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Commons Chamber

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2023

House of Commons

Wednesday 13 December 2023

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Women and Equalities

The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—

Kinship Care

1. If she will make an assessment with Cabinet colleagues of the potential impact of the Government’s kinship care policies on carers and children with protected characteristics. (900624)

We comply with the public sector equality duty in considering how our policy decisions impact on individuals with protected characteristics, and we have complied with that obligation in drafting and developing the kinship strategy.

The annual survey of the Kinship charity showed that the majority of kinship carers are women, typically grandmothers, many of whom are affected by the gender pay gap and a rising retirement age, yet they are often forced to give up or reduce work to take on kinship care responsibilities. What progress has the Minister made with the Department for Business and Trade in finally securing paid leave for kinship carers so that they are not forced out of the labour force?

As the hon. Lady knows, we are committed to publishing the first ever strategy for kinship carers before the end of the year. She will not have long to wait.

Disabled People: Inequality

In July 2021, the Government set out our long-term vision in the national disability strategy. Over the summer, we consulted on the disability action plan, which will set out the immediate action that the Government are taking in 2024. Together with other relevant reforms being taken forward by my Cabinet colleagues, those measures seek to tackle inequality and improve the daily lives of disabled people.

The neuro drop-in centre in Lancaster provides a unique support network for those affected by neurological conditions, but my constituent, who travels there by bus from Bowerham to Torrisholme, is a wheelchair user, and if there is already is a wheelchair user on the bus, he cannot board. Does the Minister think that that is fair?

That does not sound terribly fair at all. I am very interested in what the hon. Lady shares with the House. Of course, we have a Transport Minister answering questions today, so I am very happy for us to look at that issue for her. If she writes to me, I will see that the matter is looked at.

Sense has found that, because of the Tory cost of living crisis, a large proportion of disabled people will not be seeing family, buying presents or even celebrating Christmas this year, yet the Government are ploughing ahead with changes that will ramp up sanctions and that could remove NHS prescriptions and access to legal aid for disabled people. Why, at every single opportunity, do the Government hit people with disabilities the hardest?

I apologise, Mr Speaker, because the Transport Minister I mentioned is not coming today—they might be on the bus. I will pick up the issue raised by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) in further responses.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) will know that we are making cost of living payments once again to support people in need. In fact, that support totals over £104 billion. If she is concerned for her constituents—and rightly so—she should definitely direct them to Help for Households, the benefits calculator on gov.uk, and the help to claim process. There is also the household support fund, which is about £1 billion this year. I hope she is satisfied that we are absolutely supporting the most vulnerable.

The disability pay gap has risen under the Conservatives from 11.7% in 2014 to 13.8% in 2021. Labour will act to close the gap and to support disabled people by introducing disability pay gap reporting for large employers. That is good for disabled people, good for business and good for our economy, so why will the Government not follow suit?

We are absolutely committed to supporting disabled people. Frankly, we are very proud of our record: we have supported more than 1 million disabled people into work, hitting the target five years early, and we are rewiring our benefits system to give a renewed focus on what people can do rather than what they cannot, so that there are opportunities for people to improve their lives and get the pay that they want through their employment.

Disabled people are also being hit hard by the Conservative cost of living crisis that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) referred to. On average, the extra cost of disability is equivalent to 63% of household income before housing costs. I would ask the Minister what discussions she has had with the Minister for disabled people about this important issue, but there is no Minister for disabled people. Will she tell the House when one will be appointed?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that point. As she has rightly said, we should all aim to reduce the disability employment gap, and that remains our goal. To answer her question, I am the lead on those matters for Equalities oral questions. I am disappointed that I am not enough for her today, but I do lead on those matters for the Department. All Department for Work and Pensions Ministers take responsibility across our portfolios for removing barriers to progress, and updates to ministerial appointments will be made under the usual process.

I reassure my hon. Friend that she is more than enough for me. There was a really worrying article in The Times a few days ago that talked about the invisibility of disabled people when making employment applications. We know that disabled people are less likely to be in work and to take up opportunities for entrepreneurship. Perhaps my hon. Friend could highlight the important work she is doing as the Minister for social mobility to make sure that across Government, there is a real drive to help disabled people get the best opportunities to work.

I thank my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members for their interest in this area. As the Minister responsible for social mobility, I am taking direct leadership on access to employment, particularly in respect of applications and recruitment that suit disabled people to get into work, because if we do not get them into work, they cannot progress. That is why we have billions of pounds in our back to work plan, and why we are supporting vulnerable people by uprating benefits by 6.7% in April equally.

