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Commons Chamber

Volume 750: debated on Monday 20 May 2024

House of Commons

Monday 20 May 2024

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the King has signified his Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Automated Vehicles Act 2024

Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Act 2024.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence Sector Competitiveness

Last month, the Prime Minister confirmed that this Government are committed to increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP, with a fully funded plan. Obviously, the public want to know that we will deliver value for money. That is why, in parallel, we are delivering a fundamental reform of acquisition through our new integrated procurement model.

Last week, we heard an announcement about the development of a radio wave drone killer. How is the integrated procurement model encouraging and accelerating the development of that novel technology?

My hon. Friend highlights the fantastic news, confirmed last week, that we are developing a new radio frequency directed energy weapon. It is an extraordinary capability that with one strike can inflict hard kill on multiple drones, at a cost of about 10p a shot. As for how that exemplifies the new approach, it is about the close relationship between industry, our scientists, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. It is through the strength of the industry that we drive innovation and get the best kit into the hands of our armed forces.

We are pleased that there was an announcement from the Prime Minister, and that the Department has plans, but what we actually need is industrial capacity. When the Department is handing out orders for fleet solid support ships to Spain; when it has taken 18 months to order munitions; when The Times today shows a significant drop in the number of apprenticeships; and when the Department admits that it still will not take past performance into account when awarding future contracts, what confidence can we have that there will be the industrial capacity, and the real orders, to enable our defence industry to be competitive and supply our forces?

We are massively ramping up defence capacity. The right hon. Gentleman spoke about 155 mm shells; that issue is precisely why we have reached a contractual agreement with BAE Systems, and it will be ramping up production in Wales and north-east England. We are doing the same with ships, complex weapons and, as I said earlier, novel weapons and our science base. This is all about giving our armed forces the capability that will give them the cutting edge.

The global combat air programme will be a terrific boost to our defence and aerospace industries. To maximise success, we must keep the Typhoon production lines going until it comes on board, so what are Ministers doing to ensure that we maintain exports?

The Chair of the Select Committee asks an excellent question, and I assure him that there is an effort across Government to promote key defence exports, not least the Typhoon. A key factor in our new integrated procurement model is the need to drive exportability. That will not only ensure industrial resilience, but give us protection against overly exquisite requirements from the domestic side, which can result in delayed procurement. It is a good question, and we are focused on delivering greater defence exports.

Somerset is home to several organisations in the defence sector, such as Thales and Leonardo. However, companies in defence are concerned about the shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths skills in the UK; 48% of defence employers report a shortage of workers with engineering skills. What steps is the Minister taking, alongside Cabinet colleagues, to remedy those shortages and ensure that the UK defence sector remains competitive?

The hon. Lady asks a good question. There was a previous question about defence capacity; a key part of that is not just industrial capacity and buildings, but people. She is absolutely right. I visited Yeovilton in Somerset, where I met apprentices who are involved in the programme for our helicopters. We saw a demo of artificial intelligence that is helping us to improve the availability of our helicopters. Work is happening across defence and across Government, but we want to do more to ensure that we have the necessary apprentices and key skills in our defence sector.

Since the new shipbuilding strategy was launched two years ago, Ministers have given new build defence contracts to the Netherlands, Spain and, last week, France—just two days after the Defence Secretary declared that he was “determined” that new Navy vessels would be built “here in the UK.” He is the Government’s shipbuilding tsar; why will he not back UK shipbuilding?

I point out that a shipbuilding strategy costs money, and that is why we are committed to spending 2.5% of GDP on defence, unlike the right hon. Gentleman. On his key point about the shipbuilding strategy, I have been to Scotland and seen the amazing yards where we are building the Type 26 and the Type 31. I have been to Appledore, which is contributing to fleet solid support. We are committed to a UK shipbuilding sector. As the Secretary of State confirmed in his speech last week, by value of the future order book, this country is now No. 1 for naval exports.

Defence Drone Strategy

We are making excellent progress on implementing the defence drone strategy, which I launched back in February. Our priority was to learn the lessons from Ukraine in order to build a sovereign industrial ecosystem that would enable uncrewed procurement at scale for the British armed forces. As for platform production, our immediate priority remains delivering drones to Ukraine, and I confirm that we have delivered 4,000 drones, with many more on their way in the coming months.

Does my hon. Friend agree that when it comes to the drone threat, a key priority has to be counter-drone technology, to defend our forces? Does he agree that directed energy weapons will have a key role in that regard?

My hon. Friend raises two excellent points. First, he is absolutely right: our drone strategy must include a focus on how we defend our armed forces against the threats that are out there. He is also right that a key part of the solution is directed energy weapons. In my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), I spoke about radio frequency directed energy weapons, but we have also announced our procurement of the laser weapon DragonFire. Using our new procurement system, we want to get that into the hands of our armed forces as fast as possible. That means having it on naval ships by 2027, using our new minimum deployable capability approach.

The skills of Northern Ireland’s workforce are renowned across the world. Northern Ireland would very much like to be part of the UK defence drone strategy, so I ask the Minister this simple question: what is being been done to ensure that the skills of Northern Ireland’s workforce are used for the benefit of the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

What a fantastic question. I can answer the hon. Gentleman simply. Just a few weeks ago, I was in Belfast at the Thales factory, which is manufacturing some of the best weapons available. It will be a key part of defence exports, and fundamentally a key part of future orders for the British Army. Northern Ireland is very much part of our defence industry.

I call Chris Stephens. He is not here. Can the Front Bencher answer the question as though it had been asked?

Armed Forces: Harassment and Bullying

3. What recent assessment his Department has made of trends in the level of harassment and bullying cases in the armed forces. (902895)

Mr Speaker, I will by all means answer the question. In 2023, 262 service complaints relating to bullying, harassment and discrimination were ruled admissible, compared with 227 in 2022. I am pleased to say that changes to the service complaints system in June 2022 have been encouraging people to come forward with their complaints. The “My Complaint” app, which launched in October, will make the system easier and more accessible.

The defence anti-bullying hotline is a great step forward in ensuring that members of the armed forces have the support that they need, any time of day or night. Can the Minister tell me what training advisers have had, not only on how to help our armed forces, but on ensuring that everything is completely anonymised, so that people can go forward with their life and get the support and help that they need?

Obviously a hotline is no good if the individuals at the other end of it are not trained. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. The most important thing is to ensure that people have confidence that if they come forward with complaints, they will be listened to and taken seriously.

First, I thank the Minister for Defence People and Families for inviting me to visit the defence serious crime unit, which I did last Thursday. The people there are obviously doing good work focused on tackling serious sexual and violent crimes in the armed forces. Given the doubling of reports of bullying, discrimination and harassment in the Ministry of Defence since 2019, and some cases remaining unresolved for up to three years, what is the Minister doing to address the toxic culture in his Department? Why is it that such things seem to be worsening on this Government’s watch?

I think the right hon. Lady would have to admit that a lot has been done over the past two or three years, including the setting up of the defence serious crime unit and the defence victim witness care unit. They are important. The general message has been that we have a zero-tolerance approach. It has been, “Come forward. You will be listened to and taken seriously.” It is reasonable to assume that some of the figures are the result of people now having the confidence to come forward, because their complaints will be investigated independently. Previously, that was not the case.

Biosecurity Threats

Defence remains committed to detecting biological threats. We continue to work closely with the Cabinet Office on this matter and are the lead Department for the “detect” pillar of the biological security strategy. We have prioritised funding to create the UK Microbial Forensics Consortium, which will strengthen our ability to detect biosecurity threats, now and into the future.

Over the past few years, the cost and impact of security failures relating to biosecurity has been much greater than that of those relating to physical security. As the funding for the defence of this country rises to 2.5% of GDP, will the Minister ensure that he works with the Cabinet Office, the UK Health Security Agency, the Department of Health and Social Care and others to ensure that biosecurity, including protection from synthetic new threats, is at the top of the agenda?

We certainly will. Through the biological security strategy and the associated governance structure, we are working closely with the UK Health Security Agency to co-ordinate our response to the biodefence risk, and we are investing £5 million a year in our international biosecurity programme, so we are on the same page.

Does the Minister agree that there are real concerns in the light of recent reports about the increasing recklessness with which Russian operatives may interfere in our economy, directly and indirectly, and every other aspect of British lives? Are we prepared for that kind of mischievousness?

UK-Israel Military Co-operation Agreement

An agreement for UK-Israel military co-operation was signed in December 2020. There are no current plans for the agreement to be updated, but we continually review it to ensure that it remains relevant.

The rector of Glasgow University, who is an eminent Palestinian surgeon, has been narrating the horrors of the requirement to operate, and even perform amputations, on children—often without morphine—in Gaza. He has also detailed the horrors of the use of white phosphorus munitions. White phosphorus ignites during surgery when exposed to the atmosphere and requires dousing, including during complicated operations. Why are we in a military pact with military forces that carry out such actions? If the Minister will not repudiate the pact entirely, will he ensure that the use of white phosphorus munitions in our name is not acceptable?

