituent what exactly his parents should do?

What I am not going to do is, again, casework on specific, individual cases in the Chamber this evening. The point that I was able to make about deferral may be something that the hon. Gentleman wishes to explore with his constituents.

The Minister will be aware that there was recently a court challenge and it was ruled that the Government’s policy on biometric deferrals was unlawful. The Home Office has been forced to issue new, interim unsafe journey guidance for cases in which someone is unable to travel safely to a visa application centre, so I am just wondering when the Government are planning to publish that new, revised unsafe journey guidance.

I am afraid that I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that, as he will appreciate, given the position that he holds as a shadow Minister, I am not in a position, with regard to ongoing litigation, to be able to do that today.

Various points were raised about processing times. If they are part of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office cohort, people are prioritised, and compassionate cases are expedited. FCDO cases are currently processed within five working days from VACs, and we continue to work intensively with FCDO colleagues to support individuals to leave.

A number of points were raised about the wider safe and legal routes landscape. I am very proud that as a country we have provided over half a million people with sanctuary in the UK since 2015. The point was specifically raised by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) about the commitments that we made in relation to the cap as part of the Illegal Migration Act. What I can say to her—I can be very specific about this—is that the work is on track to take that forward, that I expect to be able to publish the figure and that I expect to be able to lay the statutory instrument to deliver that cap for 2025 ahead of the summer recess. My message would be—

Order. The Minister is perfectly entitled to take the intervention, but I gently remind him that he must resume his seat for Cat Smith to sum up the debate no later than 7.27 pm. I call Joanna Cherry to continue.

My question was not about the cap. It was about when the Government are going to introduce the safe and legal routes that they promised during the passage of the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

The commitment, and what the law requires, is for the Government to come forward with the figure around the cap, and that is precisely what we will do. It will set out the places we are able to provide for people to be able to come, working particularly in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, through a safe and legal route to the United Kingdom in 2025. I think that is very welcome. If any areas have not provided a figure for this year, I would encourage them to come forward with offers of support in future years, because we want to see generosity grow year on year to respond to international crises around the world.

Ultimately, we need a long-term solution to this crisis. That 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 towards a two-state solution. Israelis and Palestinians should be able to live together, side by side, in peace and security. That is our ultimate goal, and we will continue working tirelessly to achieve it.

When members of the public go on the website to start a petition, it can be quite an intimidating experience, because the thresholds are so high, at 10,000 to get a Government response and 100,000 to secure a debate in Parliament. These petitioners have met that relatively easily. That shows the strength of feeling within all our constituencies about the situation.

To be very direct to the Minister, I think the petitioners will be incredibly disappointed with his response. They were asking how it can be that Palestinians have no safe routes to the UK when they have family here. The Minister has said a lot of words, but frankly I think members of the public watching will be thinking that they made very little sense. In particular, his comments about good availability of appointments in Cairo will have left people shouting at the TV screens they are watching this on. People cannot get to Cairo from Gaza. They are trapped. That is why people have started a petition for a Palestinian Gaza-specific scheme, similar to the one for Ukraine.

I would like to thank all colleagues for taking part in this debate. It has been really comforting to witness cross-party consensus and how we all spoke with one voice in support of this scheme. I think it is incredibly disappointing that the Government Minister did not follow the mood in the room. The comments about orphaned children in particular will stay with me for a very, very long time. Those children have absolutely nobody in this world. They might have a distant relative—an aunt or an uncle—here in the UK, but they do not qualify for any UK visa scheme.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for the points he made about the children who have been injured very severely, and I urge the Minister to keep his word and follow up with him on that issue. Although it is does not relate specifically to the visa scheme, it is something the UK could do to try to foster more positive relations with the Palestinians, who will be looking right now at what this Government Minister has said and feeling incredibly let down and disappointed.

I thank everyone for taking part in this debate, which has been possibly the best-attended petitions debate I have had the privilege of introducing. I know that three hours is a lot of time to commit as a Member of Parliament, but I am sure that those who have taken part did so because of the passion that we all feel, as do the more than 100,000 people who signed this petition.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 648577 relating to a visa scheme for Palestinians.

Sitting adjourned.