Disability Action Plan

3. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the effectiveness of the disability action plan. (900626)

The disability action plan’s accessible 12-week consultation closed on 6 October. Since then, officials have been carefully considering all the consultation responses and working closely with other Government Departments. We have led discussions with the cross-Government ministerial disability champions before we publish the final disability action plan.

Some 14 million people live with a disability. They are statistically less likely to have a job or any qualifications or to own their own home, and sadly, their children are twice as likely to become victims of crime. Will the Minister ensure that the disability action plan addresses all those issues?

I thank my hon. Friend for his typical care in this area. I assure him and the House that significant work is taking place across Government in those areas where disabled people have told us that their outcomes must be a priority, whether that is in education, employment or care. We are focused on that, and the disability action plan will complement that work. We are using the insight from the 12-week consultation to deliver improvements in all the areas that matter most to disabled people, in order to improve their daily lives.

Some 1.4 million people in the UK are living with a brain injury. Will the Minister make sure that the final version of the plan lays out precisely what the Government intend to do in relation to people who have had a brain injury? The good news is that with really good neurorehabilitation, people can be given back not just their life, but a real quality of life. We owe that to them, don’t we?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. My father lived with a brain injury for over 25 years, and my annual Christmas card this year comes from Headway Sussex through its art therapy work, so I assure him that at the DWP, I think about the impacts of brain injury on a daily basis.

Gender-based Violence: Hamas

4. If she will have discussions with the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs on the Government’s response to reports of gender-based violence by Hamas since 7 October 2023. (900627)

It is crucial that the international community recognises the atrocities committed by Hamas, and that Hamas are held to account for their barbarism. That is why we are engaging with partners, including the UN, to ensure that perpetrators are held to account for their depravity.

The UK remains a global leader in eradicating sex-based violence. Our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative has £60 million in funding to combat conflict-related sexual violence and ensure that survivors access redress and support. On 28 November, we announced a further £33 million to support grassroots women’s rights organisations tackling sex-based violence.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Hostages who have been released have reported Hamas atrocities, such as being subjected to physical and sexual violence in captivity. The Israeli health service also reports that hostages have been drugged to make them look happy on videos. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning Hamas for doing that and in demanding that the International Committee of the Red Cross has access to every single one of the hostages immediately?

I share my hon. Friend’s horror. It is extremely distressing to hear all those reports, and I do unequivocally condemn the sexual violence that is being reported. We continue to engage regularly with partners, including the UN. I will pick up the points that he raised directly with the Foreign Office to see whether we can do what he asks. It does sound like something that needs the involvement of the Red Cross, but we will make sure that we co-ordinate across Government for a dedicated response on this issue.

Will the UK use its seat on the UN Human Rights Council to raise the use of gender-based violence on 7 October, and to secure a clear condemnation from its members of the rape, murder and torture perpetrated against women by Hamas on 7 October?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Yes, we will. We have raised the reports of sexual violence attacks on 7 October with UN Women and with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. I will make sure that we continue to do this and to impress upon international organisations that the whole world needs to respond to this.

Artificial Intelligence Biases: Protected Characteristics

5. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential for biases in artificial intelligence technologies in relation to people with protected characteristics. (900628)

We are having cross-governmental discussions about AI, and we are very clear that AI systems should not undermine people’s rights or discriminate unfairly. This was a key topic of discussion at the AI safety summit, and it remains a priority for the Government. Fairness is a core principle of our AI regulatory framework, and UK regulators are already taking action to address AI-related bias and discrimination.

In that case, is the Minister aware of the findings of the Institute for the Future of Work that the use of artificial intelligence

“presents risks to equality, potentially embedding bias and discrimination”,

and that auditing AI tools used in recruitment

“are often inadequate in ensuring compliance with UK Equality Law, good governance and best practice”?

What steps are being taken across the whole of Government to ensure that appropriate assessments are made of the equalities impact of the use of AI in the workplace?

That is exactly why we had the AI safety summit, at which more than 28 countries plus the EU signed up to the Bletchley declaration. In March, we published the AI regulation White Paper, which set out our first steps towards establishing a regulatory framework for AI. I repeat that AI systems should not undermine people’s rights or discriminate unfairly, and that is one of the core principles set out in the White Paper.

The risk of perpetuating inequality and the problems that arise from solely automated decision making are well accepted both in recruitment and, as we heard earlier, in the challenges for disabled people in accessing employment, but also in other contexts such as immigration and welfare benefits. However, the UK Government’s Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is liberalising the use of artificial intelligence in decision making and reducing the rights of people to appeal those decisions. Does the Minister understand that it is increasingly important to make sure that we mitigate risks such as encoded bias? What is the specific plan to do that?