Of course it is not. We have no role in that, and we see no evidence of the prospect of that being used. We should focus on our confidence that Israel is an important ally, which means that we can make the point that the protection of civilians is of the utmost importance. We should also remember that at the heart of this conflict is the fact that if peace is to be achieved, Hamas need to lay down their arms and release the hostages.

If a person calls for an intifada and chants genocidal chants, they are a supporter of Hamas. People can also be inadvertent supporters of Hamas, and can aid and abet them. One way in which that could happen is through having an arms embargo on Israel while Iran continues to arm Hamas, so that they can repeat the 7 October attacks, as they have said they wish to. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government have no interest in changing their policy on defence agreements with Israel?

Indeed. We are assured that the strength of our relationship with Israel allows us to make representations about the protection of civilians, and about the increase in the flow of humanitarian aid. We do that in the context of it being an extremely important ally, while being cognisant of the broader threat from the terrorist group Hamas and Iran, which my hon. Friend mentioned.

The F-35 programme has not only given world-leading capability to our Air Force and Navy, but provided jobs and technological advancement in the UK defence industry. Could the Minister give an assurance that any review of our relationship with Israel will not jeopardise that programme?

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance. We are immensely proud of the F-35 project, which delivers devastatingly effective fighting power for us and our allies, and 20,000 UK jobs.

Following on from the 2020 agreement, in November 2021, Britain and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding, elevating the UK-Israel bilateral relationship to a strategic partnership. The partnership is underpinned by extensive security and defence co-operation, but it also states that we will co-operate to improve Palestinian livelihoods and economic development. What future does my hon. Friend see for the memorandum, in the light of the war in Gaza?

My hon. Friend asks a relevant question. Our commitment to a two-state solution in which Palestinians achieve statehood is at the heart of our diplomacy and defence posture throughout the region, and it is unchanged.

Service Accommodation

The Defence Infrastructure Organisation’s accommodation budget has not yet been finalised for the financial year 2024-25. The Government continue to invest significant sums to improve the quality of UK service family accommodation. The spend for 2023-24 on SFA maintenance and improvement was £384 million. An additional £400 million of funding over financial years 2023-24 and 2024-25 was announced as part of the defence Command Paper refresh last July.

The new head of infrastructure at the DIO, Commodore Leah Griffin, has written in her monthly newsletter to military families that the financial situation is “more challenging than ever”, and only urgent repairs will be considered. We can see that on the ground in my constituency. A service person’s partner who has had abdominal surgery has been unable to climb in and out of their bath to have a shower, and has been refused any kind of modification to assist them. That kind of financial challenge has a real impact on servicemen and women’s lives. Could the Minister look at the problem, and commit to ensuring a decent standard of accommodation for those people who put their life on the line for us?

The hon. Lady is consistent in raising accommodation issues. As ever, if she has a specific case, she is more than welcome to write to me about it, if she has not already done so. On funding, I gently remind her that we committed an additional £400 million, and because of our commitment to 2.5%, we can confirm that we are able to put another £4 billion into SFA over the next 10 years—a significant investment.

My hon. Friend will agree that it is important that our service accommodation be of high quality, but we should also support members of our armed forces in buying a home for themselves and their families. What support is there in the modernised accommodation offer to help soldiers, sailors and pilots get on the housing ladder?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which speaks to my previous career, running a small business that helped first-time buyers. Forces Help to Buy has been a great success, but we also recently confirmed support with conveyancing costs, because the cost of getting on the property ladder includes not just the purchase but all the ancillary costs. We are committed to supporting our armed forces personnel, whether that means investing in the accommodation of those in SFA or single living accommodation, or helping those who want to get on to the property ladder.

Everyone who serves our country should live in a decent home, but last month, the independent Kerslake commission’s report on armed forces housing found that the majority of service personnel are dissatisfied with housing conditions, and very dissatisfied with the maintenance and repair service. One in three service personnel still lives in the lowest-grade service accommodation. The Government’s words simply do not match their action. Can the Minister honestly look service families in the eye and say that military housing under this Government is good enough?

The debate we have been having is about investment. We put in an additional £400 million, which means that we have been able to overhaul thousands of properties, performing upgrades to deal with damp and mould and putting in new heating systems. That costs money. Our commitment to 2.5% means that we will get an extra £4 billion over the next decade. Armed forces personnel know that Labour cannot possibly deliver that, because it will not match our commitment to 2.5%.

Defence: North Sea

Protecting the United Kingdom and responding to threats in our territorial waters is core business. In conjunction with our allies and partners, we constantly monitor activity in UK waters and deter threats. Our warships patrol the North sea frequently to achieve that deterrence.

I thank the Minister for his answer. In the north Atlantic, Russian submarine activity has approached the most significant level since the cold war. Operations such as Dynamic Mongoose are a welcome commitment to both NATO and North sea security. How much of the new tranche of defence spending will be directed at the North sea and Arctic security?

Of course, we do not comment on our magnificent continuous at-sea deterrence. What I can say is that it is a matter of public record that we are committed to a magnificent new generation of Type 26 anti-submarine warfare frigates, which will achieve the competitive edge that keeps us all safe.

Does the Minister recognise that the seismic array situated at Eskdalemuir in my constituency plays an important part in our defences not just in the North sea but elsewhere? Does he agree it is essential that its capability is not in any way diminished by excessive wind farm development in the immediate vicinity of the facility?

I agree with my right hon. Friend; he is absolutely right in his analysis. The broader point is that this is another example of why, undoubtedly, England and Scotland, through the Union, are safer and better together.

Israel: UK Military Support

The UK and Israel have a long-standing defence relationship, as we have discussed already this morning. Israel is a partner in the region, and a UK-Israel defence co-operation agreement was signed in December 2020.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The problem of unconditional UK military support for Israel is that while the majority of this House and of the British public rightly support our intervention to help protect Israel from missile attacks from third countries, it is a different story when it comes to its intervention and aggression in Gaza. How will His Majesty’s Government’s policy aim to sort out that conundrum?

Nothing is unconditional. The point I have made this morning is that we are supporting our ally overcome a devastating terrorist attack. We do that because it is the honourable thing to do. Simultaneously, we make the point to our ally that the protection of civilian lives must be at the top of the operational agenda. Furthermore, we use our military capability to ensure that humanitarian aid can flow into Gaza as quickly as possible.

In the light of the damning International Criminal Court statement today, how concerned is the Minister about the potential impact on the UK’s military relationship with Israel?

It has no bearing. We will make our judgments about the legality of our actions on our own terms, and we are confident in that legality.

Operation Shader

9. Whether he has made an assessment of the adequacy of military resources allocated by the UK to Operation Shader to help deter Iranian attacks. (902902)

Our armed forces, through Operation Shader, which is focused really on the Daesh threat in Iraq, continue to support the development of the Iraqi Government in terms of their security. We commend and thank the men and women involved in Operation Shader throughout the region. We do that in the knowledge that Iran is indeed a threat that is undermining regional stability.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, the brave resistance fighters in Iran will be celebrating the demise of the Butcher of Tehran today. Iran controls Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist organisations. Given the attack by Iran on Israel, what further assessment has my hon. Friend made of the potential for Iran to launch another attack?

We take the threat Iran poses very seriously. We note that it uses its malign influence to continue to destabilise the middle east through its pernicious use of proxies. Our judgment is that that capability and intent remains. Our role in deterrence regionally is hugely important. I was very pleased recently to visit the magnificent sailors of the Royal Navy stationed in Bahrain. I reiterated that point about the fantastic deterrent effect they were having when I had a highly productive interview with the British Forces Broadcasting Service. You will know, Mr Speaker, if you listen to BFBS as I do, that that point cannot be over-made. We are grateful for the magnificent activities of our Royal Navy in the Gulf, which are keeping us all safe.

As the Minister has said, Operation Shader was originally put together in 2014 to defeat the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Liberal Democrats are very supportive of the way in which the Royal Air Force was used last month to help to intercept the Iranian bombardment of Israel, but the last parliamentary vote on Operation Shader was held in 2014, when Members were approving resources and deployments of UK armed forces to defeat ISIL. Will the Minister subject any operation that is designed to deter Iranian attacks to a debate and a vote?

It seems to me to be the settled view that Operation Shader is a good thing, and I do not sense any appetite for a parliamentary debate among colleagues across the Benches in this House. I should put it on record that I was very pleased to meet the men and women of the Expeditionary Air Wing in Romania, who have contributed so bravely over recent months to magnificent military effect through that operation.

Middle East: Aid Delivery

As we have discussed today, there is a desperate need for increased humanitarian support for Gaza. We—especially in the MOD—are working alongside partners and international organisations to enable the Cypriot maritime aid corridor initiative.

Over the past few months, we have seen shocking levels of suffering in Gaza. The only sustainable way in which to end this humanitarian disaster is an immediate ceasefire and the return of all hostages, but in the meantime aid must be provided to save the lives of innocent civilians. Can the Minister explain why there has been only one shipment of UK aid in more than six months, and none so far this year?

