Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 31 March 2022

House of Commons

Thursday 31 March 2022

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Cyber Resilience

12. What steps the Government is taking to strengthen domestic cyber resilience against potential impacts from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (906428)

Our new national Government cyber security strategy sets out our approach to making the UK more resilient to cyber attacks and countering cyber threats. We have undertaken significant outreach within the Government and critical national infrastructure, including with the UK devolved Administrations, to provide mitigating advice to bolster UK preparedness.

I am grateful for that answer. We know that Russian-sourced cyber attacks rose by 800% in the 48 hours immediately after Putin’s renewed attack on Ukraine. As his ground war falters, we can expect cyber warfare to be ramped up even more. I understand that EU countries are establishing a cyber security fund to protect civil society and the private sector against Russian attacks, so what steps are the Government taking to help civil society and the private sector to protect themselves?

We have set out a range of measures as part of our whole of Government, whole of society approach. That was the essence of the cyber strategy that we launched before Christmas. It includes working with local authorities, which have been particular victims, and takes on board the lessons from, for example, the attack on the Irish health system. It includes looking at regulation and helping with procurement so that products fit for cyber risk are bought. It has a particular focus on skills, with areas such as the north-west having a cyber corridor where we have, as part of our levelling-up work, a real focus on getting the cyber skills we need across all parts of the UK.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a wake-up call for everyone in this country. We are under threat of cyber attack every single day. What lessons have the Government learned from the invasion to prevent cyber attacks on our schools, education, transport system and all the things that we rely on every day?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Before the Russian invasion, the rationale for the national cyber strategy that we launched in December was to make the UK more resilient. As we have just discussed, that requires a whole of society approach, but it also requires specific action within Government, which is why I launched the further Government cyber strategy, working closely with the National Cyber Security Centre, which is a world leader in its field.

The Prime Minister says that he is serious about eradicating Russian influence from our country, yet his Government have sat on their hands for two years, with the majority of recommendations of the Russia report still yet to be implemented. On cyber security, the Russia report exposed the complete lack of accountability within and across Government Departments when it comes to cyber matters. New legislation has only made lines of responsibility more confusing. We are vulnerable. The National Cyber Security Centre has managed an unprecedented 777 cyber incidents over the last 12 months, up from 723 the previous year, with 40% aimed at the public sector. Either the Government are not taking the Russian cyber threat seriously, or the Minister does not have control of his own Department. Which is it?

There is consensus across the House on the need for a whole of society approach on cyber. On the charge that the Government have sat on their hands, the fact that we launched the cyber strategy before the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out shows that that is not correct. Looking at the spending review, there is a significant uplift in funding for the National Cyber Force, which I visited in the north-west. Councils such as Preston, which you will be familiar with, Mr Speaker, are heavily engaged in terms of the skills agenda for the NCF. A huge amount of work has been done on that.

In terms of the wider Opposition charge that the Government are sitting on their hands, one need only look at what President Zelensky has said about the Prime Minister’s response, the military support, the sanctions support, the bilateral aid––where the UK has been a leader––and the work to ramp up our response on refugees. If the Opposition are unhappy with what President Zelensky has said, then look at what the Russian Government have said about the way in which the Prime Minister has been at the front of the pack in ensuring a united western response.

Covid-19 Contracts

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the need to ensure value for money in the award of covid-19 contracts. (906411)

Her Majesty’s Government’s priority throughout the pandemic has been to protect the lives and livelihoods of citizens across the United Kingdom. We have been clear from the outset that all contracts, including those designed to tackle coronavirus issues, must continue to achieve value for money for taxpayers and use good commercial judgment, and that the details of any awards made should be published in line with Government transparency guidelines.

According to the National Audit Office investigation into the management of PPE contracts, billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is still at risk. Between March 2020 and October 2021, it cost £737 million to store excess PPE, and costs are currently £7 million per month. Over half the VIP suppliers provided PPE that the Department of Health and Social Care considers unsuitable for frontline services; in addition, some 1.5 billion items of PPE are currently in storage and expected to expire before they can be distributed. What is being done to understand the governance issues around this and the cost of that waste? How will that be reported to the House?

The Government were facing an emergency. PPE was needed immediately. It was obviously right to order more than was necessary—that was fundamental. At the beginning of the pandemic, nobody knew precisely how much would be needed, but we knew we needed supplies. The Government succeeded in getting domestic production, excluding gloves, up from 1% to 70%.[Official Report, 26 April 2022, Vol. 712, c. 7MC.]

The hon. Gentleman refers to 50% of suppliers having something faulty: all that means is that in a shipment that may have been of tonnes of PPE, one item was faulty. It does not mean that 50% of the items received were faulty. That is a fundamental error that people have been making in deliberately misunderstanding what the National Audit Office has said. Our duty was to get PPE in quickly. That was done properly, professionally and to the benefit of the nation.

The Minister talks about value for money, yet we know that the Government handed hundreds of millions of pounds of our money to an offshore company involving a Tory peer, created just days before and without any transparency, that sold Government PPE at three times the price it had bought it for. It is now in mediation because the PPE was not even fit for use. Millions of items are now stuck in storage, costing us even more.

The Government refuse even now to reveal what they know about the company in question, and our letters to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster go unanswered. Perhaps the Minister will answer this: when will we finally get the promised procurement Bill? What safeguards will be in it to stop yet more public money from being wasted and to end the so-called emergency bypassing of procurement regulations?

This is a classic socialist point of view—that we should not have done anything to get PPE in urgently and, to go to the hon. Lady’s earlier question, that we should have just sat comfortably upon our hands and allowed PPE not to be provided around the country. The Government got on with doing the job that was necessary, and of course they ensure value for money. Let anyone who has overcharged us be in no doubt: we are after them.

DWP Office Closures

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the planned closure of her Department’s offices. (906413)

The Department for Work and Pensions locations plan is in line with the wider Government Places for Growth programme. That programme aims to deliver a more geographically diverse civil and public service that will better serve the public. The recent announcements will support the DWP’s delivery of a strategy that will, over the next 10 years, reshape how, where and when it delivers services. These closures are not part of a plan to reduce headcount.

The moving of 411 jobs from Chorlton in my constituency will have a serious impact on the district centre and the shops and services that they help sustain; undoubtedly, the same will apply to the other 40 offices in towns and suburbs across the country. How do those office closures contribute to the Government’s stated aim of spreading civil service jobs around the country and, indeed, to levelling up?

People are being asked to move either three miles or eight miles away. They are having one-to-one bespoke meetings asking them how they would like to carry on working. As I say, all 411 jobs will be staying in the civil service because such important back-office jobs are needed. People are being asked to find where the best place is for them to work. If they want to carry on working in other civil service jobs in the area, they can transfer.

I am on a roll, Mr Speaker. The last time I asked whether the Government are planning to sack hard-working civil servants, as the Minister for Government Efficiency has proposed, he sidestepped the question. Now we know why. The Government have since announced the closure of 41 DWP offices across the country, in the middle of an economic crisis and when their services are needed more than ever. All of the offices being closed entirely are outside London, and the vast majority are in the very areas that have been promised more investment. So much for levelling up.

Will the Minister now tell us just how many jobs are at risk? Will she guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies, and will she explain how this fits into the Government’s plan to reform the civil service?

The hon. Lady asks a number of questions. Regarding the question asked by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), the landlord wants the property back and wants to redevelop the area, which will bring other jobs to the area. However, the most important thing is, on these very important back-office jobs for these 411 people, that they are not looking at any reduction in headcount.

Contaminated Blood Products: Sir Robert Francis Report on Compensation for Those Affected

4. When the Government plan to publish the report by Sir Robert Francis on compensation for those affected by contaminated blood products. (906414)

Sir Robert Francis delivered his report to me on 14 March, and I will carefully consider his findings and recommendations. It is my intention to publish the compensation framework study alongside the Government’s response as soon as possible, and in sufficient time for the infected blood inquiry and its core participants to consider them before Sir Robert gives evidence to the inquiry.

In the five years since the UK Government finally agreed to hold a public inquiry, 90 victims of the contaminated blood disaster have died in Scotland alone, 27 of them just in the last year since Sir Robert Francis was asked to consider compensation mechanisms. The inquiry team and victim groups need sufficient time to look at his report, so does the Minister not recognise how disrespectful it is to the victims of this disaster to delay publishing the report and then announce the Government’s response and decision without hearing their views?

It is extremely important that all those who have suffered so terribly can get the answers that they have spent decades waiting for. The hon. Lady knows that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) who initiated this inquiry after 30 years of successive Governments not doing so, and it is Her Majesty’s Government who commissioned, proactively, the study that we are talking about this morning. What I have said is that I will consider the matter very carefully, and all due and appropriate considerations are being given to all of the factors that the hon. Lady has mentioned and to other factors, too. We will do that in sufficient time for the inquiry and its core participants to consider them before Sir Robert gives evidence.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there is another NHS treatment disaster in the making, in that there may be 10,000 or more people who have suffered serious injury or even death as a result of adverse reactions to the covid-19 vaccinations? Will he give an assurance that those people will get justice immediately rather than have to wait for decades?

Order. That is a very weak link. Sir Christopher is usually better than that. I think that is a poor effort from him. Let us move on to Kate Osamor.

Covid-19 Pandemic: Public Inquiry

5. For what reason the public inquiry into the covid-19 pandemic will not hold public evidence hearings until 2023. (906415)

The timing of the statutory inquiry’s various stages is, under the Inquiries Act 2005, a matter for its independent chair to determine.

Many bereaved families and campaigners are anxious to hear the truth about the Government’s handling of the pandemic in a public inquiry. Meanwhile, the Government have admitted that none of the Prime Minister’s mobile phone messages up until April 2021 will be accessible to the inquiry, because he got a new phone. In the light of that, will the Minister confirm a date when the public hearings will be formally established?

What the Government are doing is following the statutory provisions of the Inquiries Act 2005, which, as the hon. Lady will recall, was passed by a Labour Government. The Act says that it is up to the inquiry chair, in this case Baroness Heather Hallett. She is a leading figure and is dealing with the matter, and it will be for her to determine dates.