I do not recognise the hon. Member’s assessment, but let me say this: context matters. The risks of bias will vary depending on the specific way in which AI is used. That is why we are letting the regulators describe and illustrate what fairness means within their sectors, because they will be able to apply greater context to their discussions. The risk of discrimination should be assessed in context, and guidance should be issued that is specific to the sector. That is why we are preparing and publishing guidance to support the regulators. We will then encourage and support them to develop joint guidance. We will be working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate.

Socioeconomic Equality

The Government are committed to boosting economic growth across the UK and ensuring opportunity is spread as widely as possible. Education is the most significant lever to create opportunity and reduce inequality, and I am pleased that Conservative reforms have seen children in schools in England excel in the 2022 PISA—programme for international student assessment—scores. England significantly outperformed the average, rising from 27th for mathematics in 2009 to 11th this year, and from 25th for reading in 2009 to 13th this year.

When it comes to economic equality, physical mobility is critical. As the Minister may know, I am joint chair of the all-party parliamentary group for “left behind” neighbourhoods, and our recent report talked about how limited public transport connectivity frustrates access to education and employment. I have constituents in places such as Trimdon and Fishburn who cannot get to the 10,000 jobs in Aycliffe, which is only 10 miles away. Does the Minister agree it is imperative that when funding for local transport is determined, the opportunity to enhance social mobility is seen as critical?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who raises an important point about how connectivity creates access and generates social mobility. The Department for Transport is working to put the needs of current and potential users at the heart of the operation of the transport system, and Network North, our new £36 billion plan, will improve our country’s transport. Perhaps my hon. Friend will write to me about the specific issues, because some of those duties will fall to his local council and I want to know what it is doing with the money we are giving it to improve access.

This Conservative Government have done more for the people of Blyth Valley than any other Government—[Laughter.] And they have brought much needed investment in employment opportunities for my constituents—[Interruption.]

Order. Please, I cannot hear the question. Obviously there must have been something funny, but I didn’t hear it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This Conservative Government have done more for the people of Blyth Valley than any other Government and have brought much needed investment in employment opportunities for my constituents, following decades of Labour neglect. Will my right hon. Friend please assure me that continuing to close the gap between the north and the south remains the Government’s highest priority?

I am delighted to assure my hon. Friend of that. He is an effective advocate for his constituency, and he knows that this Government have been investing in Blyth Valley. We have given an £18 million boost to regenerate housing, £1.5 million for new high-tech training equipment, £200,000 for extended CCTV provision, and a further £20 million for our long-term plan for towns. Our investment in Blyth shows that only the Conservatives can deliver there, and levelling up and closing the gap is a priority for this Government.

Some 42% of children in Newcastle upon Tyne Central are growing up in poverty, 17% of households are in fuel poverty, and a fifth of adults are estimated to be in problematic debt. Does the Minister agree that a Government who cannot deliver economic prosperity for working people in the north-east are a Government who cannot deliver on socioeconomic equality?

This Government are delivering. Of course we recognise that there are people who are in need, and that is why we are doing everything, across all Departments, to deliver for them. For example, our supporting families programme has funded local areas to help almost 600,000 families with multiple and complex needs to make significant positive changes to their lives. The programme is working, and evaluation found that the proportion of children on the programme going into care reduced by a third and the number of adults receiving custodial sentences decreased by a quarter. There is so much we can say—I know we are running out of time, Mr Speaker, so perhaps the hon. Lady would like me to write to her.

One thing that can militate against socioeconomic equality, particularly for the elderly and most vulnerable, is access to care staff. The rate of remuneration is 61p per mile, going down to 25p per mile after the first 3,500 miles, and those figures have not been revised upwards since 2011. It means that wonderful people in my constituency are very often losing money travelling about, and that does not do much for recruitment either. Will the Minister agree to talk to the Treasury and the Scottish Government about doing something about that?

I am sure that colleagues in the appropriate Department will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s question and will be able to provide a more detailed response.

Topical Questions

In my last topical statement, I spoke about the unacceptable rise in antisemitism and hostility towards the Jewish community since 7 October, and I am updating the House on what further action I can take to promote social cohesion. The Equality Act 2010 is a shield against discrimination, and the public sector equality duty is part of that shield. It is particularly important that all public authorities take the duty seriously. To ensure that they understand how to comply with the duty, I will be publishing updated guidance shortly. I will then write to leaders of public authorities that have a key role in promoting social cohesion, to show how they can foster good relations, promote equality of opportunity and eliminate unlawful discrimination.