On the contrary, we have been hugely active. We have had 11 airdrops delivering more than 110 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Gaza, and that is in concert with our friends in Jordan. We commend the magnificent men and women of the Royal Air Force, who have been instrumental in delivering that much-needed aid.

I echo the commendation that the Minister has just given our air service personnel. However, no one can be unmoved by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, with scenes of children dying of hunger—it is utterly intolerable. I welcome the Government’s efforts to deploy UK aid flights and airdrops into Gaza, but the mounting scale of this disaster is showing that that is simply not enough. Can the Minister explain what the Government are doing to increase the number of UK aid shipments and access to Ashdod port?

We are seeking to ensure an increased flow not just through the air but by road and sea, which is why we have been instrumental in the setting up of the humanitarian pier. We commend and thank the captain and crew of the RFA Cardigan Bay, which is providing life support for those involved in the pier’s delivery. We hope that this is the first of a sequence of increased deliveries via all three routes.

NATO: UK Obligations

Our commitment to NATO is unwavering. In response to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, we have committed almost all our forces to NATO. We contribute to every single NATO mission and declare our nuclear deterrent to NATO. We show our commitment not least through our increase in defence spending to 2.5%.

The Public Accounts Committee has warned that

“deterrence can only be effective if our Armed Forces are credible.”

However, that has been “undermined” by recruitment issues, with more people leaving the forces than being recruited. What message does the Secretary of State think that sends to our NATO allies?

I am pleased to inform the hon. Lady and the House that we are now seeing a very high level of applications. Last week, the First Sea Lord told me that HMS Raleigh, where the training takes place, is the fullest it has been for more than eight years. We have seen a big increase in applications to all three services, and long may it continue.

I am sure the Secretary of State recognises that the UK plays an outsize role in NATO as a crucial bridge between the United States and Europe. Does he agree that the UK should be contributing its huge industrial expertise to EU defence and security programmes, offering NATO additional resilience and choice while securing sovereign capability through home-grown intellectual property?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: our missions do indeed play an outsized role in NATO. We are the second biggest spender in NATO and the largest spender in Europe by a country mile, as Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General, said to me the other week. As I said in my original answer, we are contributors to every single NATO mission, plus we declare our nuclear deterrent to NATO—other than France, we are the only country in Europe to do that. We will always look at ways to do more with NATO. Committing to 2.5% of GDP sends a very clear signal that we are on the side of doing that.

Maintaining freedom of passage through the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap is an essential task for NATO, particularly for the resupply of Europe in times of war. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is an equally big threat from half the Russian fleet being in the Arctic? Will he join us on Thursday 8 July at a symposium that we and NATO are holding jointly in Portcullis House to discuss defence in the Arctic?

That is a very important point, and questions have already been raised today about the size of the Russian fleet, what it is doing and where it is active. I will have to check the date, rather than answer my hon. Friend from the Dispatch Box, but I am much predisposed to attend the symposium.

We are warned by the Secretary of State that we are in a “pre-war world”, yet we do not have sufficient training and resources to undertake high-intensity warfighting, and we do not have the equipment and stockpiles for our forces to survive a prolonged campaign. It has been 14 years; when will this be put right?

The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that we have just provided the largest number of personnel to the largest NATO exercise in Europe since the cold war—Steadfast Defender, which is the largest exercise for 40 years. The United Kingdom can be very proud of the number of people we supplied on land, in the air and at sea. I have to make a fundamental point to those on the Opposition Front Bench: we cannot just wish ourselves to security; we have to spend 2.5% of GDP, and we have to set out the trajectory to get there. That is exactly what the Government have done.

Trident: Renewal Cost

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the Trident programme, but I am unclear about whether he means the Dreadnought submarine part of that. Of course, different parts of a programme often combine together, but the Dreadnoughts themselves will enter service in the early 2030s.

That was an interesting answer from the Secretary of State. The Government and the loyal Opposition have both pledged to commit to Trident renewal, investing obscene amounts of money that would be better used to improve our NHS, to help households with the cost of living and to support personnel or, indeed, veterans. According to the House of Commons Library briefing, Trident renewal is expected to cost £21 billion in 2022-23 prices, while one in three children is currently living in poverty. When will the Secretary of State agree that Trident renewal is an obscene waste of money, which could be put to much better uses?

I was recently at Faslane in Scotland, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that that is not what the people employed in the defence sector think about Trident. I can tell him something else: having stood at the Dispatch Box and been Defence Secretary, I know that the defence of this country is vastly supported by having our nuclear deterrent. In my view, every other issue that we face comes after the defence of this realm.

Although the right hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) is a valued member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I think the Secretary of State would agree that the SNP is very much on its own on the idea of scrapping the nuclear deterrent. I am put in mind of a quotation from the late Denis Healey, who said that

“once we cut defence expenditure to the extent where our security is imperilled, we have no houses, we have no hospitals, we have no schools. We have a heap of cinders.”—[Official Report, 5 March 1969; Vol. 779, c. 551.]

Is that endorsement of deterrence not as true today as it was when he gave it 55 years ago?

Service Accommodation

20. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of service accommodation for armed forces personnel. (902914)

23. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of service accommodation for armed forces personnel. (902917)

Currently, around 96% of service family accommodation meets or exceeds the Government’s decent homes standard. Only these properties should be allocated to our families.

As a base primarily for our Royal Marines, Chivenor in North Devon sees personnel stationed there for shorter periods of time than many other military bases. Will my hon. Friend consider additional support for high turnaround bases, perhaps including access to dental services for forces families where there are problems registering with local providers?

I very much enjoyed visiting RM Chivenor last summer and I congratulate my hon. Friend on being a consistent champion of the armed forces in her constituency. MOD dental healthcare provides dentistry for our armed forces personnel, ensuring that they are dentally fit and ready to deploy in the UK and overseas. The NHS provides dental care for civilians, which includes the families of armed forces personnel. I would be more than happy to arrange a meeting between my hon. Friend and MOD dental healthcare if she so wishes.

As the Department continues to sell off service accommodation for armed forces personnel, including at Whittington in my constituency, and has abandoned plans to allocate based on family size, does the Minister accept that this can contribute to lower recruitment and retention levels for the armed forces?

That is entirely why we are investing in our estate. I have mentioned the importance of the additional £400 million, and that is not abstract. It has enabled us to make a real difference to the accommodation of our armed forces by putting in thousands of treatments for damp and mould, and lots of homes are getting new doors, new boilers and so on. That is the difference the funding makes, and that is why our commitment to 2.5% is so important. It is not just about capability; it is about the homes of our armed forces personnel.

Last month, the landmark report into armed forces housing found that poor quality military accommodation had become

“a tax on the goodwill of service personnel and their families”.

Does the Minister agree?

The hon. Lady is welcome to send me a copy of that report, although I am not sure it is entirely impartial. I look forward to reading the conclusions—[Interruption.] Presumably it recognises that if we want better accommodation, we need to put the funding in, so I assume that its conclusions recommend that Labour commit to 2.5%.

Armed Forces: Security Threats

14. What steps he is taking to ensure that the armed forces are adequately equipped to tackle security threats. (902908)

We have considerably strengthened the UK’s defence in recent years and the Prime Minister’s announcement to increase defence spending to 2.5% signals our intent to invest further to ensure that our armed forces are equipped to deal with the threats we face. We are embracing innovation, investing in warfighting capability and bolstering the UK’s industrial base by reforming procurement.

The war in Ukraine shows that drones will play a crucial part in future conflicts, so what are the Government learning from what is happening on the battlefield to ensure that our armed forces have the equipment they need to defend us from drone attacks?

That is an excellent question from my right hon. Friend, and I am pleased that so many colleagues on this side of the House are asking about drones. At the heart of our defence drone strategy is the commitment to learn from Ukraine and from the frontline, and we are well placed to do that because we have joint leadership of both the drone capability coalition in respect of Ukraine with Latvia, and the maritime coalition—where uncrewed systems have been so important—jointly with Norway. There are two key steps we are taking. One is to improve governance, to cohere that learning across defence and into our armed forces. The other is to have a strong relationship with industry, and I can confirm that next month we will be holding an industry day in the MOD with drone companies from across the country.


15. What recent assessment he has made of the level of risk posed by hostile cyber-activity to the UK’s security. (902909)

We take the risk of hostile cyber-activity very seriously. Our Department contributes to the national security risk assessment and the national risk register, and of course plays a key role in delivering the national cyber strategy to respond to hostile cyber-activity against the UK.

British cyber-security is among the best in the world, as the sector has innovative companies employing 58,000 people and revenues of £10 billion or more. Under this Government, though, the Ministry of Defence’s record on cyber-security only gets worse, with breaches tripling over the last five years. What steps is the Minister taking to work with British cyber-security innovators to overcome his Government’s lax record on cyber-security, to support British innovation and, crucially, to keep our armed forces safe?

We are doing all those things at pace and, of course, the scale of the challenge is very significant. We are injecting a huge amount of money and institutional energy into ensuring that our cyber-defences are up to scratch. We are at the point of the spear when it comes to defensive cyber, as illustrated by the brilliant men and women who are part of our National Cyber Force, and we commend them.