I spoke to some of the bereaved families at the memorial march this week, and they are furious and devastated that the public hearings of the covid inquiry will not be starting in the spring, as promised; instead, it looks as though it will be spring next year. This inquiry cannot be compromised any further, so have the Government learned the lessons from the deletion of the WhatsApp messages, which would no doubt have been crucial evidence in this inquiry, and will they ensure that any pandemic-related messages from Ministers and former Ministers in WhatsApp or private email accounts are passed over and safely stored to prevent further unfortunate losses of evidence?

I do not accept the contention that there has been any loss of evidence. Baroness Hallett has confirmed that her investigation will begin once the terms of reference are finalised. It is logical that evidence has to be gathered before it can be heard, and she has said that she intends to gather evidence throughout this year, with public hearings beginning in 2023. She has made it clear that she will do everything in her power to deliver recommendations as soon as possible. We all want that.

British Industries

The GREAT campaign, for which the Cabinet Office has responsibility, showcases to the world all four corners of our nation and our thriving industries. Working with other Departments and arm’s length bodies, the GREAT campaign partners with the private sector to promote our industries internationally and encourage trade and investment with the UK. As of last year, GREAT had an average return-on-investment ratio, since its launch in 2011, of more than 15:1 to the UK economy.

Bracknell lies at the heart of the silicon valley of the Thames valley, and we are very proud of our overseas businesses and British firms. Can the Minister confirm what we are doing to make sure that the sanctions against Russia do not negatively impact British businesses?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for businesses in Bracknell, and he makes a very good point. I reassure him and businesses all over the UK that the overall impact on the UK economy of sanctions will be limited. Some firms will be more exposed than others to Russian trade and financial market measures, but we have put in place mitigations to manage the impact on UK businesses and workers. We are also putting in place the appropriate licences to allow certain businesses to keep running and pay staff.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will know that many UK companies believe it is difficult to access that help from UK non-governmental organisations. Can he reassure me that he is doing what he can to ensure that embassies, consulates and those bodies are getting the proper resources and are prioritised to help UK businesses win in global markets?

That is absolutely the case, and I know from my previous role at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that our missions around the world are home to some of our best salespeople. They are absolutely on message when it comes to promoting UK businesses and making sure that we are doing our best to stand up for businesses all around the world. They do a fantastic job, and we have plenty of programmes under way to ensure that that continues to be the case.

Small Business Bids for Government Contracts

7. What steps the Government is taking to increase opportunities for small businesses to bid for Government contracts. (906417)

10. What steps the Government is taking to increase opportunities for small businesses to bid for Government contracts. (906420)

15. What steps the Government is taking to increase opportunities for small businesses to bid for Government contracts. (906431)

We are increasing opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises by transparently publishing contract pipelines and simplifying bidding processes. These measures are working, and the latest central Government procurement figures for 2019-20 show that £15.5 billion was paid to small and medium-sized businesses to help to deliver essential services for UK taxpayers.

Under policy procurement note 06/21, the new carbon reduction plan requirements are obligatory for any Government procurement of more than £5 million. That is especially onerous for SMEs, including those in my constituency of Northampton South. How will Ministers try to make this more proportionate for SMEs, which have much less ability to afford such costly bureaucracy?

I am sure that the ears of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency will have pricked up at the suggestion of any regulation that is onerous and will want to look at that in detail. It is worth reminding the House that the £5 million figure applies per annum and that advice is available—only one plan is required and there are private sector organisations that provide advice and support, some of which is free. However, my hon. Friend raises an important point and I am sure my right hon. Friend will want to look at that to reassure himself and the House that it is proportionate to need.

Both the report from the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in April last year and the national food strategy, which came out last July, made recommendations to the Government on transforming public sector food procurement. While we still await the Government’s response to the food strategy, we will need shorter, more local supply chains, so that we can get great-quality, sustainable British food into the public sector. The south-west stands ready to be used as a pilot to test out a dynamic procurement system, but plans are stalling after funding from the Crown Commercial Service for the South West Food Hub was withdrawn. What can my right hon. Friend do to speed up the roll-out of the dynamic procurement model? Will he look again at supporting the South West Food Hub as a pilot, because it is doing great work?

I am extremely keen to work with my hon. Friend on this issue. He raises an important point and I am happy to meet him as a matter of urgency to take this forward. It is worth reminding the House that there was not specific funding for this; the memorandum of understanding with the South West Food Hub did not include specific funding. The CCS had been using its existing headcount and funding to establish a commercial solution for food, but the wider point he raises is a very valid one and I am extremely keen to explore it with him.

Small businesses experience frustration in getting on to the list of both local government and national Government contracts, so I welcome the light-touch approach that my right hon. Friend is taking. Will he assure me that taxpayers will also benefit from the transparency, so that everyone can see what contracts are being made, how much they are for and what the benefit is in the long term?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely valid and important point: simpler and more transparent processes, ones that are more accessible to the innovation of our small and medium-sized enterprises community, in turn drive far better value for money. As constituency MPs, we all see that, across the House, with our SMEs. This is very much at the heart of what the Minister for the Cabinet Office and colleagues are driving through with the procurement legislation that is planned, and it is exactly the point that we want to take forward.

Many moons ago, after the global financial crash, Tameside Council developed an initiative called “Tameside Works First”, which was a way of circumnavigating the then Official Journal of the European Union rules on public procurement and meant that the council could award far more contracts to local companies, massively benefiting those local companies. We do not have OJEU rules any more, so I would like to offer Tameside Works First to the Minister. Let us have a Britain Works First initiative and encourage local government and central Government to do more to award contracts to British companies.

The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate point. We have all seen in our communities that local businesses often have a pride in the service they give because it is within their locale and they know the local school, business or hospital involved. Their own workforce have an interaction with it, so it is not just about the quality of the service, but the pride in what they are delivering. That is not always reflected in simple tender prices that are bid. It is very much at the heart of the procurement legislation that we look at social value, for example, how many disabled employees a bidding company has. We need to consider that wider social value, looking at issues such as food miles and quality, not simply at the money that is bid. This is also part of having a more transparent, accessible and simple process that enables SMEs such as the ones to which he alludes to take part in those contracts.

In my Strangford constituency and across Northern Ireland, we have large numbers of small and medium-sized businesses, with excellent people and entrepreneurs with talent and ability. What can be done to enable such businesses in Northern Ireland to obtain Government contracts and reinforce the fact that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is always better together?

I absolutely concur that we are better together as the United Kingdom. The ability shown in the pandemic to act across the United Kingdom, including through the firepower of Her Majesty’s Treasury in respect of schemes such as furlough, has amply demonstrated that.

On the hon. Gentleman’s more specific point, one material thing that can be done is on the visibility of the pipeline of available contracts. There is around £250 billion-worth of public procurement and around £50 billion-worth of central Government public procurement, and I am extremely keen that SMEs in Northern Ireland are able to get visibility of that pipeline, so that we can tap into the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of which the hon. Gentleman speaks.

Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform

14. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations of the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform report published on 16 June 2021. (906430)

16. What steps his Department is taking to promote growth and innovation following the UK’s departure from the EU. (906432)

We will bring forward a Brexit freedoms Bill to end the special status of retained EU law. It will accompany a major drive to reform, repeal and replace retained EU law, thereby cutting at least £1 billion-worth of red tape for UK businesses. The Government’s “The Benefits of Brexit” paper reinforced Departments’ commitments in response to TIGRR, and Departments are pushing ahead in delivering the recommendations in its report.

Will the Government make progress on the TIGRR recommendation to replace the EU clinical trials directive with a new modern framework to ensure that people can access life-saving treatments quickly and that our world-leading medical research sector can thrive?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her terrific work on the TIGRR report to provide so many ideas for the Government. I assure her that I am working closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who was also involved in the TIGRR report and now has ministerial responsibility in many of the medical-related areas. The consultation on the proposals to reform UK legislation on clinical trials to protect the interests of participants while providing a more streamlined and flexible regime to make it easier and faster to run trials closed on 14 March 2022. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is analysing the more than 2,000 responses that were received and preparing the Government response. There is great urgency behind this work.

Coastal areas have their own unique set of challenges and opportunities. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend outlined the Government’s cross-departmental strategy to promote growth and innovation in areas such as Waveney. In particular, will he set out the Government’s proposed replacement for assisted area status, from which Lowestoft benefited?

My hon. Friend is a particular champion for coastal communities—especially for Waveney—and has been since we entered Parliament together in 2010. East Suffolk Council is working with local businesses and the community on its £24.9 million town deal for Lowestoft. We are no longer bound by burdensome EU state aid rules, so assisted area status will be replaced by new a subsidy control regime. The Subsidy Control Bill, which was introduced to Parliament in June 2021, provides the framework for the new UK-wide regime. It is back under our control and, under the Subsidy Control Bill, we will have a new system. Through the new regime, public authorities throughout the United Kingdom will be able to award bespoke subsidies that are tailored to local needs.

The Minister just claimed that the Government are cutting £1 billion-worth of red tape as a result of Brexit, but the Commons Public Accounts Committee, which has a majority of Conservative MPs, says that Brexit red tape is costing businesses £5 billion per year. Does the Minister accept that finding?

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman is joining thousands of readers of the Sun and of the Sunday Express in pointing out ways in which we can cut red tape further. There is more joy in heaven over the one sinner who repenteth than over the 99 who remain pure.

The Financial Times has reported that the checks on food imports that were due to be introduced in July will be delayed yet again. In the middle of a Tory cost of living crisis and a period of food insecurity that may have short-term benefits, but, as the British Veterinary Association has highlighted, it is not sustainable, and it serves only to highlight the absurd claim that Brexit would reduce red tape. What possible Brexit opportunity can the Minister identify from delaying these checks yet again, because of the extreme harm they would have caused, and what long-term solutions are the Government exploring?

The SNP once again wants to be ruled by the European Union. This is the most extraordinary claim from a party that wants to be independent. It wants to be independent for one minute, and then it says to our friends in Brussels, “You take over because we are not able to do it for ourselves; we are too weak, feeble and frail to be able to stand on our own two feet, so we’ve got to get somebody else to do it.” The great advantage of being out is that it is up to us. We have the single trade window coming forward, which will be world-beating, and potentially one of the best systems anywhere, cutting out bureaucracy not just for people with whom we are trading in the European Union, but globally, because we in the Conservative party have a global horizon, rather than this narrow Brussels-based horizon of the Scottish nationalists.