I thank the Minister for that answer. As the Women’s Budget Group has rightly pointed out, women are more reliant on benefits, due to care-giving roles, and they have been disproportionately impacted by regressive social security changes since 2010. What consideration has the Minister given to the abolition of the poverty-inducing benefit cap and the hated two-child limit, to prevent further poverty and destitution among women and children, and will she raise that matter with her Cabinet colleagues?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we disagree with the propositions that he has set out, and we have said so time and again at this Dispatch Box. We believe that the two-child policy is important. We know that there is a cost of living crisis caused by rising energy costs and the war in Ukraine, which was caused by Russia. The Government are doing everything we can to limit the impact on households.

T2. A Museum of London report has bizarrely concluded that black people were more likely to die from medieval plague. Will the Minister for Women and Equalities ensure that such sensationalist research findings and woke archaeology have no impact at all on current health and pandemic policy? (900640)

I do agree. I am not even sure whether we can call it just sensationalist or woke. The research apparently was based on phrenology, which is a completely discredited type of science. I agree with my hon. Friend that this type of research is damaging to trust, to social cohesion and even to trust in health services. I have written to the director of the Museum of London to express my concern.

In 2020, women’s life expectancy in the poorest parts of the UK was almost 19 years shorter than those in the most affluent. Thirteen years ago, Labour introduced a socioeconomic duty in the Equality Act 2010 to make the NHS and other public bodies tackle this gap. Why have Ministers failed to implement it?

The hon. Lady is right that the socioeconomic duty she references is not commenced in England. It is in Scotland, however, and the figures are worse there, which shows that the duty is not the solution to the problems she raises.

T8. My North Devon constituency is in the lower quartile for social mobility. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to improve social mobility outcomes for remote, rural and coastal communities? (900646)

I agree with my hon. Friend that the circumstances of a person’s birth or where they live should not be a barrier to social mobility. That is why we have established things such as the Social Mobility Pledge consortium with businesses, and 120 have signed up. There are 12 community renewal fund projects serving her constituency and the wider area, and £1.2 million from the shared prosperity fund to achieve those aims.

T3. The Etherton review was published five months ago, and we are due to have a statement later today. May I seek assurances from the Minister that the Department will work with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that its recommendations are published at pace? (900641)

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. It was a very important review, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made an apology at the Dispatch Box. There will be a statement later, and I suggest that she asks the Defence Minister a question at that point.

Every year, 800 women pass through immigration detention, including centres such as Yarl’s Wood in my constituency. Many of those women have been trafficked or are victims of sexual abuse. I am working with a group, Women for Refugee Women, to provide a snapshot of the backgrounds of these women. Will the Minister agree to meet us to analyse the results of their findings?

I would of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend. Women who have survived trafficking or sexual abuse are detained only when the evidence of vulnerability in their individual case is outweighed by immigration removal considerations. Victims of torture have their case considered by a single specialist team, autonomous of general caseworkers, and victims of modern slavery undergo a needs assessment to identify recovery needs.

T4. Gender bias plays a key role in the misdiagnosis and under-diagnosis of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism in women and girls. What action are the Government taking to ensure that every girl with special educational needs receives support from their school or college, as she is entitled to by law? (900642)

We are working with more than 42 integrated care boards across the country to improve the timelines for diagnosis of autism and ADHD. Some ICBs are doing particularly well, but others need a lot more help and support.

Many people with impaired mobility conditions depend on their cars for the freedom to live the lives they want to lead. Will the Government therefore crack down on Labour’s anti-car policies in local government, such as the expansion of the ultra low emission zone and low-traffic networks and the building over of station car parks?

This Government are clear in our condemnation of Labour’s attack on motorists, whether it is in London or Wales. That is why, in the summer, the Prime Minister ordered a review of low-traffic neighbourhoods, which are making some parts of London inaccessible for disabled people, whether they are using public transport or cars.

T5.   Keep Prisons Single Sex has disclosed that police forces are still failing to adequately record the sex of offenders at birth and sometimes record self-identification. This can have a considerable effect on criminal justice data. Will the Minister take any steps to ensure that the correct data is given, so that appropriate analysis can be given and we do not have skewed information? (900643)

That is something that my Department is working on. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to ensure that data is accurate, that people understand what is being recorded and that this does not have an impact on how public services are delivered. If he has any further information that he would like to share, I would very much like to see if there are specific constituency circumstances we can look into.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Mr Speaker, as this is the last Prime Minister’s questions before recess, I know that the whole House will want to join me in wishing you and all the House staff a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. I know that Members will also want to join me in sending our warmest wishes to our armed forces based at home and stationed overseas, our emergency services and all those who will be working over Christmas too. Finally, I know that everyone will want to join me in wishing Mark Drakeford all the best as he moves on from his many, many years of devoted public service.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

May I concur with the Prime Minister’s comments about our armed forces, Christmas and Mark Drakeford?