Middle East: UK Military Security

16. What recent assessment he has made of the security of the UK’s military bases and service personnel in the middle east. (902910)

Of course, the force protection of UK service personnel and our bases across the middle east is kept under constant review. Having been in Bahrain and Qatar in recent days, I can report that the morale and conditions of those posted to the middle east tend to be very high—they are a very purposeful set of people—but, for operational security reasons, I would not make any comment on the security readiness action plan.

I pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of the British armed forces personnel in the middle east who have kept us safe from terrorism and other hostile threats over many decades. Will my hon. Friend consider relooking at recognising all people who served historically in Aden for a service medal?

That was a very important campaign, and I am very happy to engage with my hon. Friend. I imagine that he might be asking about a specific constituency case, and I am very happy to sit down together to consider that.

Defence Funding: Efficient Spending

I am committed to ensuring that the defence uplift to 2.5% means that we spend the money as efficiently as possible. The tremendous work by my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement on the integrated procurement model is very important to the outcome of that spending.

I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend commit to the efficient use of defence spending, which we may not have seen in the past. Will he comment on the excellent example of his recent announcement on saving Royal Marine warships and the fact that this Government have committed to building up to six more for the commandos?

That is absolutely right. It is very important that our Royal Marines are able to continue their activities, so not only will we keep the existing ships running but we have announced that we will build up to six new multi-role ships, which is all part of our programme to build 28 ships. That is why our shipyards are so very busy.

Because of Government plans to mothball HMS Albion, key artefacts from the ship, including the sword of peace, were given to Chester town hall for safekeeping, and then, on 14 May, the Secretary of State announced that HMS Albion will not be mothballed. When would he like the artefacts back? Exactly when is HMS Albion going to be put to sea again?

We never announced that she was being mothballed, so I am very interested to hear about these artefacts. I was on HMS Albion the other week, so I will be very interested to engage on what has been removed.

Once again, I can clarify that both those ships—both used by our Royal Marines—will remain in active service. It is the case that more modern ships are being procured, which is possible only because we are prepared to put a date to spending 2.5% on defence.

Increased defence spending is obviously only a means to an end. It is not an end in itself. The Treasury rightly takes a jaundiced view of the MOD’s ability to spend money wisely so, to that end, can the Secretary of State advise the House on how much taxpayers’ money and defence budget was spent refitting HMS Argyll, only for her to be paid off immediately after she came out of refit?

There is no way that the Treasury, given its very tight hold on the fiscal regime, would approve spending 2.5% of GDP on defence if it did not have confidence in how we will spend it. Again, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the excellent work of the integrated procurement model, which will make all the difference. I am very happy to engage with him on individual defence decisions, but the fact of the matter is that if we do not commit to spending the money, we cannot put the pipeline in place to build things like the new ships and submarines we need.

I am unsurprised that I got no answer to my question because I never got an answer to that question on 8 January or to my point of order on 24 March. I was only informed by the Minister for Defence Procurement, who is whispering a response, I hope, into the Secretary of State’s ear, of the fate of HMS Argyll after I read about it in the media. Will the Secretary of State tell me a different answer, then: did BAE Systems approach the MOD to buy HMS Argyll, or did the MOD approach BAE Systems?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman recognises that my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement has written to him on the subject, and I have no doubt that he will wish to engage with the hon. Gentleman further.

Topical Questions

We are very mindful of the situation in Ukraine, particularly in Kharkiv where Russia is making, or trying to make, inroads. This is an existential battle for all civilised countries that believe in democracy and freedom, and it is the case that we must ensure that the world continues to keep up the efforts. It is not right for there to be pauses in our support and, when there are, the sort of losses we have seen on—I hope and believe—a temporary basis in Kharkiv around the villages to the north are an inevitable consequence of inaction.

Lieutenant General Pavliuk, Ukraine’s commander of ground forces, recently confirmed that medium and short-range strike drones now kill more soldiers on both sides of the conflict than any other weapon. Is that not both a grim milestone in the history of warfare and the strongest possible signal that His Majesty’s armed forces must master that developing technology if they are to preserve and enhance their combat effectiveness?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is one reason why this country has been at the forefront of providing drones. Indeed, we have made an enormous £325 million contribution to the drones coalition and provided 4,000 drones in the latest package, and there is a lot more to come for Ukraine. This bloody war is now killing, or causing casualties to, up to 1,000 Russians a day, and it needs to come to a stop.

The Government’s increase in military aid to Ukraine for this year and the years ahead has Labour’s fullest support. Weekend newspapers reported that D-day celebrations are at risk from RAF cuts, and the latest MOD figures confirm that nearly 50,000 full-time forces personnel have been cut since 2010. The Defence Secretary’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), admitted that this Government have “hollowed out and underfunded” the forces. He is right, isn’t he?

I very much appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s support for the ongoing support to Ukraine of £3 billion a year. I gently say to him that it is not possible to provide that support without a route to getting there, with the 2.5%; otherwise, it will come out of the rest of the budget. I, too, read the story over the weekend, and it is simply not the case. We will have, in fact, 181 parachuters—exactly the same number as those who jumped in that location on D-day.

We will also raise defence spending to 2.5% of GDP to meet increasing threats, but this is not the magic wand that will fix 14 years of Tory failure: the Army, cut; the Navy, cut; the RAF, cut. Even defence spending—at 2.5% under Labour in 2010—has been cut by £80 billion since. Is it not clear that the armed forces cannot afford another five years of Conservative Government?

The armed forces cannot afford a Labour Government if Labour cannot answer one simple question: when?

T3. I and other colleagues, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) and the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), would like to follow up on the Minister’s comments to the House in March regarding the tragic sinking of RFA Sir Galahad in the Falklands war? Does the Minister have any update on the release of further files regarding that case? (902920)

Following meetings with colleagues and veterans, having personally reviewed the files at the National Archives, and in the interests of transparency, I am placing copies of two recently reviewed extracts from the 1982 board of inquiry report on the loss of RFA Sir Galahad in the Library of the House. Those extracts are drawn from different sections of the inquiry and have been returned to the National Archives within the main report, which will be publicly available.

T4.   Yesterday, hundreds of RMT members at the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service took industrial action over their pay, which has fallen behind by 36% in real terms, allowing for inflation, since 2010. Earlier, the Minister for Armed Forces commended RFA crews for the work they are doing, particularly off the coast of Gaza. Will the Minister for Defence People and Families agree to meet RMT officials to ensure that RFA seafarers are paid fairly for the vital work they do supporting the Royal Navy? (902921)

As the grandson of an RFA officer, I defer to nobody in my admiration for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. I commend the RFA for maintaining its operational commitments, in particular in relation to Gaza. Clearly, we listen to what Nautilus has to say with a great deal of interest and I hope the dispute will be ended as soon as possible.

T5. RAF Valley is the largest employer of skilled workers on Ynys Môn. The UK Government have cemented their commitment to RAF Valley with £175 million for a new flying school, £600 million for Hawk engineering support and £44 million to improve the second runway. What assurance can the Minister give to engineers and those who work on the Hawk T2 maintenance contract that there will be well paid, local jobs for them post-2040? (902922)

I very much enjoyed my visit to RAF Valley in February. I can confirm that the RAF has already started its standard capability investigation process into the future of combat aircrew training. The comprehensive review will include the procurement of the replacement of the current advanced jet trainer capability. The investigation will consider options for aircraft, simulators and associated combined live and virtual training, such that we can continue to deliver world-class training capability for UK armed forces. It will provide evidence on likely cost and timing of the replacement training solution to the Hawk T2.

T9. I am sorry, Mr Speaker, I was thinking of an even better question— Stick to the main one. Indeed. As you know, Mr Speaker, my family comes from a military background, although I am not a military expert. Time and again, my constituents say they have heard about a shortage of shells, ammunition and others things that we cannot supply to the Ukrainians. What is the hold-up? Why are we not working 24/7 to produce the tools that our Ukrainian allies want? (902926)

The hon. Gentleman asks about the supply of shells. I am delighted to tell to him that we previously confirmed the provision of 300,000 artillery shells to Ukraine. The latest figure is that this country has procured 400,000 artillery shells directly into Ukraine.

T6. That is a smart tie you are wearing, Mr Speaker. How can it be that despite spending billions of pounds on 22 A400M aircraft, we have only one available for D-Day 80? If there are more, let us hear about it. Why did we retire a highly reliable aircraft in the Hercules, for a highly unreliable one in the A400M? Have we sold the Hercules aircraft? If we have not, can we put them back in service? (902923)

As the Secretary of State confirmed, we will have two A400M aircraft available for D-Day 80 on 5 June. The number of people who will be dropped will be 181, for the very good reason that that is the number of paratroopers who, at sixteen minutes past midnight on D-Day itself, landed and took the bridge that we named Pegasus.