I will attempt to pick the bones out of that one when I read Hansard. Hearing of Brexit opportunities reminds me of that classic comedy, “Abbott and Costello in the Foreign Legion” when Bud and Lou get lost in the desert and come across an ice cream parlour that everybody knows to be a mirage except them, and that is exactly what this is—a mirage. Many of our performers are now having to rely on the charity, Help Musicians, for a £5,000 grant so that they can afford to take their performances to Europe. Why do our performers now require charitable help, and what happened to that promised post-Brexit bonfire of red tape?

In 1661—[Interruption.] I am not with Abbott and Costello; there is a much better Carry On where they are in the desert and Kenneth Williams is leading them in the Foreign Legion. Let us go back to 1661. In 1661, outside in Old Palace Yard, the public executioner took all the Acts that were passed by the illegitimate Cromwellian Parliament and burned them. I have to say that I would like to do something similar to what was done between 1972 and our departing from the European Union. We are building up the kindling wood thanks to the readers of The Sun who are sending in their brilliant suggestions.

Memorial for Victims of Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery

11. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of erecting a memorial for victims of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery. (906422)

There is no disputing the horrors of what occurred during the slave trade, which is why we commemorate the annual International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on 23 August.

A number of my constituents are part of the Memorial 2007 project, which is a campaign to set up a memorial for the millions of Africans enslaved in the transatlantic trade. The right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor promised that he would meet me and the campaigners, but then the schedule did not allow that to happen. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster now commit to meet me and the campaigners of the project?

One reason why the UK Government were engaged with the UN memorial in New York was to ensure that the suffering and trauma inflicted as a result of the slave do not happen again, so we contributed to the memorial there. Even as a constituency MP, I think of Thomas Clarkson. There are already memorials of the leading figures in the campaign against slavery, including of Thomas Clarkson who should be remembered alongside Wilberforce. I will ensure that somebody from the Cabinet Office meets the hon. Lady to discuss anything further that we can do.

Cyber Security Strategy

13. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to reduce cyber crime through the Government Cyber Security Strategy. (906429)

The Government’s cyber security strategy will strengthen the public sector’s cyber resilience, making it harder for malicious actors, including cyber criminals, to disrupt Government functions. Building organisational cyber resilience and introducing measures to enable Government to defend as one will ensure that the Government present an increasingly hard target.

Will my right hon. Friend please consider a report by the Royal United Services Institute entitled, “The Silent Threat”, which calls for fraud to be made a national security priority, so that the full machinery of the state can be brought to bear on criminals often based overseas?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, and it is one that Cabinet colleagues are looking at, not only in the context of covid fraud and issues such as bounce back loans, but, as he rightly says, in light of the RUSI report and its recommendations. We are discussing with the Home Office and industry stakeholders how we can best commit to ensuring that all possible action is taken to address the risks from fraud that he identifies.

We now come to topicals, where I suggest there are a lot of free hits, as we have quite a little bit of time.

Topical Questions

This month we appointed Baroness Gisela Stuart, who is well known to the House, as the new civil service commissioner to oversee the body guaranteeing that civil servants are selected on merit, on the basis of fair and open competition. Baroness Stuart brings a wealth of experience, having been a Member of this House for 20 years and a Government Minister for the Labour party, and brings a non-partisan spirit to roles including her time at the University of Birmingham, the Royal Mint and as a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office. We have also been working on taking forward the Prime Minister’s work on Brexit opportunities; my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency has identified almost 2,000 EU regulations remaining in British laws, which he is reviewing in order to reduce the burdens on business and the public. I have also written to Departments across Whitehall to ensure that we make the necessary regulatory changes to ease the burden of the cost of living, and will have further meetings with colleagues to take that work forward.

Events in Ukraine prove that the international rules-based order continues to be threatened by aggression and competition. What is being done to increase and improve the UK’s strategic independence and self-sufficiency for its needs?

That is an extremely important point in terms of both our energy security and our wider commitments building on COP26 and net zero. That is why the Prime Minister, the Trade Secretary and I hosted a number of Australian investors, who collectively have committed £25 billion of inward investment in green technology to the UK, at No. 10 Downing Street last night. That is both an indication of our commitment to energy security and to ensuring that we learn the lessons of Russia and Ukraine, and a signal of the attractiveness of the UK for foreign investment, which reflects this Government’s commitment to supporting business and levelling up across the UK.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s own promises last year, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has quietly shelved any attempt to limit MPs’ second jobs. He claims it is impractical. Since I was elected two years ago, I have received more than 1,500 emails a month, sent nearly 40,000 emails back to my constituents, spoken in this Chamber more than 380 times and tabled more than 500 questions. For me, what would be impractical is having a second job in the first place. However, more than a quarter of Conservative Members have second jobs, and I do not think many are NHS workers. That brings them an extra £4.4 million a year in extra earnings—so, colleagues, the post-Adjournment party drinks are on the Conservatives. I will ask a question being asked across the country: is it impractical finally to stop the second jobs bonanza, or is it simply inconvenient?

It is slightly odd simply to say it is the Government side of the House. There are hon. Members on both sides of the House who have had second jobs, including with the NHS and in a range of public services; but equally, working with business is important as is ensuring that the House is aware of how we generate the prosperity to level up across the community and building on that £25 billion investment that we were discussing a moment ago. Perhaps she can enlighten the House on whether writing a book is a valid use of someone’s time, or indeed chairing a panel on “Have I Got News For You”, as one of her colleagues did recently, and on the distinction between that and working in areas that contribute tax and contribute to the country at large?

The Chancellor has asked businesses to think very carefully about any investments that would in any sense support Putin and his regime. However, this is pretty hypocritical given that he and his family are still making millions from Infosys, a company still trading out of Moscow. We need to be united in our opposition to Putin. It cannot be one rule for us and another for the Tory elite.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I withdraw it.

But I would like to ask if there will be an investigation, or there has been an investigation, into whether the ministerial code has been broken in this instance and what action will be taken given the Chancellor’s failure to declare his family’s huge shareholdings in this company.

I am not going to engage with sweeping comments that do not address the record of this Government, which is very clear in respect of Russia and Ukraine. This Government have led in their actions on sanctions, in their investment in bilateral aid, and in their response to military support in-country. That is reflected in the response both of the Ukrainian Government and of the Russian Government. In respect of the ministerial code, Lord Geidt addresses those issues in the usual way.

T2. Local government procurement is an important part of ensuring that we get vital services to the most vulnerable in our communities. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the disgraceful procurement practices at Labour-led Sandwell Council, which has seen contracts handed to mates, dodgy land deals, and finally commissioners bashing down the doors to deal with these problems. Can he assure the House that as part of his reforms to local government procurement, he will prioritise value for money, and, more importantly for my constituents in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, prove to them that the actions of Sandwell Council are not the norm? (906400)

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. It would be great to hear voices from the Labour Benches showing their commitment to tackling these issues. I can reassure him as to the Government’s support on the issue that he raises, and he is right to bring it to the attention of the House.

T8. This week I joined grieving families like mine to mark the anniversary of the covid memorial wall. On the same day, we watched in shock as the Met police issued 20 fines for the Downing Street parties. Right now, the chair of the UK inquiry is meeting the bereaved families on the terms of reference of the inquiry, and soon the chair will pass draft terms to the Prime Minister. Given the importance of this inquiry, will the Minister confirm that the draft terms will be published in full to guarantee that the chair’s recommendations are implemented? (906407)

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. It is a deeply emotive point for the families affected. That is why we are committed to getting the terms of reference right. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office set out, this is shaped by the judge Lord Hallett and comes under the terms of the legislation passed by a previous Labour Administration. I know that Lord Hallett is committed to working with stakeholder bodies as regards reflecting the terms of reference in a way that meets the wider need.

T3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the House moves after the Easter recess to legislate through the online safety Bill, there must be effective co-ordination on disinformation between the counter-disinformation unit and the RESIST programme at the Cabinet Office, as well as Ofcom, as the online safety regulator, to make sure that social media companies take proactive action against known threats to this country, including the online frauds and scams mentioned earlier? (906401)

That is an extremely important point. Both the Minister for the Cabinet Office and I have chaired a number of Cabinet Sub-Committees looking at our wider domestic resilience and our response in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. It builds on the national cyber strategy launched before Christmas and the Government cyber strategy launched after Christmas. It is about working with relevant stakeholders to have a whole-of-society approach, whether that is in relation to the excellent communication from the Ministry of Defence in recent weeks in de-classifying key documentation around some of the Russian misinformation campaigns, or looking at the wider piece: getting in the right skills, the right training and the right product regulation so that we have that whole-of-society resilient approach, building on work through the situations centre and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.

The Radisson RED, a hotel in my constituency, was promised full compensation by the UK Government for business disruption during COP26, but it has not received the full compensation it believes it was entitled to. It has been passed from pillar to post by the COP26 President, the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), who committed in this House to meet me, but never did, and the Cabinet Office, which has been ignoring its emails. Can the Minister tell me how many other businesses in Glasgow have been similarly treated by the Cabinet Office? Will he meet me on this, because it has taken the shine off events that Glasgow was very proud to host?

I know that the COP26 President will have a strong commitment to addressing any issues. Rightly, Members across the House have recognised that the event in Glasgow was a great demonstration of the UK working together. It was an illustration of how we are better together. If there are some specific issues that Members of the House are rightly highlighting from a constituency perspective, I will ensure those are brought to the attention of the COP26 President and ask whether he will meet her as a matter of priority.

T4. The news that there will be legislation to ensure that we maximise the benefits of Brexit is incredibly welcome. Will my right hon. Friend comment on how that legislation, will enable and set free those companies in the thriving tech sector across my constituency of Buckingham to innovate in a more free manner than when we were in the EU? (906402)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important question. The Brexit freedoms Bill will modernise the UK’s approach to making regulations by enabling Her Majesty’s Government effectively to amend, repeal or replace any retained EU law. These reforms will help cut business costs by removing EU red tape and creating a UK-centric regulatory framework that encourages competition, innovation and growth. The Bill will also help accelerate the excellent work of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) to deliver the recommendations from the taskforce for innovation, growth and regulatory reform in the fields of technology and life sciences.