My constituent Fred Bates is 74, he has liver cancer and he is a victim of the contaminated blood products scandal. The Prime Minister had a chance to do right by Fred last week, but he failed to do so and lost the vote in this House. After half a century, Fred wishes to know when he and fellow survivors will be compensated and get justice.

This was an appalling tragedy, and my thoughts remain with all those concerned. I absolutely understand the strength of feeling on this. It was this Government who set up the inquiry, which I participated in, and we fully understand the need for action. The Government, crucially, have already accepted the moral case for compensation and acknowledged that justice needs to be delivered for the victims. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office will update the House on our next steps on the infected blood inquiry shortly.

Q2. The tax cuts in the autumn statement were extremely welcome, but in order to go further and get the tax burden as low as possible, accurate and robust economic modelling is required. The Office for Budget Responsibility has been habitually wrong, and we had the spectacle last week of the head of the OBR saying that his latest forecast might be £30 billion out. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commit to finding a better system of financial modelling, so that we can get taxes lower? (900683)

As my hon. Friend knows, the OBR has brought greater transparency and independence to the forecasting on which Government policy is based, but he is right. It is required to produce an assessment of the accuracy of its fiscal and economic forecasts at least once a year but, crucially, as he acknowledged, thanks to our management of the economy and the fact that we have halved inflation and controlled borrowing, we have now delivered the largest tax cuts in a generation, and they will benefit families up and down the country from January.

Yesterday we heard of the tragic death of a young man on the Bibby Stockholm. I know that the whole House will want to send our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We must never let this happen again.

I would also like to mark the retirement of my colleague and friend Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales. Mark committed his life to public service and lives his values every day. Quietly and patiently, Mark has been a titan of Labour and Welsh politics. We thank him for his service and wish him well.

Christmas is a time of peace on earth and good will to all—has anyone told the Tory party?

Well, Christmas is also a time for families, and under the Conservatives we do have a record number of them. At the beginning of the year, I set out some priorities that this Government would deliver for the British people, and over the course of the year we have inflation halved, the economy growing, debt falling, action on the longest waiters, the boats down by a third and, crucially, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), tax cuts coming to help working families in the new year.

The Prime Minister can spin it all he likes, but the whole country can see that, yet again, the Tory party is in meltdown and everyone else is paying the price. He has kicked the can down the road, but in the last week his MPs have said of him that he is “not capable enough”, he is “inexperienced”, he is “arrogant”, and he is “a really bad politician”—[Interruption.] Government Members are shouting, but this is what they said. Come on: who was it who said he is “a really bad politician”? Hands up. [Interruption.] They are shouting. Well, what about “inexperienced”—who was that? Or—there have to be some hands for this—“he’s got to go”? [Interruption.] They are shy.

Apparently, the Prime Minister is holding a Christmas party next week—[Interruption.]

Order. It is Christmas—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]—but you might not want the Christmas present that I could give you.

Apparently, the Prime Minister is holding a Christmas party next week. How is the invite list looking?

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for all the comments, but he should hear what they have to say about him. [Interruption.]

Order. Do you want to be the first one? It is Christmas, and I am going to hear this. My constituents are going to have a Christmas like everyone else, and they want to know whether their Christmas is going to be affected, so I want less of it from all sides.

Government Members have obviously found the donkey for their nativity—the search for three wise men might take a little longer. While they fight among themselves, there is a country out here that is not being governed, where more than 100,000 people are paying hundreds more a month on their mortgages. Energy bills are going back up in January. The economy is shrinking again. NHS waiting lists are at an all-time high. Does the Prime Minister not think that the Government would be better off fixing the messes they have already made, rather than scrambling to create new ones?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about governing, but he spent his first two questions talking about political tittle-tattle. What a joke. Let us get on to the substance. He mentioned those things. What is the news we have just heard in the last week? What is the most important thing? The most important thing is education, because that is how we spread opportunity in our country. What have we learned? Where are the schools performing best in the United Kingdom? It is in England. Thanks to the reforms of this Conservative Government, they are rising up the league tables, giving our kids the start they need. Where are they plummeting? It is in Labour-run Wales.

The Prime Minister talks about children. Nearly 140,000 children are going to be homeless this Christmas—more than ever before. That is a shocking state of affairs, and it should shame the Government. Instead of more social housing, house building is set to collapse. Instead of banning no-fault evictions, thousands of families are at risk of homelessness. Rather than indulging his Back Benchers swanning around in their factions and their “star chambers” pretending to be members of the mafia, when will he get a grip and focus on the country?