T10. In my Westminster Hall debate last year, the Minister for Defence Procurement announced plans to close the Chicksands base in my constituency, and pledged to write with further detail. I am yet to hear more from the Minister, but my constituents are, understandably, becoming deeply concerned. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue further and what more we can do in the meantime to address the shocking state of accommodation on the base? (902927)

T7. I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to spend 2.5% of GDP on defence spending, but after we have won the next general election, growth will come to the economy and there will be much more money to be spent on defence? How would my right hon. Friends spend that money in the defence of the realm? (902924)

My hon. Friend is right to point that out, because some assumptions have been a little misplaced in this House until now. We will ensure that we can do a whole range of things that will help to make this country stronger and more secure. On that, he has my word.

I thank the Minister for Defence People and Families on behalf of Falklands veterans and their families, including Mike Hermanis, who brought the issue to me, for releasing the documents relating to the bombing of the Sir Galahad in 1982, which exonerate the Welsh Guards. I know that the campaign, which includes my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), will continue to seek the full truth, but does the Minister agree that instead of being blamed the Welsh Guards are owed our thanks for their service?

I agree with the hon. Lady. As the Government have made clear consistently throughout, no blame is attached in particular to the Welsh Guards. They committed themselves heroically on that day, and I join her in saluting them, in particular those who died.

It is of huge strategic interest to Britain and the west that Israel prevails against Hamas and their funders in Iran. The Foreign Secretary was right to state last week that ending military exports to Israel would embolden Hamas and Iran. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a move would both harm UK defence interests and disadvantage our own armed forces, who rely on Israeli-made battlefield equipment?

My hon. Friend is correct in her analysis. We are particularly focused on ensuring that our assets in the region contribute to the release of the hostages.

What is the policy of His Majesty’s Government on defence deals and arms sales to countries whose head of armed forces is under arrest warrant for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity?

As the Minister for Armed Forces pointed out, the licensing regime is entirely independent of that. We support the country. We support the only democracy in that part of the world. We do not support the individuals in that Government; we support the country itself.

In Fareham, we are rightly proud of our world-class aircraft carriers docked in nearby Portsmouth, providing thousands of jobs and being a huge credit to our Royal Navy. However, we all know that neither the Queen Elizabeth nor the Prince of Wales has as many jets, small warships or submarines as originally planned. Will the Minister please tell me how further defence spending will be used to bring online the full complement of F-35 jets, for example, so that our carrier strike group has the full capability to meet the modern threats of today?

My right hon. and learned Friend asks an excellent question. She is right about the importance of the carrier strike group. On the key point about the F-35s, we have confirmed 48 aircraft by 2025 and a further 27 by 2033, but in addition to that it is about working with our allies so that our carriers are at the heart of NATO operations, and ensuring that we have the maintenance and crews in place. As we saw recently, when we needed to get the second ship active, she was ready in eight days. That was a phenomenal achievement. It shows how effective we are at getting our carriers in place when we need them.

T2. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs promised last year to end veterans homelessness by the end of that year. Instead, veterans homelessness rose by 14%. Are Ministers proud that their Government are failing to deliver on their promise to their veterans? (902919)

I say to the hon. Lady, who has been consistent in that line of questioning, that one person homeless is one person too many. It is important to emphasise that most people leave the armed forces in a very good position, with skills that will advance their careers in civilian life. I do not want her giving the impression that people are damaged as a result of the service that they have given; the very reverse of that is the case. We will of course continue to support veterans, charities and initiatives to ensure that, particularly in places such as naval base port areas and garrison towns, we house everybody who needs accommodation.

Britain’s world-leading motor sports industry is worth at least £10 billion annually to the UK economy. The sport’s governing body, Motorsport UK, has proudly sponsored access to military venues for many years, but despite recently signing the armed forces covenant, that access appears to be diminishing. Will the Minister please agree to meet me, and perhaps the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, to discuss better third-party revenue-generating opportunities for the MOD estate?

I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. On the subject of motorsport, I stress to him and the House that the MOD has a brilliant partnership with McLaren, jointly innovating to look at, for example, technology relating to electronic vehicles. I am more than happy to meet him and look into the matter further.

A constituent of mine who rents his home from the Ministry of Defence has recently been given notice to quit within two months, without any reason. He has never missed any rent payments and he has been unable to contact his landlord with a query on the instruction. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the situation?

I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss that; I have seen several cases of people having to leave their service accommodation. In general, the DIO and the Ministry of Defence will ensure that people have more than the minimum allowed by legislation, and we bend over backwards to ensure that people leaving service accommodation have somewhere to go to.

My hon. Friend will appreciate the huge importance of what the UK defence industry is doing to help Ukraine get the equipment it needs. Can he update the House on what his Department is doing to increase the amount of ammunition getting to the front line in Ukraine?

My hon. Friend, who has Defence Equipment & Support in his constituency, has been a consistent champion of supporting Ukraine and he comes to every questions session to make that point. We are working hard to get more munitions in there; I mentioned 400,000 artillery shells, but I could list an enormous amount of ordnance. I can tell him and the House that we are not just doing everything possible ourselves, but cohering our allies and learning the lessons for our own armed forces. We have to be in this for the long haul, and the fight for Ukraine’s freedom is the right one.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker, I think my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement may have—inadvertently, I am sure—just misled the House of Commons. Pegasus bridge was captured in a glider-borne assault by the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, not a parachute assault. I know that because I was at the D-day 70 with the then Prime Minister David Cameron at 12.16 am to commemorate the assault. I am sure it was an error by my hon. Friend; no one will want to believe that an MOD Minister tried to change the history of D-day because the aircraft did not work.

South West Water: Brixham Contamination

We now come to the urgent question. I will run this short: the question for the water company is about those who are affected, not other parts of the UK—so just for clarification, it is a tight UQ.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement on South West Water and Brixham’s contamination.

On Monday 13 May, South West Water was notified by the UK Health Security Agency of cryptosporidium cases in the Brixham area. South West Water undertook monitoring from Monday evening into Tuesday, with the results on Wednesday morning identifying crypto in the Hillhead distribution area. A boil notice was issued for customers on Wednesday 15 May to cover both the Hillhead area and the Alston area. I know that has caused considerable concern and disruption to the local community.

To date, UKHSA has identified at least 46 confirmed cases of cryptosporidium but, given that symptoms may take up to 10 days to emerge, obviously that number may continue to rise. Two people have been hospitalised. Two bottled water stations were initially opened on Thursday 16 May, and in my call with the chief executive on Friday, I requested that a third be opened and the hours extended, both of which then happened effective from Saturday.

I also raised concerns with the chief executive, including those shared with me by my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about inadequate compensation. That was raised to £150 for residents in the Alston supply area and has now gone up to £215 for those continuing to be affected in the Alston area. A helpline has been established for businesses and I requested that it work with local MPs to streamline the process. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries visited the community on Friday.

Some 16,000 properties were initially subject to the boil notice, but 85% of them—32,000 residents in 14,500 properties that receive their water from the Alston reservoir—have now had the boil notice lifted. Not only have all the tests on the Alston reservoir been clear, but South West Water says that the positive test of the valve supports its contention that the most likely cause is downstream of that reservoir. If that is the case, those 85% of residents were never subject to any water issues and the boil notice was applied on a precautionary basis. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that there will be ongoing concern, so daily testing of that water will continue for the foreseeable future.

The Hillhead reservoir has now been drained, cleaned and refilled. A flush of the network, which aims to remove traces of cryptosporidium detected in the system, was started this morning. We are working with South West Water and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, recognising the ongoing disruption to the remaining 15% of residents. I know that South West Water will want to comply fully and in a timely fashion with the investigation of the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

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

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister with responsibility for rivers, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), for their extraordinary co-operation over the past week. I have wanted for nothing from them, and they have done an extraordinary job. I thank them and their team for being on hand at a moment’s notice to liaise with me and with the local organisations in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster).

In Brixham the anger is palpable, the frustration is apparent and the sheer inconvenience that has been put on residents by South West Water is absolutely abhorrent. I have spent the past week and weekend delivering leaflets that South West Water should have been delivering —it has failed to update residents on the situation before them. I have spoken with residents and businesses about compensation and the reputational damage suffered by Brixham, one of this country’s finest coastal communities.

Last week, South West Water was accused of making people ill, not by an organisation, but by Tanya Matthews in a Facebook post. That post received 1,200 responses in which people identified common symptoms, yet South West Water did nothing. For 24 hours, people were still able to drink the water and South West Water continued to say that there was no problem. The reason 46 people are ill—and that is most certainly an underestimation—is the time period in which they were able to go on drinking the water.

Of course, it is welcome news that the Alstom reservoir has been cleared and independent monitoring and verification has been undertaken by the UK Health Security Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, but it is still wholly unacceptable that the 8,000 residents in the Hillhead reservoir area are still dependent on bottled water and cannot trust their water systems. In the 21st century, that is a totally unacceptable position for us to be in. South West Water and its management carry the responsibility for it.