Earlier, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities decried an Act of Parliament from 1972. There was a further Act of Parliament that year that also changed the face of England and Wales: the Local Government Act 1972. Much of that made sense for the delivery of public services, but the lords lieutenant have no role in local government. They are Her Majesty’s representatives in a county, and as a patron of the Friends of Real Lancashire, I can say that much damage was done to historic Lancashire. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster look at restoring the lords lieutenant to cover the historic counties for ceremonial purposes, so that the Duke of Lancaster’s representative can cover all the Duke of Lancaster’s county palatine, from the Mersey to the Furness fells, and from the Irish sea to the Pennines?

I fear it is not just me who has to declare an interest in this—Mr Speaker himself may have to declare an interest. Any question that starts with reinforcing the county of Lancashire is extremely welcome. Before the hon. Gentleman’s siren call draws me on to the rocks of constitutional propriety, I would want to take advice as to what the interaction is with the Palace and other quarters that may have a view on this. I take this moment—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree—to pay tribute to the incredible work that the lords lieutenant do up and down the country. They are at the heart of so much civic activity within our constituencies and make a hugely valuable contribution through their work.

T5. Will the Veterans Minister join me in thanking the Department for Work and Pensions and other Government services that help veterans find work when they leave the armed forces? Will he consider visiting some of those services and the many veterans support charities in a visit to my constituency? Finally, will he also join me in thanking those veterans in Banff and Buchan and across the country who have been donating clothing and other supplies to those fighting for their lives in Ukraine? (906403)

Veterans make brilliant employees, which is why employment is at the heart of our veterans strategy. It is also why we have introduced national insurance contribution holidays for those who employ veterans and a guaranteed job interview for veterans who want to join the civil service. Of course, I join my hon. Friend in thanking the veterans in his constituency who have so generously contributed to our collective effort on behalf of Ukraine. I also thank him for the work he does in concert with his veteran community in Banff and Buchan. If time allows, I would be delighted to visit his very beautiful constituency.

The House of Commons has signed the covenant, and the House of Commons Service is open to veterans.

Every one of the 65 million or so people in these four nations who has a mobile phone, tablet, iPad or Alexa-enabled device is a potential target for hostile nations seeking to damage our cyber-security, but the National Cyber Force budget amounts to 10p a month for each of those citizens. What representations has the Minister made to the Chancellor to raise that budget to a more reasonable level?

I have some exposure to this, having been Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Of all the budgets, the agencies’ budgets have increased more than most, if not the most. Significant funding has been put into the National Cyber Force as part of the cyber corridor in the north-west. There are sometimes limits to how much detail one gives on some of those budgets, but I am happy to interact with the Intelligence and Security Committee to provide any reassurance the House needs that significant funding is being provided on our resilience and our national cyber-response. That builds on a number of points raised this morning, including our work on the skills needed as part of that resilience and the situation centre in which we have invested.

T6. We have exited the EU and regained control, but I fear we have lost a lot in trade and unity in these isles. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should explore new avenues of trade, and perhaps reinvigorate lost avenues of trade, such as through the Commonwealth? (906404)

I concur with my hon. Friend that the Commonwealth is of huge importance. He is right to highlight that, but it fits within the wider strategy of the integrated review as part of global Britain, including building on defence ties such as with the Australian and US Governments through AUKUS. This brings significant defence opportunities, as well as opportunities for Treasury policy such as freeports and for our wider work through the Department for International Trade on free trade agreements. This is all part of global Britain, of which the Commonwealth is a key stakeholder.

My mother calls me James or Jim, so you can choose, Mr Speaker.

I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for all his answers. On the recent fears of Russian cyber-attack, what contact and security support is there for our banking sector? What financial help or assistance can be offered to keep our institutions free from Russian cyber attack?

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have rightly highlighted the importance of our cyber resilience in general and at this time. There is a host of excellent advice in the whole-of-Government approach set out in our national cyber strategy launched before Christmas. I specifically draw the House’s attention to the advice from the National Cyber Security Centre, which hon. Members can reinforce through their weekly columns and interaction with businesses in their constituency. The NCSC is a great repository of advice on how to take action on cyber resilience.

T7. In the light of the benefits of their pension schemes to public sector workers of all ages, can my right hon. Friend offer support for the idea of expanding pension auto-enrolment to workers of all ages in the private sector so that they can begin building a pension in the same way as their counterparts in the public sector? (906406)

Our ambition remains to enable people to save more and to start saving earlier by taking forward the core recommendations of the Department for Work and Pensions 2017 review of automatic enrolment, which the Government committed to implement in the mid-2020s subject to engagement with stakeholders and finding ways to make the changes affordable.

Notwithstanding the earlier exchange, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will want to acknowledge my gratitude and satisfaction at the excellent job that he is making of his second job as a Minister of the Crown, will he not?

I simply pay tribute to my right hon. Friend. For a question of that sort, I think brevity is the best response in acknowledging the point that he raises.

I thought I would take advantage of an extra question. With our trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, which are to be welcomed, we will need to make a great drive to send food and drink across the world. Can we have more enthusiasm from the Government to drive our exports, especially food and drink?

It is crucial that we do exactly what the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says. The Cabinet Office works closely with DEFRA on our great campaign to promote food around the world and we do that through our trade commissioners and the great teams that we have in post. One example is that we worked closely with DEFRA to promote Scottish seafood in China, which contributed an immediate £1.5 million in export wins.

May I ask the Minister for Brexit Opportunities whether he believes that we can maximise our opportunities as long as article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol remains in place?

I thank my hon. Friend for his brilliant and inspired question. There are obviously difficulties with the Northern Ireland protocol, which was set out in the agreement to be amendable, changeable and alterable, and that must be done. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is working on that and it is important to get it right, because nothing must undermine the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a single entity. That is the Government’s policy, that is the Government’s aim and that is what will happen.

That is the end of Cabinet Office questions. We now come to the urgent questions, as no statements were forthcoming.

Rape as a Weapon of War in Ukraine

(Urgent question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on Ukraine with particular reference to the use of rape as a weapon of war.

On 24 February, Russia launched a premeditated and wholly unprovoked invasion into Ukraine. Since then, we have been horrified by reports of rape and sexual violence committed by Russian armed forces in Ukraine. We have been clear that Russia’s barbaric acts must be investigated and those responsible held to account. Let us be clear: indiscriminate attacks against innocent civilians amount to war crimes for which the Putin regime must be held accountable.

That is why the Government worked with partners to refer the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court, to establish a commission of inquiry through the UN Human Rights Council with the support of Ukraine, and to establish an Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission of experts. We brought allies together to expedite an ICC investigation into the situation in Ukraine through state party referral. With 37 countries joining the UK, it was the largest referral in the ICC’s history. The international community is isolating Putin on the world stage.

It is vital that the ICC is able to carry out that investigation, which is why the UK will provide military, policing and financial support to help to uncover evidence of such crimes and ultimately seek justice. On 24 March, we announced an additional £1 million of funding for the ICC to help to uncover evidence of war crimes and we are providing UK experts to support the investigation.

Sadly, rape in war is not new. Before the war started in Ukraine, the Foreign Secretary committed the UK to do more to tackle sexual violence in conflict, including, but not limited to, its use as a method of warfare. We are working with countries and international partners to strengthen the international response. All options are on the table, including a new international convention that would help to hold perpetrators to account.

The UK continues to act decisively with its allies to punish the Putin regime for its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine, and we will do all we can to bring the perpetrators of war crimes, including sexual violence, to justice.

It is a tragic reality that, in conflicts and crises around the world, rape and sexual violence have become weapons of war. They are the tools of the vicious and the violent, and the consequences have such long and far-reaching impacts on the individuals, their families and their communities. It is happening in Tigray, in Myanmar, in Iraq, and now it is happening in Ukraine. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, there have been widespread reports of Russian troops resorting to rape and sexual violence against women and girls.

Just two weeks ago, this House and the Prime Minister welcomed four Ukrainian Members of Parliament to Westminster and to No. 10. They highlighted the fact that Putin

“has changed his strategy to target the most vulnerable groups of women and children”.

They went on to report that women were being raped and executed, and those who were not executed were killing themselves.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative as well as the Conservative Friends of International Development. The UK’s action and leadership on this subject matters and has proven to be world leading. However, we must have more steps taken now in relation to Ukraine.

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) raised this issue in the Liaison Committee. She asked the Prime Minister whether we had deployed our PSVI team to support survivors and victims of sexual violence into Ukraine or the surrounding areas. The Prime Minister said that we had. Can the Minister please confirm that, and provide details to the House of how many we have supplied to the area and whether we will provide more?

It is particularly welcome to see the appointment of Sir Howard Morrison QC as the independent adviser to the Ukrainian prosecutor. Can the Minister confirm that all crimes of sexual violence will be documented and prosecuted, and where this will take place?

Many of us who support the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative have been calling for a new independent international body to investigate sexual violence in conflict wherever it takes place, as a body that will support survivors, document crimes and, working with local courts, prosecute perpetrators. Does the Minister accept that that is needed now—not in six months, not in 12 months, but now—with our global leadership and our determination?

Finally, the PSVI and gender-based violence need a long-term strategy, with full and transparent funding formulas. Ukraine is unfortunately, as I have said, on a long list of countries where rape and gender-based violence is perpetrated without fear of justice. We must end the culture of impunity, and the Government must act now on behalf of the people of Ukraine.

I thank my hon. Friend for this question, and for pointing out the incredible importance of our work on preventing sexual violence in conflict. Indeed, the UK is a world leader on this issue. The UK has committed over £50 million since the launch of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative in 2012. We have funded more than 85 projects in 29 countries to respond to conflict-related sexual violence. We have trained 17,000 police and military personnel, and deployed UK experts over 90 times since 2012. That has helped to build the capacity of the UN and non-governmental organisations in countries such as Ethiopia, Mali, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

It is incredibly important that women—it can be men as well as women—who have suffered sexual violence are supported. As hon. Members know, we have put considerable funding into the humanitarian situation in both Ukraine and neighbouring countries. We are supporting internal efforts to investigate violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in Ukraine, including the ICC investigation, as I have said. On 4 March, the Metropolitan police operationalised its war crimes division. That is helping to collect evidence from those who have come to the UK, which will support the ICC. Our energy and assistance resources are targeted on supporting the work of the ICC on war crimes, rather than trying to build a new tribunal, because that could take many years, but other countries are doing things similar to the Met police’s operations.

I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for this hugely important urgent question and you, Mr Speaker, for granting it. As ever, Labour Members stand absolutely with the people of Ukraine, including all the women and girls of Ukraine who are suffering horrendously in this conflict started by Putin. This war of aggression has had a terrible toll on civilians across the country.