Let us just look at the facts. Rough sleeping in this country is down by 35% since its peak, thanks to the efforts of this Government. There are hundreds of thousands fewer children in poverty today, thanks to this Government. And when it comes to home building, again what did we do? We have had the data just this last week: in the last year an almost record number of new homes were delivered, more than in any year under the last Labour Government.

One hundred and forty thousand children homeless this Christmas and the Prime Minister is utterly tone deaf. The rise in homelessness shows how these Tory crises merge and grow and damage the country; families like the Bradys in Wiltshire, both parents working full time with two young children forced out of their home of 15 years by a no-fault eviction, now living in their van. Or 11-year-old Liam Walker, homeless this Christmas. He wrote a letter to Santa saying, “Please can I have a forever home? I don’t want any new toys, I just want all my old toys out of storage. I just want us to be happy again.” If there is anything that could shame this Government into putting the country first, then it is surely this little boy.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman really cared about building homes—[Interruption.] No, if he really cared about building homes—when there was an opportunity in this House to back our plans to reform defective EU laws to unlock 100,000 new homes, what did he do? He went in front of the cameras and said one thing, and then he came in here and blocked it—typical shameless opportunism.

Is that really the Prime Minister’s Christmas message to Liam? Cocooned in his party management breakfast, he just cannot see the—

Order. Mr Cleverly, please. It is Christmas. I want a little bit of silence, and I am going to get it one way or another. That applies to each side.

Cocooned in his party management breakfast, the Prime Minister just cannot see the country in front of him and what they have done.

I will finish by thanking hard-working families across Britain who kept our country going. It has been an impossibly difficult year for so many. I want to pay special tribute to our key workers, particularly those in emergency services and those serving abroad in our forces who, even at this time of year, are doing the vital work of protecting their country. I wish everyone, including Members on the Conservative Benches, a very happy and peaceful new year. Will the Prime Minister join me?

I think the right hon and learned Gentleman missed that I paid tribute to our emergency workers at the beginning of the session. But let us see, because I think it is important. He talked about working families. Of course I want to make sure that we support working families, and that is what we are actually delivering. All he has to offer them is borrowing £28 billion a year. All that will do is push up their mortgage rates and push up their taxes. Meanwhile, what have we done? We have delivered tax cuts for millions of working families, boosted the national living wage, recruited 50,000 more nurses and 20,000 more police officers, improved our schools, cut the cost of net zero for working families, cut the boat crossings by a third and halved inflation. That is the difference: we are getting on and delivering for working Britain.

Q7.   As the world struggles to agree the future of the 1.5° commitment, in Wimbledon we are keen to do our bit. To help my campaign to make electric vehicle charging access more widespread, can I ask my right hon. Friend for two early Christmas presents? Will he speak to our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to ask him to look again at the unfair differential rates of VAT on public and private charging points? Will he ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at the byelaws that stop local councils making on-street parking and charging more accessible? (900689)

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Chancellor has already authorised more than £2 billion of investment to support our transition to zero-emission vehicles, and that we are well on track to reach our target of 300,000 charge points by 2030. I can also tell him that we will consult on amending the national planning policy framework to ensure that it prioritises the roll-out of charge points, on top the funding of almost £400 million to support local authorities to spread them out so that all our families have access to them when they need it.

Nobody wants to see this conflict go on for a moment longer than necessary. We urgently need more humanitarian pauses to get all the hostages out, and to get life-saving aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. We have been consistent in supporting a sustainable ceasefire, which means that Hamas must stop launching rockets into Israel and release all the hostages.

If the current actions of the Israeli Government continue, it is estimated that almost 1,400 more children will die between now and Christmas day. In the United Nations last night, our friends and allies in France, Ireland, Canada, Spain and Australia joined 148 other nations to vote with courage, care and compassion for a ceasefire. The UK shamefully abstained. How can the Prime Minister possibly explain why 153 nations are wrong, yet Westminster is right?

As I have said consistently, we are deeply concerned about the devastating impact of the fighting in Gaza on the civilian population. Too many people have lost their lives already. That is something that we have stressed, and something that I stressed personally to Prime Minister Netanyahu just last week. What we are doing practically is to get more aid into Gaza, and the Foreign Secretary is appointing a UK humanitarian co-ordinator. In my conversations last week with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I pressed him on opening up the Kerem Shalom crossing so that more aid can flow in, and we are actively exploring the opportunity for maritime corridors, something on which the UK is well placed to lead. I can give the hon. Gentleman my assurance that we will work night and day to get more aid to those who desperately need it.