I welcome the fact that we have three drinking water stations in Churston, Broadsands and Freshwater Quarry, and that 500,000 bottles have distributed—the teams on the ground have done an extraordinary job, and we should applaud them—but I have four questions for the Secretary of State. Can UKHSA and the DWI continue to provide independent monitoring over the coming weeks and months to ensure that there is confidence in the drinking water supply? Will there be an investigation into South West Water’s handling of this matter? Why, when the compensation is being upgraded, are people still paying their water bills? Finally, the damaged reputation suffered by businesses and the community of Brixham needs to be addressed, so will the Secretary of State hold South West Water to account?

My hon. Friend is quite right to express the huge local concerns. He and I have spoken multiple times a day since this issue arose, and he has been extremely effective in raising the concerns of those he represents.

There is recognition that the initial comms, the mishap with some of the leaflets and the comms about compensation are all areas that South West Water will address moving forward, having sought to take his feedback. He is right about the urgency in addressing the Hillhead reservoir for the remaining 15% of the population. That is certainly uppermost in my conversations with the relevant stakeholders.

With regard to an investigation, issues with drinking water are treated with the utmost seriousness within Government, so I can assure my hon. Friend that these issues will be looked at extremely closely. I spoke with the chief executive of the Drinking Water Inspectorate at the weekend, and I had a meeting with one of its senior leaders just before this UQ. I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be a thorough investigation, as there always is with these kinds of issues, and I urge all parties, including South West Water, to co-operate fully and in a timely fashion.

Another day, another example of the depths of failure to which this Government have taken us. I cannot believe that I am about to say this, but after 14 long years of Conservative rule, in 21st-century Britain, our water is no longer safe to drink. Of course, the Government will be flailing around, desperate to clasp on to somebody else to blame, but this crisis is theirs, and it is this Government who must show some leadership and take responsibility for it. They were the ones who weakened regulation, leaving our Victorian-era sewerage system starved of investment. They turned a blind eye and left water companies to illegally pump a tidal wave of raw sewage into our rivers, lakes and seas. Only last month, the Labour party warned that our nation’s health is at risk because hospital admissions for waterborne diseases have skyrocketed by two thirds since 2020. Is this an example of the Government’s plan working? Is this what they think success looks like?

And now this, as the icing on the cake of failure: a parasite outbreak in Brixham with South West Water. Some 16,000 homes and businesses have been advised to boil water before drinking it; over 46 cases of cryptosporidiosis have been reported; more than 100 people have reported symptoms; and a 13-year-old boy has been admitted to hospital. That is appalling.

Enough is enough, so today we are calling on the Government to urgently adopt Labour’s plan to put the water companies into special measures in order to clean up their water. As a matter of utmost urgency, the Government must strengthen regulations so that law-breaking bosses face criminal charges, and go further by giving the regulator new powers to block the payment of bonuses until water bosses have cleaned up their filth. With Labour, the polluter will pay, not the public.

I have one question for the Secretary of State. With contaminated water hospitalising children and record levels of toxic filth in our water systems, how much worse does the situation have to get before the Government adopt Labour’s plan to put the water industry into special measures?

Members on the Labour Front Bench like to claim that their party wants to be taken seriously as a potential party of Government, yet once again we see shadow Ministers pre-empting the investigation and trying to shift the issue to that of raw sewage. Obviously, it is for the Drinking Water Inspectorate to fully investigate this incident and the water company, but the initial information shared with me suggests that the concern is about farm contamination, not raw sewage. Of course, we need to wait for the results of that investigation, but the Labour party is just jumping to a conclusion that fits a narrative; it is not interested in what the facts suggest.

If the hon. Lady had actually listened to my statement, as opposed to pre-empting it with a question that she did not then change, she would have heard that 85% of those who were subject to the boil notice were upstream of this incident. From the information I currently have, they were not subject to any issue with their water. Because of the seriousness with which we take these issues, a precautionary notice was quite rightly issued to those residents, but the evidence presented so far suggests that there was no issue for those residents because the contamination happened downstream.

As for the wider point-scoring and political narrative, in this House there is usually a distinction between serious issues such as this one and the usual party knockabout. What the community want to hear is reassurance that all the investigations have been done, that we are getting the compensation right, and that we are getting the remaining 15% onstream—all of which, incidentally, the hon. Lady did not even ask about. She did not seem interested in those things, as opposed to the natural knockabout that she was trying to do.

However, let me divert to the topic she wanted to talk about. We have a fourfold increase in the number of investigators, so the water companies cannot mark their own homework. In this instance, the Drinking Water Inspectorate is conducting a full investigation; phase 1 has been completed, and it is now on phase 2. I have quite a list, Mr Speaker, but since you are signalling to me, I will close with the fact that the largest criminal investigation launched by the Environment Agency and Ofwat is currently ongoing.

First, I commend my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for the very effective action he has taken on this issue over the past few days. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in an incident of this kind, speed is of the essence in diagnosing the problem, taking steps to remedy it, communicating with and reassuring customers and, if appropriate, compensating them? Does he believe that South West Water has shown the necessary urgency in dealing with this problem, and if not, what remedies do local people have?

I agree with my hon. Friend that speed is absolutely critical, first for the detection of the issue itself and the remediation of any health risk, and then in speed of communication so that there is no vacuum in which misleading information can arise. On the wider point about the speed of comms, I think this is an ongoing issue, because one of the concerns that my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) have raised with me is the impact that negative publicity might have on tourism in the area. That is exactly the sort of area I have been pushing South West Water to think about proactively, so that it can get ahead with support for comms and advertising. It should be working with the business groups on which there has been a significant impact, so that it can demonstrate that it gets it, support the business community and create processes that are simplified, streamlined and easy to access.

The belated and pitiful offer of compensation by South West Water is somehow symbolic of the complete disconnect that the very wealthy people who run our privatised water industry seem to be suffering from, and I am afraid the Secretary of State is suffering from the same disconnect. He has given the impression that he is not responsible for the water industry and its failings over recent years. He is responsible, so please can he answer the perfectly reasonable questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy): why will he not make the bosses of the water industry criminally liable, why will he not put the industry into special measures, and why will he not stop these outrageous bonuses being paid to their CEOs?

The right hon. Member seems to have missed what we have done. First, as I touched on in my response to the urgent question, I personally have been chairing calls with the chief executive and key stakeholders —for example, on Friday and Saturday. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, who has responsibility for agriculture, visited the community on Friday morning and has had daily contact with the chief executive. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) and I have been speaking multiple times a day on these issues, so the right hon. Member’s suggestion that we have not been involved just does not cut the mustard.

On bonuses, we have already taken action. We have a consultation with Ofwat on restricting bonuses, because I actually agree with the right hon. Member that, where there is serious criminal wrongdoing by a water company, bonuses should not be paid to executives. We actually agree on that point, and we are taking action.

On the right hon. Member’s third point, about prosecution, as I touched on in my answer to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), we currently have the largest criminal prosecution by the Environment Agency of water firms. Much to my frustration, I am restricted in some of the things I am allowed to know about that investigation, because it is a matter for an independent body—the Environment Agency. However, that investigation is ongoing and it is the largest in the EA’s history. It shows that we are prepared to get tough with the water companies.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for securing this urgent question, and I applaud all his efforts over the past week. South West Water’s response to this crisis has left a lot to be desired. Many people in Brixham have fallen seriously ill, while hospitality and tourism businesses across Devon have seen their takings slashed and bookings cancelled. They all deserve compensation. Can my right hon. Friend outline the timescales for the ongoing investigation and when the results of this investigation will become public?

My hon. Friend makes extremely pertinent points both on compensation and on speed, which was the point made previously by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter), and I think both apply. The point about compensation applies particularly to businesses because different businesses are impacted in different ways. The point about speed also applies to the investigation itself, which is why I said earlier that it is really important that South West Water—this is the signal that he and the House are sending it—co-operates fully with the investigation and in a timely manner. I know that local Members of Parliament want to be able to explain to their constituents exactly what the cause was, what the monitoring was and what action was taken, and I am sure that South West Water will have heard my hon. Friend’s points.

In 2022, the Liberal Democrats called for a ban on bonuses for water company bosses if a company has committed criminal breaches. Last year, 10 water bosses received bonuses totalling £2.5 million, and the CEO of South West Water forwent her £450,000 bonus. The Secretary of State said that Ofwat should carry out a consultation to define criteria for a ban on bonuses, but what size bonus does he think the CEO of South West Water ought to receive later this month?

As a Minister, one has to follow the correct legal process, and the legal process for an independent arm’s-length body requires it to have a consultation. As I have said, we are already moving on that; we have already said that we want to ensure that bonuses are not paid where there is serious criminal wrongdoing. What would be more refreshing from the Liberal Democrats is an explanation for why their MPs opposed Thames Tideway, the £4.5 billion scheme that will make such a difference to cleaning up the Thames and has been in place for the past eight years. Not once has the hon. Gentleman come to this Chamber to explain why, having asked so many questions on water, his MPs opposed Thames Tideway and that £4.5 billion of investment, which will do so much to clean up the Thames.