We know that, throughout history, rape and sexual violence have been used by aggressors to punish, terrorise and destroy populations, from the rape of women during the 1937 Nanking occupation to the estimated 200,000 women subjected to rape during the fight for independence in Bangladesh. We have also seen victims of sexual violence in Bosnia and, more recently, as I have raised with the Minister, in Tigray and Myanmar. It is because of those heinous examples, and countless others, that rape and sexual violence have had to be explicitly prohibited under international humanitarian law and the Geneva conventions. As war ravages Europe once again, the grim reality is that we hear horrific reports of rape and sexual violence being used as weapons of war once more.

This week, one Ukrainian woman told The Times that she was raped on multiple occasions by Russian soldiers in her family home after they murdered her husband and while her four-year-old son was in tears nearby. That is utterly horrific and heinous. As the hon. Member said, we have also heard direct testimonies in the House. We were told:

“We have reports of women gang-raped. These women are usually the ones who are unable to get out. We are talking about senior citizens. Most of these women have either been executed after the crime of rape or they have taken their own lives.”

Every part of the House will condemn those appalling crimes, but condemnation is not enough. We need accountability and justice must be done. Putin and his cronies, and all those breaking international laws of war in his name, must face the full force of the law for the crimes and atrocities that they are, no doubt, committing.

The Minister made a number of important points, but will she set out clearly the steps that the Government are taking, crucially to gain the evidence to document these incidents? She mentioned the role of the Metropolitan police and other initiatives. What are we learning from past examples, particularly in the Balkans and elsewhere, about what we can do to ensure that evidence is collected and collated so that people can be brought to justice? How are we working with human rights organisations and others? What is her assessment of access for such organisations? Will she back Labour’s call for a special tribunal so that all war crimes, including the crime of aggression, can be prosecuted? Will she explain the detail of how humanitarian aid is being used in particular to support women in crossing the borders?

We have heard concerning reports about cuts to health and conflict in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which are crucial areas that affect the situation for women and girls. Will she assure us that they will not take place? Labour will always support what it takes to protect victims of sexual violence in Britain and Ukraine and across the world.

I thank the hon. Member for his support for women and girls. I, too, read the truly harrowing story of Natalya in the papers. It was so brave of her to come forward and tell the world that story. Indeed, the women who come forward to give their testimonies about the sexual violence that they have faced in conflict are incredibly brave. Recently, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo came forward to give testimony that led to a conviction at the international court of a senior military leader for war crimes, including sexual violence. That was a true moment to show that we can—and will—hold these people to account.

The Government are supporting the ICC investigation. As I said, the UK was a leader in getting that set up and we have given it £1 million of funding to allow efforts to get started. Indeed, Karim Khan, who is the leader of the investigation and is from the UK, recently visited Ukraine. We are working with humanitarian organisations. In fact, just this week I met the head of the Charity Commission to discuss safeguarding issues and to remind UK charities on the ground about the risk of safeguarding concerns, including trafficking, child trafficking and so on. We will support the efforts of the ICC rather than trying to build an entirely new tribunal from scratch. That process could take many years, so we believe that it is best to ensure that it works through the ICC, which is why we are funding it.

We have not deployed to Ukraine at the moment, but we stand ready to do so if that becomes appropriate.

I commend the Minister and the Foreign Secretaries over the past decade on their international leadership on this important issue. Should Vlad Putin the invader decide to travel overseas to the G20 later this year, will she confirm that he will be arrested on the spot as a war criminal?

My hon. Friend asks, “Is Putin a war criminal?” There is very strong evidence that war crimes have been committed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. It will be for the ICC prosecutor to identify the individuals who may have committed those crimes. That is why we are supporting the work of the ICC prosecutor in every way that we can.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on securing this urgent question on a very difficult but very important subject. It is vital that we take due note of what is going on in Ukraine. We can all agree that rape as a weapon of war is beyond despicable. I will focus my remarks on urging the Government to take action on only three points, because much has been said that I agree with.

SNP Members have called for a specific atrocity prevention strategy. Work is under way across the FCDO on these issues, but we think that bringing that into a coherent atrocity prevention strategy would be helpful in not only holding the Government to account on what is being done, but urging more action on that.

On accountability, I agree with the Government’s approach of supporting the ICC, rather than creating new structures. That is proportionate and the best way to do it. I was glad to hear about the funding, but as we have seen from Syria, we can have all the evidence that we like, but if there is not the political will to carry it through, we will not see the necessary accountability on the ground and the fear of justice to end the culture of impunity that we are hearing reports of from Ukraine. I urge the Government to do more on that and to publish as one document the efforts that are being made to help accountability mechanisms in Ukraine, because that would again help the coherence and strategy to be clear to us all.

I echo the points about people trafficking and safeguarding, on which I know the Minister has been very active. However, perhaps we can have a specific statement on the risk of trafficking of vulnerable refugees and what the UK and other partners have done to help and assist. I am aware that the German police have been doing very useful work on that, but, sadly, a lot more work needs to be done.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his care and concern on this really dreadful issue. His last point was about the risk of people trafficking and other safeguarding issues and that is precisely why I met the head of the Charity Commission this week. We want to ensure that we are getting the alert out to charities on the ground about the risk of infiltration by people who they would not want in their organisations—let me put it like that. It is a very serious risk. That is one of the reasons we encourage the British people, if they want to contribute, to do so through the Disasters Emergency Committee.

How do we try to change the dial on this issue? The hon. Gentleman is right that more needs to be done. That is precisely why, at the end of last year, the Foreign Secretary said that we need to look at a new international agreement or convention on dealing with sexual violence in conflict. There is no single treaty that is dedicated to conflict-related sexual violence, and we believe that consolidating all the legal obligations could help to prevent that and to ensure that SV is seen as an early warning sign. We think that having a new international agreement or convention would have a symbolic and practical value, because it could help to increase the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence, strengthen states’ commitment to supporting survivors and, importantly, improve the mechanisms to hold perpetrators to account. It will take time. We are not going for quick political wins; we are working with experts internally and internationally towards a new UN General Assembly resolution to set up a convention on the process.

The Minister will know that there are three components of fighting power: physical, conceptual and moral. Does she agree that any violations of the Geneva convention in Ukraine are likely to galvanise the Ukrainian forces to become an even more formidable adversary, and galvanise the ICC, the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other agencies to generate the necessary evidence for future prosecutions?

I completely agree with my hon. and gallant Friend. Furthermore, he used exactly the right word to describe the Ukrainian people: formidable. I would add brave, caring and just absolutely unbelievable. I do not think that there is a single person in this House who does not have huge admiration for what Ukraine is doing to support its own people.

Lesia Vasylenko, an incredibly brave Ukrainian MP and mother of three, spoke recently of women being raped and hanged, some in front of their very young children. Putin has changed his strategy to target the most vulnerable groups in this illegal and unethical war. It is always women and girls who pay the highest price. They are being targeted and raped and having their own bodies used against them as we speak. What will the Minister do differently now to prevent more unimaginable suffering for women and girls and ensure the safe passage of humanitarian aid into the country?

I thank the hon. Member for her deep concern for women in war. It is the most vulnerable who suffer the most, and that is very often women. We have also heard reports of forcibly removing citizens from the country, which would be a violation of international human rights law.

We have led the efforts to launch the ICC investigation, the commission of inquiry and the OSCE investigation. The Deputy Prime Minister has chaired a meeting of 38 Governments in The Hague to ensure that international efforts, including on evidence collection, are co-ordinated. As I said, the Metropolitan police have operationalised their war crimes team to ensure that it can collect evidence from the brave women who would like to give it, so that we can hold the perpetrators to account. It is so important to show that we can hold people to account, because that is the way that we can try to prevent this hideous crime from continuing.

I thank the Minister and especially the Foreign Secretary, who I know has made the matter a priority. However, given the woeful levels of prosecution, there is clearly an issue with the collection and recording of evidence in the existing system. That is why Lord Hague of Richmond, the former Foreign Secretary, has called for an international, permanent long-term body to collect and record crimes around the world. Can the Minister tell us whether she has at least had any conversations with her counterparts about establishing that permanent body?

We are working through the ICC, because we believe that that is the best way to take people to court for war crimes. Setting up a new body could take many years. We have seen from the experience in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that the ICC can be effective in holding people to be account, but it is incredibly important that the evidence is gathered, which is why we are funding it now and supporting other organisations. However, we believe that a new convention or a new international agreement is needed. That is one of our key priorities for this year; it was a key priority for this year even before this hideous war started. The tragedy is that in wars across the world these awful crimes happen, which include the terrible situation for the women of Tigray.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) on bringing this deeply emotional question to the House. The use of rape as a weapon of war is reprehensible, it is repugnant, and it has no place anywhere in the world.

The Minister was right in saying that we are starting, through sanctions, to isolate Putin and his cronies, but I find it deeply disturbing that although we have imposed some sanctions, there are still gaping holes, especially in respect of golden visas. A question from my noble Friend Baron Jones of Cheltenham revealed that we had given golden visas to eight people. That is an embarrassment. It is disgusting in itself, and it prompts us to ask how many more people used Putin’s blood money to buy their way into this country. Will the Minister have a word with the Home Office, and the Home Secretary in particular, to speed along the review of golden visas so we can ensure that none of this money has been used—

Order. I am sorry, but we are shortly to have another urgent question on visas. This urgent question is about rape and the use of women in war. The hon. Lady might be getting the two mixed up, and it would be more appropriate for her to raise that issue following the next urgent question. However, I invite the Minister to try to deal with the question that she has asked.

We are implementing the strongest set of economic sanctions ever imposed to debilitate the Russian economy and degrade funding for Putin’s war machine, because this war has to stop, and the rape and violence against women has to stop.

There is absolutely no doubt that the rape of women in Ukraine is one of the burning issues. However, the Minister made a helpful reference to the successful prosecution of a senior military commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What can we do to ensure that those in the command structure of the Russian forces are aware that they themselves become liable to prosecution if they fail to prevent rape from being committed by troops serving under their command? That would be a powerful message to send.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I also think that this Chamber is sometimes a very powerful place from which to send messages, so let me send this message again. Rape and sexual violence in war can be a war crime. It is always a crime, but it can be a war crime, and we are working with the international community to ensure that those who commit war crimes are held to account.