Q9. We expect our young folk to remain in education or training until they are 18, but many lack transport to get there. Along with the amazing headteacher of Alston Moor Federation, Gill Jackson, I secured funding from the council to get her students to college, and pressed the council for a half-a-million-pound bursary scheme to extend youth travel more widely. But we should not have to do this. To secure equality of opportunity and true levelling up, will the Prime Minister look to mandate and support councils to provide post-16 transport, so that all our young people in towns, cities and rural areas can reach their next stage in life? (900691)

My hon. Friend and the headteacher of Alston Moor Federation, Gill Jackson, have done a fantastic job in securing more funding. I wish her well for what I believe is her upcoming retirement.

As my hon. Friend knows, our school travel policy ensures that no child is prevented from accessing education by a lack of transport. Not only do we have home-to-school travel policies, but the 16 to 19 bursary fund can be used to support young people with transport costs, and, more generally, we are taking action to keep bus fares capped at £2. However, I will happily ensure that my hon. Friend secures a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss his proposals further.

The Prime Minister will be aware of Unionist concerns about the need to remove the Irish sea border created by the protocol, which disrupts the UK’s internal market. Will he bring forward legislation to amend the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, and both guarantee and future-proof Northern Ireland’s unfettered access to the UK’s internal market in all scenarios?

I thank my right hon. Friend. I recognise the need to do more in this area, and I can confirm to him that the Government do stand ready to legislate to protect Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom and the UK internal market, alongside an agreement to restore the Executive. We can do this apace, and I know that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues are working hard to achieve that. Our NHS, our police officers and the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland need devolved government urgently, and I think it is incumbent on all of us to work to work day and night to help to achieve that.

Q10.   Mr Speaker, 121 MPs from across the House signed my open letter to supermarkets, asking to have a “Buy British” button online. I am pleased to announced that last week Morrisons was the first supermarket to implement a “Buy British” tab. This gives consumers the choice to have home-grown produce and also supports our farmers. Will the Prime Minister join my calls to other supermarkets to have the courage to make the change and follow suit? (900692)

This Government will always back our farmers, and I welcome the work of my hon. Friend and the National Farmers Union on this issue. We absolutely support calls for industry-led action on this topic, and I welcome the news of the “Buy British” button at Morrisons. We will continue to encourage all retailers to do all they can to showcase the incredible food produced right here in the United Kingdom.

Q3. The marriage plans of thousands of couples were dashed last week by the sudden announcement of a big increase in the salary requirement for a spouse visa. Can the Prime Minister give any reassurance to those with well-advanced marriage plans that now appear to have been scuppered, and to families already in the UK who need to extend their stay but who will not comply with the new rules? Can he at least offer some transitional help for families, or does his party’s support for the family now apply only to the highly paid? (900684)

We have a long-standing principle that anyone bringing dependants to the UK must be able to support them financially. We should not expect this to be done at the taxpayer’s expense. The threshold has not been raised in over a decade and it is right that we have now brought it in line with the median salary. The family immigration route does contain provision for exceptional circumstances, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, but more generally it is also right to look at transitional arrangements to ensure that they are fair, and I can tell him that the Home Office is actively looking at this and will set out further information shortly.

Q11. I make no apology for once again raising the issue of steel—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] We are now at serious risk of losing the ability to make virgin steel here in the UK. I know that the Government are working hard on this, but it is a matter of national security and we need the Prime Minister’s leadership on this issue. What is he doing to ensure that we are able to make our own virgin steel and that we do not lose it on his watch? (900693)

I praise my hon. Friend’s leadership in championing her local community and also the steel industry in the UK. She is right to do so, because it is an incredibly important part not just of our local communities but of our economy and security. She is right to put this issue on the agenda.

We are committed to working with the steel sector to secure a decarbonised future, supporting local economic growth and our levelling-up agenda. That includes our commitment to major support with energy costs and also access to hundreds of millions of pounds of grants to support energy efficiency and decarbonisation. I obviously cannot comment on conversations with individual companies, but my hon. Friend can see from our track record on working with either Celsa or Tata Steel that we have been able to support our fantastic steel industry, and we will always continue to do so.

Q4. A rogue company has walked away from 13,000 tonnes of hazardous waste in Lancaster, and it has now been on fire for 10 days. There are plumes of smoke covering our city. Lancaster City Council has been left to pick up the tab, and to date it has spent £262,000. Without Government support and intervention this fire will burn for several months, so will the Prime Minister provide my local council with swift Government support? (900686)

I thank the hon. Member for raising this incredibly important question. I know she has been working alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on this. I also thank the emergency services in her constituency. My understanding is that Lancaster City Council, the Environment Agency, the UK Health Security Agency and the emergency services are working together to ensure that the health risks and environmental consequences are minimised, but I will ensure that the relevant Minister understands the absolute urgency of the issue the hon. Lady has raised and make sure that she meets them as soon as possible.