Although I am in the north of the county, I have been contacted this past weekend by concerned constituents. What more can be done to reassure them that this issue cannot be repeated in the north of the county, which is very proud of its farming and cattle? If this is found to be the result of a safety valve in a field, what more will be done to reassure other customers who fortunately were not affected this time but might be in future?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. It is not just those residents directly affected who are concerned; so too will be those in the surrounding areas. Indeed, some of the initial media reports referred to “south Devon”, which led many residents in the wider catchment to think that they might be directly affected. That is why the speed of the investigation and the work that the Drinking Water Inspectorate is doing is so critical, so that the facts can be quickly established. As I said, I spoke to the chief executive at the weekend. It has completed phase 1 of its investigation, and that work is ongoing.

There is a crisis of confidence in South West Water. Its response has been hopeless, frankly. It has had poor communications, poor initial compensation, as every extra pound seems to be dragged out of it, and it has a record of failure on sewage. What will the Government do to help restore confidence that South West Water is not only competent and able to manage our water supply, but that the water that comes through our taps is safe for everyone to drink? How can we encourage people to have faith in the outstanding and brilliant tourist offer that we have in the south-west, which has been battered yet again by bad news because of South West Water?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the brilliant tourist offer, and there is work to do to support businesses, particularly in the hospitality trade, which will have been impacted by the reputational damage that the area has had as a consequence. I assure him that I made those points to South West Water. As I said in my statement, I have also spoken to it about compensation, which has moved, although there is further work to do, particularly with the business community. That is also why the investigation is so important, so that we get to the bottom of exactly what happened. That is important for residents who have had the disruption of the boil water notice, and for residents further afield.

This has been a devastating event. Although constituents in Newton Abbot were not directly affected, this is an issue of trust, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) said. It is about trust in South West Water as an organisation—there is a long way to go before that trust is restored—but also about trust in the quality of our water, and in our regulators to hold organisations such as South West Water to account. What do Ofwat and the Drinking Water Inspectorate do to challenge the water plans that these water companies put out to test what could go wrong? What risk analysis and assessment is there? What contingency plans are put in place? Trust can be rebuilt not just through the inquiry, but by making absolutely sure that the regulators—in all their guises—have in place the appropriate testing to ensure that this sort of thing cannot happen again.

My hon. Friend talks about the huge importance of the quality of drinking water. That is why we have the Drinking Water Inspectorate there, and it will be fully investigating, and it is why a precautionary approach was taken with Alston. As I have said, on the information that I have, the tests suggest it was upstream of any problem, but a precautionary approach was taken. That indicates how seriously we take these issues. It is important we get to the bottom of exactly what has happened and what has caused this incident, and the DWI is working actively to do that.

In 2022, the Drinking Water Inspectorate found South West Water guilty, saying that the company

“did not follow best practice”

to avoid and shorten events where customers report problems about the taste and quality of their drinking water. It was fined a quarter of a million pounds. It was found guilty the year after for a six-year period of illegal discharges of sewage. The CEO awarded themselves almost £2 million in bonuses and awarded £112 million in dividends. Is it not time that all bonuses, all dividends and all bill rises are suspended until our water companies sort themselves out? If they do not, they need special administration.

May I remind Members that when they are asking a question or speaking, they are meant to look at the Chair, not at somebody down at the bottom of the Chamber, because we might be unable to hear what is being said?

It is because of the good work of the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) that I was able to ask that question.

In the end, the good work of the hon. Member for Totnes was only allowed by the Chair—think that way first!

I will take that steer, Mr Speaker, and direct my remarks your way. First, there is agreement on bonuses that where there is criminal wrongdoing, they should not be paid. On dividends, there is a debate with Treasury colleagues on the balance between attracting investment into the sector and taking further measures. I have also touched on the largest ever criminal prosecution currently under way with the Environment Agency. It is important that we do not pre-empt the investigation. We need to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened and who is at fault, where there is fault. I am sure that as part of that, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and Members of the House will look at what monitoring was in place, what different parties did and whether any lessons from previous incidents were sufficiently learned. Those are issues that should rightly be explored through the investigation, and that is what the DWI is doing.

Israel and Gaza

With permission, I would like to make a statement on Israel and Gaza.

Over seven months since the horrors of 7 October, there is no end to the current conflict in sight. This Government want to bring the conflict to a sustainable end as soon as possible, but as so often with conflicts of this nature, the question is not about our desire for peace, but rather about the best means of achieving it. We continue to believe that 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 would then have to work with our international partners to turn that pause into a sustainable permanent ceasefire.

Building momentum towards a lasting peace will require a number of elements, including removing Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel. It was a deal of that kind that secured a pause in the fighting before Christmas—the only such pause since Hamas’s horrific attack. It was that approach that the United Nations Security Council endorsed just last month, following some effective British diplomacy.

A deal with Hamas for a pause in the fighting would involve exchanging hundreds of Palestinian prisoners charged with serious acts of terrorism in return for the hostages’ release. I do not underestimate how difficult that must be for the Israeli Government, but it is the best way forward that we see right now.

We continue to work closely with the United States and partners in the region to support such a deal. We do not believe that the International Criminal Court prosecutor seeking warrants will help in that regard. As we have said from the outset, we do not think that the ICC has jurisdiction in this case.

A deal as I have described offers the best prospects of reuniting more hostages with their families; the anguish for them is unbearable. I am sure that the whole House joins me in holding the family of Nadav Popplewell in our thoughts at this deeply distressing time. We are still working intensively to establish the facts after the awful video that his Hamas kidnappers released last week. The Foreign Secretary met the family last week to hear more about their ordeal at first hand. Likewise, we send our condolences to those families whose loved ones the Israeli authorities stated last week had died.

At the same time, the toll on civilians in Gaza continues to rise. Images from the strip give us some sense of what they endure: civilians piling belongings on to a cart led by a donkey, or seeking to scrape together a meal in a makeshift shelter. We have seen appalling attacks on aid convoys and UN offices by Israeli extremists, and the tragic deaths of UN and other humanitarian personnel in Gaza.

We keep in close contact with Sigrid Kaag, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator, and we condemn all attacks on aid workers and support the United Nations’ call for an independent investigation. The Government of Israel have previously set out publicly their commitment to increase the flow of aid into Gaza significantly, but we need to see far more. The Prime Minister impressed the urgency of that on 30 April. In the past 10 days, the Foreign Secretary has spoken to Israeli Ministers Ron Dermer and Israel Katz. He has called on them to implement in full Israel’s aid commitments. We want to see: humanitarian aid allowed to enter through all relevant crossing points, including in Rafah; critically needed goods flowing in, particularly fuel and medical supplies; effective deconfliction processes to ensure that aid can be distributed safely and effectively; critical infrastructure restored and protected; evacuations for all those eligible; concrete action to protect civilians and minimise casualties; and, as Israeli Minister Benny Gantz said over the weekend, more planning for reconstruction and a return to Palestinian civilian governance of Gaza once the fighting has ceased.

We remain absolutely committed to getting aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering, and we are working with a wide variety of other Governments and aid agencies to deliver aid by land, sea and air. I am delighted to confirm to the House that we have now successfully delivered British aid on to Gaza’s shore using the Cyprus maritime corridor, which we and our partners—notably, the United States, the United Arab Emirates and Cyprus—made operational just last week. We have committed almost £10 million in funding. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay is acting as a logistics hub for the operation.

We have now delivered more than 8,000 shelter coverage kits alongside aid from the US and UAE, with more aid to follow in the coming weeks including hygiene kits and forklift trucks. Work to develop other effective partnerships for the delivery of aid continues. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is in Qatar today, discussing a health partnership for Palestinians so that a British medical training agency can support doctors and health practitioners treating Palestinian patients.

We know that much, much more aid is required, but that delivery by land remains the quickest and most effective option, so we continue to work closely with Oman to maximise the aid delivered via the Jordan land corridor. I pay tribute to all those aid workers, military personnel, diplomats and medical professionals who are involved in Britain’s efforts to save lives and alleviate the suffering of civilians in Gaza. I confirm to the House that, last week, intense efforts by the Foreign Office led to the departure from Gaza of three British aid workers who were at risk from an outbreak of fighting.

As the fighting continues, we estimate that around 800,000 Palestinian civilians have fled from where they were seeking shelter in Rafah to other parts of the southern strip. The extent of this displacement is why we have been clear that we would not support a major Israeli military operation in Rafah, unless there was a very clear plan for how to protect people and save lives. We have not seen that plan. We and 13 of our partners, including France, Germany, Italy and Australia, set out our concerns in a detailed letter to the Israeli Government.

After more than seven months of fighting, it is becoming difficult to imagine the realisation of a lasting peace, but Britain continues to try to build momentum towards that goal. That will require not only the release of all the hostages and an end to the current fighting, but the removal of Hamas’s capacity to launch attacks against Israel; Hamas no longer being in charge in Gaza; the formation of a new Palestinian Government for the west bank and Gaza; and a political horizon for the Palestinians, providing a credible and irreversible pathway towards a two-state solution. That is what we continue to strive towards: peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. The conflict has now gone on for 226 days. That is 226 days of destruction; 226 days of Israeli hostages still in chains; 226 days that have led to 35,000 Palestinian deaths; and 226 days where the risk of further regional escalation worsens every day. We will keep repeating our call until it happens: there must be an immediate ceasefire, as this House supported through Labour’s motion and as demanded by the United Nations Security Council resolution. Diplomatic pressure must now go into overdrive to bring the fighting to an end.