The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) mentioned the MP Lesia Vasylenko, who was so brave in telling the world the stories of some of the women. It is Lesia’s birthday today. She is 35. Can we all take a moment to send her our best wishes, and our deepest thanks for what she is doing for women at this time? [Hon. Members: “ Hear, hear.”]

Accountability and ensuring justice and consequences are hugely important, and I do not want to detract from that, but they are not helping survivors on the ground right now. Could the Minister give us a bit more clarity on what her Department is doing to help those who either are in Ukraine or have fled Ukraine, and who are survivors of sexual violence in conflict? What support are they being given on the ground, and if such support is not currently being provided, how does the Minister intend to ramp things up so that it is provided now?

The tragedy is that, as the hon. Member will know, getting support into Ukraine itself can be particularly challenging at this time, especially in the most affected areas, but we have provided a very significant amount of support through humanitarian aid. Many of those who are working in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries are extremely experienced in this field.

As I said earlier, I met representatives of the Charity Commission this week to discuss safeguarding issues and to ensure that charities are thoroughly aware of them. As I also said earlier, the Metropolitan police have operationalised their war crimes division in order to be able to collect evidence from those who have come here, and I know that many other countries are doing the same.

All refugees will need support, which is why we are providing that humanitarian aid—and God bless the British people, too, for being so generous—but we understand that those who have suffered from sexual and other violence will need additional support.

The Minister has talked about another consequence of war being human trafficking, particularly for sexual exploitation. Can she say a bit more about what we are doing as a country to aid international investigations into human trafficking? Secondly, will she speak to her colleagues in the Home Office about the role of the National Crime Agency, particularly in relation to Ukrainian women who might be advertised for rape on pimps’ websites that are on a lot of social media platforms?

These are really important issues, and I completely agree with the right hon. Lady about how important it is to highlight them, especially the issue of safeguarding. That is why I had a discussion about safeguarding with the Charity Commission earlier this week. Significant work is also happening through Interpol to look at the situation on the ground. It is important to remind people that they are at risk of sexual exploitation and of modern-day slavery, which can involve sex workers. As I said earlier, we are aware of reports of civilians being forcibly removed, which is another violation of international humanitarian law. That is why we continue to support efforts to investigate the violation of human rights and international humanitarian law.

I recently tabled a named day question asking about the requirement for refugees from Ukraine to obtain visas to enter the UK, and the assessment of the level of risk to women and children from human traffickers in that context. The response to that question is now nine days overdue. I know that this is an incredibly difficult situation, but it is even more difficult to properly safeguard women and girls if we have not identified and assessed the risks. Is the Minister able to commit to that being taken forward as part of the work she has set out today?

On the issue of visas, there is about to be an urgent question on that subject. It is important to have proper processes for visas and for those who have offered homes to Ukrainian refugees precisely because of those safeguarding concerns.

Violence against women and girls is unacceptable in any circumstances. The use of rape as a weapon of war is abhorrent, and those who perpetrate it must be brought to justice for the sake of the victims. Some of those women will reach these shores safely, and we have a duty not just to protect and look after them but to assist them in coming to terms with the absolutely awful experiences they have had. What extra resources are the Government putting into mental health services for those people who have fled Ukraine?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that conflict-related sexual violence is truly hideous. In 2020, a report from the UN Secretary-General found conflict-related sexual violence in 18 different countries. I will need to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific question on mental health support, but I point him to the fact that on 4 March, the Metropolitan police operationalised its war crimes division. That is significant because one important way to help women is to let them know how they can come and tell their stories in order to be able to hold people to account. From the accounts that I have heard from women, knowing that they are doing their bit to prevent this from happening to others in the future can itself be part of the mental healing process.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I also thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for asking it and giving the House the opportunity to expose and denounce rape as a weapon of war. It must not be normalised and, as the Minister has said, perpetrators must be brought to justice. Will the Minister confirm whether there have been discussions about the UK introducing atrocity prevention strategies to FCDO country offices to give early warning and training and to stop atrocities such as sexual violence in this and other conflicts?

As the hon. Member knows, because she came to meet me, a huge amount of work goes on with our conflict prevention strategy not only in Ukraine but around the world. Right now, we are focusing on supporting the people of Ukraine. It is incredibly important that Putin stops this war and stops the violence. Our priority at the moment is to help to reduce the impact of that conflict on those people. The hon. Member is right to say that we work across the world to try to reduce conflict. Indeed, I was in Nigeria recently, which is one of the most challenging countries from the point of view of attacks on civilians, even though it is not what we would describe as a warzone. The work we are doing there to try to reduce conflict is absolutely part of our approach, and it has to be done in the right way for a particular place.

Earlier this week I met Amnesty International, which is working on the ground in Ukraine and has growing concerns about the use of sexual violence against women and girls. Will the Minister assure the House that when the evidence is collected and people are called to account, this hideous and despicable crime is not simply lumped together with other crimes but is seen as a stand-alone offence and will be punished as such to the full extent of the law? That would send a clear signal that it is not acceptable and that the perpetrators will be hunted down, called to account and punished for what they have done.

May I use this opportunity to thank Amnesty International, including the branch in my constituency of Chelmsford, which does a fantastic amount of work to raise concerns about human rights issues right across the world? The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that sexual violence in war is completely unacceptable. That is why, as I have said, the Foreign Secretary has made it a priority to work internationally on a new agreement or convention in order to strengthen the global response, to increase prevention of conflict-related sexual violence, to strengthen the state’s commitment to survivors and, most importantly, to improve our mechanisms to hold these dreadful perpetrators to account.

Given their proximity to Ukraine, some of the poorest countries in Europe are already looking after huge numbers of refugees, many of whom will have been victims of rape and sexual violence or will have been traumatised by what they have witnessed. These countries do not have the resources to provide the specialist support that these refugees need urgently. Has the Minister considered making an offer to countries such as Moldova to send specialist support from the United Kingdom to work with women there while we cannot get anyone into Ukraine? Has she asked the Chancellor for, at the very least, a temporary increase in funding so that the support given to the victims of sexual violence in Ukraine does not come at the expense of resources for other work around the world to protect the lives and rights of women and girls in other areas of conflict?

I assure the hon. Member that the UK is one of the largest donors not only of humanitarian aid—we have recently pledged £220 million—but of humanitarian teams. An emergency medical team has been deployed to neighbouring countries, including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova, which he mentioned.

I thank the Minister for her obvious appreciation of the issue and understanding of how to address it. May I also say, with absolute honesty, that her response to the urgent question shook me to my core? It highlighted once again the depravity and evil of men. Rape has been considered a war crime for many years, but it is not enough merely to cite evidence of it. Russian war crimes are multiple, targeting schools and hospitals, and killing babies, women and the elderly and disabled. Will the Minister lead the charge? Evidence is already being collated—I think Ukrainian MPs already have evidence. Will she stop at nothing to make sure that those responsible are held to account and that punishment for those who carry out these awful crimes will be certain?

The hon. Member is absolutely right that it is vital that we hold people to account. That is why it is essential that the ICC can carry out its investigation, and it is why the UK will provide military, policing and financial support to help uncover evidence of such crimes. Ultimately, it is crucial that we seek justice, because only through justice will we be able to prevent such crimes from happening.

Royal Assent

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

Education (Careers Guidance in Schools) Act 2022

Taxis and Private Hire Vehicles (Safeguarding and Road Safety) Act 2022

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Act 2022

National Insurance Contributions (Increase of Thresholds) Act 2022.

Ukraine Refugee Visas

The conflict in Ukraine continues to shock the world. Putin’s invasion is deplorable and he must fail. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people at this time. We are determined to help Ukrainians to find safety in the face of Russia’s aggression, and that is why the Government have mounted a comprehensive humanitarian response. In a short time, we have set up two new visa schemes from scratch, made changes to support Ukrainians already in the UK and surged our operations to meet demand.

Under the Ukraine family scheme, more than 23,500 visas have been issued to family members of Ukrainians already here in the UK. After setting up the scheme, we extended it to cover wider family members. Alongside that, we have set up the Homes for Ukraine scheme, to provide a safe and legal route for Ukrainians who do not have existing family ties in the UK. That is led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) is the Minister who will be updating the House on it shortly. It has been heartwarming to see so many members of the public coming forward as sponsors, and my hon. Friend will be able to outline wider work that is being done to take advantage of those offers. Both those schemes are free and allow people on them to work and access public funds.

We have made it as easy as possible for people to apply. We have simplified the application form to make it quick and easy to use. We have increased capacity in visa application centres across Europe. Following advice from security and intelligence agencies that it was safe to do so, we have removed the need for biometrics to be taken from those with valid Ukrainian passports before arrival in the UK, allowing the vast majority of applicants to apply entirely online. We regularly monitor the scheme’s operational performance, bringing in additional caseworkers to ensure Ukrainian applications are prioritised. Our humanitarian response has involved the whole of Government, local authorities and the devolved Administrations, and we will keep working together to support Ukrainians who want to come to the UK.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. This visa system is simply not working. It is leaving thousands of families in limbo because of Home Office bureaucracy. A businesswoman who is trying to get her sister and daughter to come here on the family visa scheme is still waiting, 10 days after she applied to the Home Office. A constituent of mine in Pontefract who applied under the Homes for Ukraine scheme has been waiting nearly two weeks to hear anything back from the Home Office. Another British host who applied for a visa for a woman undergoing a high-risk pregnancy has waited 12 days for a reply. Despite the Home Office helpline saying that she would be treated as a priority, that woman has had to travel extensively to complete biometrics in Warsaw and has still received no reply.

A mother and two young sons who had been granted a family visa and were due to travel this week had their visa revoked at the last minute. They had been advised by the visa centre to apply for the Homes for Ukraine scheme as well, so that they could link up with a host family. Now the Home Office has revoked their first visa and said that they cannot travel, and it has told them nothing more about what is going on. This is Kafkaesque. What on earth is going on? Why is the Home Secretary so totally incapable of getting any grip on this, despite repeated questions we have asked?

Can the Minister tell us how many people have actually arrived on the Homes for Ukraine scheme? Why on earth is it too early to tell us? The Government should be able to give us the basic facts. On the family visas, 23,000 have been issued so far, but 25,000 people had already applied and submitted their applications more than two weeks ago, so it is clearly taking at least two weeks to clear cases. Even at the current rate, only 700 family visas have been issued since yesterday. At that rate, it is going to take well over a week just to clear the existing backlog of cases that he accepts have been submitted.

The Home Office has suddenly stopped publishing all the figures and deleted from its figures the thousands of people who are still waiting for a visa centre appointment. That is not good enough. It is not the kind of transparency we need to make sure that desperate people are getting the support they need. Why on earth is it taking so long? Why are we still demanding reams of bureaucracy and reams of information when the Government have been told by the refugees Minister and by Home Office officials that the security checks can be done really quickly? Why, then, is this taking so long? Why are they expecting people still to make these emergency journeys?

Tens of thousands of people are still stuck in the system. Families are desperate. People from across Britain have said that they want to help, yet the Home Office is letting the whole system down. Is that deliberate, or is it just total incompetence? Why on earth can the Home Secretary not get a grip on this and sort it out, to help desperate families?

Order. I grant urgent questions, but I do not make the rules, and they say that for each one the Member asking the question has two minutes. You have to stick to that, otherwise I will not be able to grant UQs. Please, can we just stick to the rules?

First, it is too early to say how many people have arrived under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but we are now publishing details of visa grants. By 9am today 3,705 visas had been granted, and the trajectory for visa grants is increasing every day. I remind hon. Members that at one point last week we issued nearly 6,000 family scheme visas in two days. Again, that shows the type of capacity available once we get decisions ready to be made, and we would expect to see a similar increase in trajectory on the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

On the accusation that applications are being deleted, what has actually happened is, first, a removal of duplicates, for example where someone applied initially with biometrics and then did so without biometrics. Where someone did not qualify for the family scheme but they have someone in the UK who would be prepared to sponsor them—such as godparents, for the sake of argument—we transfer this over to the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Members will realise why that is a sensible and proportionate approach to take.

On the accusation about “reams of info”, we have cut back on what people are asked to supply. We do not need authorised translations and people can submit in Ukrainian, with the most basic of documentation: any evidence that shows residence in Ukraine. Again, we are not asking people to give us travel history or previous addresses; we are asking purely for something that shows they were resident in Ukraine in December and that there is a basic family link, if relevant, for the family scheme. We are cutting down the information purely to that which is necessary for vital safeguarding checks.

This is the latest in a number of humanitarian interventions and routes we have created over the past year. We saw the determination to help people in Afghanistan, from which we saw the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk; we saw the British national overseas route delivered, with more than 100,000 applications over the past year; and now we see these two routes for Ukrainians set up in record time, with tens of thousands of people already having visas under them. I just compare that with how the shadow Home Secretary got on with her own pledge to rehome one Syrian refugee.

This is going to be a wonderful scheme and we are all looking forward to welcoming tens of thousands of Ukrainians to this country, but something is going wrong with the scheme right now. Tomorrow, the vast majority of sponsors will have waited two weeks and will not have heard anything at all. We are testing the patience of people in this country who have put themselves forward as sponsors and, much more importantly, we are letting down vulnerable individuals and families in Ukraine. We need to process only about 8,000 households, and we are talking about 20,000 or 30,000 applications in total. That is not a huge or insurmountable task, but it does require the Home Office to make sure that the resources and the leadership are in place to get this sorted. I hope that we have heard today from the Minister that that will now happen in the next few days.

My right hon. Friend is right to say that people want to get on and help. Tens of thousands of people throughout the country have made a very generous offer and they want to be able to extend that and for it to be taken up. We are rightly doing vital safeguarding checks. Sadly, we have had some pings on the police national computer in respect of some of the sponsors who have come forward, and we will need to consider them, but the vast and overwhelming majority of people want to do the right thing.

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s wish that we go faster. As I have touched on, the rate at which visas are being granted is increasing. As we have seen with the Ukraine family scheme, once people have passed through a number of checks, we can quickly start to issue a large number of visas, which is what we plan to do.

Four million people are seeking sanctuary, but just 0.6% of them have been offered sanctuary in the UK. That is the inevitable consequence of using a clunky, bureaucratic and, frankly, traumatising visa system to deal with an urgent humanitarian crisis.

Around 140 countries do not require Ukrainians to have a visa before they travel there; we say it should be the same for the United Kingdom. I appreciate that the Government do not want to go as far as that, but why not allow even some Ukrainians—for example, those with biometric passports and children—to travel visa-free? That would free up significant capacity to speed things along. If that is not possible, will the Minister publish the reasons why he thinks it is not? If it is really all about security, why are there any other visa requirements at all? Why not grant a visa to any Ukrainian refugee who applies for one?

Finally, I welcome the Ukraine extension scheme that was announced this week, but it still excludes the possibility of people bringing their family here under the family scheme. A seasonal agricultural worker who switches to that route will still not be able to sponsor their family under the family route. Why not allow that to happen? Why not also allow Ukrainians whose visas expired before January to apply under the extension scheme? Until that changes, the Government are still excluding the possibility of huge swathes of the Ukrainian community here being joined by their families. Allowing that is the least we should be doing.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s questions and the way he put them. I also appreciate the fact that there is a fundamental difference in respect of our belief, based on the advice we have received, that there needs to be a visa process with safeguarding checks and certain key security checks. We would not usually publish such advice, particularly when it is from intelligence and security agencies, for reasons with which the hon. Gentleman will be familiar.

On the hon. Gentleman’s specific points about the Ukraine extension scheme, provided that the people on that scheme have at least six months’ leave to remain—which they will have—they will be able to sponsor people under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. He gave the particular example of seasonal workers; the bigger challenge there will be to ensure that there is appropriate accommodation. I do not think any of us would advocate that it would be sensible to bring people into the UK without at least having an idea of where they would spend their first night in bed.

We have worked with the Scottish Government on their super-sponsor scheme, which allows someone who does not have a sponsor to come here, with the Scottish Government in effect becoming their sponsor here in the UK. Applications for that scheme have been received and we have been pleased to work on it with the Scottish Government and, in particular, with Neil Gray, to whom I pay tribute from the Dispatch Box for his constructive work.

Strong progress is being made. We have seen what we have already done with the family scheme; we would now expect to see the same trajectory for the Homes for Ukraine scheme. The question asked in the previous session on this issue may perhaps be asked in this one, and we still believe it is right that we do safeguarding checks, particularly given that children will potentially come to live with adults they have not previously met.

The experience that I have had in Christchurch, where we have already welcomed some Ukrainians who have arrived, has been much more positive. I thank the Minister and his team for being so accommodating towards MPs who raise particular issues. Will he encourage individuals and families who want to take advantage of the schemes and are finding bureaucratic problems to contact their MPs? Everyone who has contacted me has had a satisfactory result.

I am pleased to hear of the results that my hon. Friend has been able to achieve for his constituents, as he always does. It is good to see people arrive and to see communities such as Christchurch stepping up and doing their bit. It is encouraging that we have seen offers coming in from throughout the UK, rather than just from areas that have had, let us say, more of a tradition of taking part in the local government-based resettlement schemes. It is very good to hear of my hon. Friend’s experience. I have had constituent contact, as I am sure other colleagues have. MPs from all parties are doing their bit to advance cases when they are contacted.

I really do not understand why the Minister says that it is too early to know how many have arrived on the Homes for Ukraine scheme, because he has also just said that it is very important that the Home Office knows where people spend their first night in the UK. Perhaps he will be able to enlighten us on when he will be able to tell us the numbers.

As an example of the ongoing problems with bureaucracy, may I just tell the Minister about the case of Anna Kalyata? She has just given birth in temporary accommodation in Poland, having fled Ukraine. She does not speak English and, even though she has been matched under the sponsorship scheme, she has been told that she needs to have a birth certificate for the baby to allow the baby to get a visa. She is in a foreign country, traumatised by war and is now thinking of going back to Ukraine to register the birth. Surely the Home Office can have a more compassionate response to women, children and babies.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for her question. It would not be appropriate for me to go into an individual case on the Floor of the House. Certainly, we are able to process children. We are conscious that some children, including some who have arrived from Ukraine, will not have any documentation. I am happy to look at the particular example that she has cited, but she should appreciate that there are particular issues, as touched on in the previous urgent question, about children being removed particularly from Poland and the border countries, which is why we have to go through certain checks.

It is quicker than getting a driving licence—I will give the Minister that. The service provided in Portcullis House is excellent. I took a case down there this morning. The person called up the record. It was received on 19 March. All the information is there and correct. It is simply awaiting a decision. Now that is disappointing, is it not?

Yes, I share my right hon. Friend’s disappointment, but as I have touched on, we are seeing the pace of decision making increase, as happened with the Ukraine family scheme. At one point last week, we saw 6,000 visas issued under that scheme in just two days. The trajectory is increasing; it is on a similar trajectory to the Ukraine family scheme, and we look forward to being able to make decisions very shortly on the vast majority of cases.

I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) that neither visa system is working currently at the pace required. May I ask the Minister how applications are being prioritised, and specifically whether he can assure me that those with serious medical conditions, or who are at risk because of their location, are at the top of the list when it comes to processing their applications?

Certainly, where there are specific issues, we will look to prioritise a case. We make the point that people do not need to wait in Ukraine for a decision: they are welcome to move or to apply from safe third countries. As was touched on in the previous urgent question, the actual challenge for many people will be getting from where they are in Ukraine to a safe neighbouring country, not least given some of the war crimes that are being committed by Russian forces against civilians, to which those travelling are vulnerable. We will prioritise where appropriate, and, certainly, if there are particular instances of where that needs to be done, I am happy to hear them.

May I say to my hon. Friend that from my experience, I support the comments of my right hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne)? I welcome the progress that the Government are making, but may I say to him that I had a constituent in Poland at the weekend trying to help, and that, on the frontline, access to visas and applications is still far too difficult? What more can the Government do to simplify the process so that we can help these migrants from Putin’s violence?

We have certainly provided support, and we have a support hub out in Poland. We have also simplified the form quite significantly since the launch of the Ukraine family scheme, removing a number of parts that did not require basic security and safeguarding checks. Working with our colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we are keen to look at what further support we can provide not only to those who are applying to our two visa schemes, but, for example, to the relatively small number of surrogate babies that will be born British in Ukraine. We will look at what support we can have available once people have crossed the border into Poland.