Labour has been opposed to an Israeli offensive in Rafah for months. The UK Government should now work with the United States to try to prevent a full-scale Rafah offensive, by being clear that they will assess UK exports and, if it goes ahead, join our American allies in suspending weapons or components that could be used in that offensive.

When we last met on this subject, I asked the Deputy Foreign Secretary to confirm whether he or the Foreign Secretary had received from Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials any assessment or policy advice—not legal advice—that the threshold had already been met. He dodged the question, and did not answer. I repeat that question to him today. The whole House will be interested in his response.

Last November in this House, the Deputy Foreign Secretary appeared to row back on Boris Johnson’s shameful abandonment of the International Criminal Court when he said:

“It is not for Ministers to seek to state where the ICC has jurisdiction”.—[Official Report, 14 November 2023; Vol. 740, c. 513.]

The Prime Minister followed up in December when he said:

“we are a strong and long-standing supporter of the International Criminal Court.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 336.]

But in today’s statement, the Government have backtracked, U-turning on one of the Britain’s most fundamental principles: respect for the rule of law. Labour has been clear throughout this conflict that international law must be upheld, the independence of international courts must be respected, and all sides must be accountable for their actions. I ask the Minister very simply: does he agree?

Arrest warrants are not a conviction or a determination of guilt, but they do reflect the evidence, and the judgment of the prosecutor about the grounds for individual criminal responsibility. Labour’s position is that the ICC chief prosecutor’s decision to apply for arrest warrants is an independent matter for the Court and the prosecutor. Does the Minister agree? Labour believes that the ICC’s independence must be upheld and respected, and that it is right that the conduct of all parties is addressed by the Court. Does the Minister agree? Labour believes that the focus of politicians should be on achieving an immediate ceasefire, in order to end the war in Gaza, free the hostages, alleviate the humanitarian crisis and create a pathway towards a lasting political solution. Does the Minister agree? Labour believes the UK and all parties to the Rome statute have a legal obligation to comply with orders and warrants issued by the ICC. Democracies that believe in the rule of law must submit themselves to it. Does the Minister agree?

Labour supports the ICC as a cornerstone of the international legal system. That support applies regardless of the Court’s focus, whether it is in Ukraine, Sudan, Syria or Gaza. Does the Minister agree? This gets to the heart of a simple question. Does the Conservative party —the party of Churchill, who was one of the founders of our international legal framework—believe in the international rule of law or not?

I start by assuring the shadow Foreign Secretary that the Government’s answer to his final question is, as he would expect, yes. It is worth stating that if one looks carefully at his high-flown oratory this afternoon, we do not see very much distinction between the positions of His Majesty’s Opposition and the Government, as I will set out.

The right hon. Gentleman starts off by saying that this is day 226 of the incarceration of the hostages, of the destruction that has taken place, and of the risks of escalation. I completely agree with what he says. He says that the diplomatic pressure must rise. I can tell him that the diplomatic pressure is intense on all counts and in all places. He says that we must work closely with the United States of America. Let me assure him that we are working intensively and closely with the United States.

The right hon. Gentleman asks me about the advice we receive, and suggests that I dodged the question on the earlier occasion. I certainly had no intention of doing so. I can tell him that we receive all sorts of advice from all sorts of places, but we do not—as is the custom and practice, as he knows well—disclose our legal advice. We are always careful to follow it meticulously; that is my answer to his question.

The right hon. Gentleman asks: is this a matter on which the International Criminal Court should act independently? My answer is that of course it is, but we do not necessarily have to stay silent on what the court is doing, and we certainly are not doing so. On his question about the letter from a former Prime Minister, as we have said from the outset, we do not think that the ICC has jurisdiction in this case. The UK has not recognised Palestine as a state, and Israel is not a state party to the Rome statute.

As I say, if we split away some of what the right hon. Gentleman said today from the oratory that he customarily displays in this place, we see that the positions of the Opposition Front Bench and the Government remain very closely aligned.

My condolences go to all the families who, over the last few days, have received the most devastating news—news that their loved ones have been murdered—and also to the Popplewell family, who have received heinous treatment from Hamas, including the publication of that outrageous video. Last week the Select Committee pushed the Minister for the middle east to do more to secure proof of life of those who are being held hostage, and that remains our call.

I welcome the effort on the maritime port—it is good that that is now in place—but it will be unable to function come September owing to the changes in the tide, so this is a short-term solution. Since 6 May, when the Rafah offensive started, only 40 trucks have gone through the Kerem Shalom crossing. In Rafah no fuel has gone in, no medical evacuations have taken place and aid agencies have started to suspend the sending in of their own people, which is extremely concerning. When will the Rafah crossing reopen, and will the Erez West crossing finally accept aid, not just through Jordan but also through Ramallah, because otherwise the amount of aid that is needed will simply not get in?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for her questions. She has made the point about proof of life before, and as she knows, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad has been pursuing that issue—in direct response, I think, to her Committee. She made the very good point that the maritime option will continue only as long as the sea conditions are satisfactory, and that emphasises the importance of getting aid in by road; the ability to do that is one of Britain’s specific demands of the Israeli Government. She also pointed out that Rafah has effectively been closed for the last few weeks, and drew attention to the great difficulties that that causes. We hope very much that there will soon be a deal between Egypt and Israel to put that right.

We are on a very dangerous road if we believe that the rule of law is something from which a Government can pick and choose. Unlike the Government, we very much welcome the decision of the International Criminal Court to issue warrants for the arrest of the Hamas leaders Sinwar, al-Masri and Haniyeh for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed on, and subsequent to, 7 October. We have always unreservedly condemned the appalling Hamas attacks, the murders and the hostage-taking, and we repeat our call for the immediate release of the hostages.

Given the ferociously disproportionate Israeli response, which has seen 35,000 dead, 100,000 injured, tens of thousands of children orphaned, civilian infrastructure in ruins and the cutting off of food, water, electricity and medical supplies, we also welcome the ICC’s filing of applications for warrants for the arrest of both the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The ICC says that it has evidence, including interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses, that shows that Israel has intentionally and systematically deprived the civilian population of Gaza of what they need to survive. It has referred specifically to Israel using starvation as a weapon of war, and intentionally directing attacks against a civilian population. All these are acts that constitute a crime against humanity. The ICC has also confirmed everything that we have said about the crimes of 7 October, and Israel’s use of collective punishment and ethnic cleansing in response to those crimes.

For eight months, this Government have told us that they cannot make an assessment of breaches of international humanitarian law, but they have today—because it suits them—made an immediate assessment of the decision of the International Criminal Court, whose panel of experts consists predominantly of UK lawyers, simply because they do not agree with it. It is shameful and unforgivable that for eight months this Government have chosen to deny the evidence of their own eyes, and have given political cover and munitions to Israel. We have to assume, sadly, that if today does not put an end to the UK licensing of arms exports to Israel, absolutely nothing will.

The position in respect of the ICC is simply not as the hon. Gentleman set out. The ICC has not done what he suggested; it has done nothing of the sort. He suggested that it had already found the answer to these allegations, but the truth is that the pre-trial chamber needs to consider the evidence, and to then reach a judgment. Let us not jump through all these hoops at once when they are simply not there to be jumped through.

Like the shadow Foreign Secretary, the hon. Gentleman asks whether we are playing fast and loose with the rule of law. We are certainly not, and I hope that he will attend the main debate today, when he will see exactly what the Government think about the rule of law in all cases. Just because someone supports the role of the ICC, it does not mean that they have to be devoid of a view on what it is saying, and the Government are giving their view. As I said, we do not believe that seeking warrants will get the hostages out, get aid in or deliver a sustainable ceasefire, which remains the UK’s priority.

I ask this question in my personal capacity, not as Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. In general, I am a strong supporter of the work of the ICC. The terrorist attack was undoubtedly designed to provoke an overreaction by the Israelis and to polarise societies, and it has succeeded in both those aims. May I ask the Minister to encourage the House to read the ICC’s statement in full? Helpfully, it is available online. May I urge people with a partisan view on either side of this atrocious issue to seriously take on board what the ICC is saying about the activities of the side they support, as well as those of the side they oppose?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point about ensuring that the debate is informed by facts, not rhetoric.

I am a little bit confused. The Government have previously said that they will not endorse any military operation in Rafah because it would be against international law. The Minister has said today that that would be the case unless there was a very clear plan on how to protect people and save lives. What has changed?

Nothing has changed at all. We have repeatedly made it clear that we cannot support an attack on Rafah without seeing a detailed plan. Clearly, that means a constructive plan that abides by IHL on all counts.