I echo the comments of the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) about what has been available in PCH. I have certainly made some real progress with cases, but I am concerned that those staff will not be available during recess. Even a skeleton staff would be helpful there. Following on from the comments of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, I have a three-year-old stuck in Poland, with a birth certificate but not a passport. UK Visas and Immigration has said she needs biometric security clearance as a result. Are we really going to make the family wait weeks or even months to join relatives in the UK because UKVI thinks their toddler needs a security check?

We would paint cases involving children as having safeguarding checks rather than security checks, which were touched on in another context earlier today. In terms of our visa application centre capacity, given that the vast majority are now applying without needing to make a biometric appointment, there is capability. Certainly in urgent or compassionate cases, we would look to find availability quickly and, as touched on in answer to a previous question, we would look to turn around the visa decision quickly as well.

Last week, at the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, the UK delegation was able to meet our Polish parliamentary counterparts to thank them for everything their country has been doing to welcome such an enormous influx of refugees from Ukraine, and to ask them what more the UK could do to make the process work better for those who want to come here. They made two constructive suggestions, which I will feed in. The first is that they are using the twinning network between communities across Europe; I urge the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at that network and establish links such as those with Malvern, where 200 families want to welcome refugees but do not necessarily know where they can locate them. Secondly, they wanted to see the application form written in Ukrainian. I wonder whether that is something that could easily be done.

I thank my hon. Friend for her positive suggestions. The Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), is here on the Front Bench and can look at using the twinning network—particularly, ideally, where there may be some language ability in either Polish or Ukrainian. That would be useful in helping people to settle, certainly in their first few days. In terms of engagement with Poland, I was with the Polish ambassador this week, talking to them directly and hearing what their priorities are. Their key focus is that we need to support the vast majority of people who will look to remain in the region, rather than just seeing resettlement as the priority, but it was useful to hear their thoughts on what more we could do to support them.

On moving the application form into Ukrainian, we are looking to provide guidance on how to fill it in in Ukrainian and Russian, since some Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language. To translate the whole form would require a significant amount of technical work; moreover, the vast majority of our decision makers operate in English and it would be difficult to find large numbers of Ukrainian speakers who we could deploy into UKVI’s operation. Certainly, our goal is to make it relatively simple, so that people can fill in the basic information that they need to for the safeguarding check. Any documents they submit do not need to be translated. Birth certificates and any other proofs or documents we might ask for can be submitted in Ukrainian, given that the decision makers are familiar with the documents themselves. Certainly, we are looking at how we can advance the digital capability and the guidance so that people know what they are doing step by step as they go through the form.

Many emails I have received have a common theme. I will just quote a couple:

“I have had to write…no fewer than five different applications in order to be able to comply with the requirements of the scheme.”

Another said:

“The forms, aimed at Ukrainians, were hard for me to fill out and I speak English and am used to forms, but I managed to help them complete the application. The applications were submitted on Saturday 19th March. Since then we have heard nothing.”

The first email went on:

“While our friend is in danger, the Home Office is mired in bureaucracy, prioritising form over human life. It looks to me as if the whole process is going to take weeks and weeks.”

Will the Minister admit that there are blockages in the systems, and will he do something to clear them?

As we have already touched on, we are now seeing the rate of grants increasing significantly on the Homes for Ukraine scheme, as we saw with the Ukraine family scheme. I have touched on the number of visas that we issued in just two days last week under that scheme. We expect to see the same with this scheme, and we will soon see a very large number of the applications that have been made granted.

I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of the British people, including those in my constituency of Batley and Spen, who have offered to open their homes to Ukrainian families. They desperately want to help and are ready and waiting. Can the Minister tell these good people why the Government are making it so difficult for families who are fleeing the devastating attack on their country by asking them to fill in, as we have heard, these lengthy, multiple-page online forms, often in English, and upload so many documents? What is being done to ditch this extra bureaucracy, which takes caseworkers days to review, and what is being done to speed up the whole process?

I certainly would not say that it would take caseworkers days to review an individual form. In many cases, the online forms are literally click-through pages to say, “No, I don’t have a criminal record”. We have touched on how the process is accelerating. We will see many more applications granted and many of the people making such generous offers getting to be able to play their part.

My constituents Nick and Aileen Walker registered as hosts on 14 March and have been in touch with a family from Ukraine that they wish to host—a grandmother, mother and 11-month-old baby daughter, who registered their applications on 18 March. Can the Minister confirm how long people will be expected to wait for this visa paperwork to be processed, because it is increasingly difficult for families such as these to wait in insecure accommodation in a range of different countries in Europe, when they should be in a place of safety and sanctuary in Glasgow?

As touched on, we are now seeing the rate of visa grants accelerating and we should continue to see that over the next week. We would expect to see the majority of current cases being decided fairly shortly. We are very conscious that people do want to get settled. It is great to see the community in Glasgow standing up on this scheme in the way that it has on every other refugee resettlement scheme and supporting those claiming asylum here in the UK.

I want to question the Minister on the capacity in the system at the moment. If 200,000-odd people have come forward through the Homes for Ukraine scheme and only roughly a quarter of applications have been processed so far, what is he going to do to make sure that there is enough capacity in the system to allow everyone who wants to come here to do so? What conversations has he been having with the Treasury to ensure that we have the resources to do this?

The scheme is uncapped from a visa point of view. I suspect that the issue of conversations with the Treasury may be more for the next UQ about the funding that will be provided to local communities where people are sponsoring. We are clear: it is an uncapped scheme with no restrictions. If very large numbers of people want to sponsor individuals, we welcome that. One of the reasons we have gone down the path of appealing directly to the public is that it has proved, first, to deliver far more spaces much more quickly; and secondly, to be much better value for money than more traditional schemes, as, sadly, we have seen with Afghanistan. When a large number of people arrived, offers via local councils from communities did not come forward to the necessary level and therefore we ended up having to pay for people to stay in hotels.

I have an urgent case that I need to raise on this last day before we rise for recess. The mother has a five-year-old. She is in Italy. She is eight months pregnant. If she does not get a visa literally in the next few days, she will not be allowed to fly by her doctor. She speaks no word of Italian and is really worried about having to give birth with doctors that she cannot communicate with. Meanwhile we have a host ready and waiting for her in Oxfordshire. Will the Minister urgently take up this case and help us to get her over?

The cases of the constituents in Manchester who contact me generally follow the same pattern, which is that they do the hard work of locating and liaising with the family in Ukraine, they submit the complicated application form, they get a receipt and then they hear nothing. That is the frustration. People are being left in limbo either in Poland or under shelling in Ukraine. One of my constituents phrased it very well. He said: “All I want to do is to make sure there is nothing we haven’t done which may be holding up the application process.” If the Government will not sort out a simple emergency visa scheme, can they at least sort out the communication so that people know what is going on?

That is a fair point about updating people. Certainly people would be contacted if there was something that was needed from them, rather than us conducting the checks he would expect us to conduct from a safeguarding and security perspective. But a fair point has been made by colleagues across the House about the communication that needs to be sent out to those who have made applications, and we are certainly happy to take that forward.

I am not sure the Minister is actually hearing the issues being raised in the House about the shambles of this system, which is proving impossible. One of my constituents has offered their home to a family they are in touch with, and it is heartening to see how many families have come forward, but this family cannot flee Ukraine until their visa is approved because their son is disabled. Living in a refugee camp would prove too difficult. They are living with the daily trauma of sirens. Sheltering is proving to be too difficult with their son, yet they are still waiting for a visa from the Home Office. What can the Government do to step in urgently, issue a visa and look at this and many of the other issues like it to resolve this crisis immediately?

As we have touched on, in total we have already issued more than 27,000 visas across the two schemes. We have touched on how the Homes for Ukraine scheme is accelerating the number of visa grants, and that means that for those who urgently need it, it will be there. We have already touched on the ability for Members to put forward cases, where there is the need to prioritise them.

Constituents of mine have been in touch from Poland, where they have been helping a Ukrainian mother and daughter to make their way to the UK. I understand that one of the many barriers that they faced was a visa centre without any working printers due to the failure of an outsourced service. As the UK Government are insisting on this visa process, what undertaking can the Minister give us today on the steps being taken immediately to prevent the visa process breaking down, because issues such as this are leaving vulnerable people in limbo and high and dry?

Absolutely. The move to divert the vast majority of people applying to both these schemes away from visa application and the need to have a formally printed vignette, which is what the hon. Lady is referring to, has made a dramatic difference in terms of capability. Certainly our contractors assure us that printing facilities are available, but if there is a specific example, I am happy to look at it, because we need to ensure that where people need a vignette, it is issued. We have been engaging with carriers to ensure that they then accept the form that it is fixed to when people present themselves at airports. We have had that issue flagged to us, too.

Can I say to the Minister that I still think an emergency visa scheme would be far less bureaucratic than the system we have now? I remind him that some of the most vulnerable people have fled their homes without technology and the paperwork necessary for them to be able to complete the forms. What is the Minister doing to ensure that these people are not forgotten? What changes is he making to the system so that people who do not have the technology or the paperwork do not get left behind?

First, I am not sure what taking time out to set up another visa scheme would deliver in this context, compared with the refinements to the process that we already have in place. I can appreciate the argument about not having a visa. We do not agree with it and I think it is a bit odd to go down that path, but our decision makers have extensive flexibility. We appreciate that the type of documents we might normally ask for, such as translated copies of birth certificates, will not reasonably be able to be got hold of in a warzone. Our decision makers, subject to certain national security and safeguarding red lines, which the House would expect us to have for the protection of all involved, have a large amount of flexibility about the situations they can accept. Likewise, they can also consider families as a group. If one person has particular items, the decision maker can then apply that as proving the position of the rest of the family. It is safe to say there is significant flexibility for our decision makers, recognising the situation people are facing.

The Minister should recognise that the visa requirement is the root of the problem. Like most Members, I have been contacted by constituents who are desperate to help. They have signed up to the Homes for Ukraine scheme and identified families who they can assist, but they have run into red tape and bureaucracy. How can the Minister assure the Gibbs-Hall family from Dunoon, Jim and Margaret Love from Helensburgh, Sam Gallagher from Clynder, the Douglas family from Oban, Eddie McCreath from Lochgilphead and Hamish McKinnon from the Arrochar hotel, who all stand ready and willing to help with offers of accommodation and employment, that their incredible kind offers of help will not go to waste?