Q12. Some dental practices are taking advantage of post-covid demand to take their NHS practices private, earning more money but leaving behind those most in need. Training a dentist costs constituents in Broadland more than £300,000. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a dentist accepts public funding in order to qualify, they should be asked to commit to NHS dentistry for a number of years before going private? (900694)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We are investing £3 billion in dentistry. The NHS dentistry contract was reformed last year to improve access for patients, and around half of all treatment was delivered to non-paying adults and children. The number of adults seen has gone up by 10% and the number of children seen has gone up by 15%, but my hon. Friend is right that more needs to be done, which is why the Government will bring forward the dentistry recovery plan in due course.

Q5. There are 12 days until Christmas, and hundreds of families in Battersea are worried, not about being able to buy gifts for their children but about whether they can afford food and heat due to the Tory cost of living crisis. This year, over 4,300 emergency food parcels have been provided in Battersea by the Wandsworth food bank, which has told me that it is bracing for the worst winter yet. What is the Prime Minister doing to ensure that families do not go cold and hungry this Christmas? (900687)

We care deeply about making sure the most vulnerable in our society get the support they need through the winter, which is why we increased welfare by record amounts earlier this year. We supplemented that with £900 in cost of living payments for the most vulnerable. It is why we have provided energy bill support for those who need our help the most. Pensioners in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere will receive up to £300 alongside their winter fuel payment. Indeed, that support will last not just through the winter but into next year, because we are deeply committed to helping those who need it. This Government have a track record of delivering that help.

Q13. The Prime Minister is rightly focused on taking long-term decisions to improve the lives of people in this country, so can I make a suggestion? Our mental health legislation is 40 years old, and we made a manifesto commitment in 2017 and 2019 to reform the Mental Health Act 1983 because people with learning disabilities and autism who are sectioned under the Act are being kept in inappropriate accommodation for long periods. People sectioned under the Act are not receiving the compassionate care they deserve and are, in a sense, criminalised. They have their mental health condition re-stigmatised by the act of sectioning.In the absence of a Bill in the King’s Speech, will the Prime Minister agree to meet me and other like-minded colleagues to discuss how we might take forward the reform of the Mental Health Act, because it simply is not fit for the 21st century? (900695)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. He is absolutely right about the work that needs to be done, and I am grateful to the Joint Committee on the Draft Mental Health Bill. Our intention is to bring forward a Bill when parliamentary time allows.

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and other colleagues to discuss this. I remind everyone that we are undertaking the largest expansion of mental health services in a generation, with £2.3 billion of extra funding by March 2024. We are increasing capital investment in mental health urgent care centres and, under the long-term workforce plan, providing the largest expansion of the mental health workforce we have ever seen in this country.

Q6. Rather than the Government chaos that is dominating media headlines, much more important to the public, businesses and organisations is their deeply unsatisfactory day-to- day experience of engaging with this dysfunctional Administration. As far as they can see, Britain is not working. When is the Prime Minister going to get a grip? (900688)

The most pressing issue facing families is the cost of living. That is why this Government have delivered what we said, which was to halve inflation, and not only that; we are supplementing it with significant tax cuts, which will benefit working families from January—£450 for a typical person in work—demonstrating that we are absolutely on the side of hard-working families. This Government are cutting their taxes.

Breast cancer survival rates have improved, but we need to go further on harder-to-reach cancers. In Parliament this afternoon, there is a drop-in session on lobular breast cancer and the research we need. Could my right hon. Friend or his excellent new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care find time in their busy diaries to join us?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work on this specific and important issue. I am happy to tell him that I believe the Health Secretary is attending this afternoon’s event to hear more about that work. I can assure him that we are focused on fighting cancer on all fronts: prevention, diagnosis, treatment, research and funding. We are making good progress, but there is always more we can do. I look forward to hearing from him after this afternoon’s event.

Q8.   While the Home Secretary was in Rwanda signing his new treaty, his Department put out a contract to manage small boat arrivals until 2030, at a cost of £700 million to the taxpayer. Does that not show that even the Home Office does not think the Minister’s plan will work? (900690)

That is a total mischaracterisation of what was put out, which was an advert, not a commitment. I am glad that the hon. Lady now cares about this issue—not something we have seen previously from Labour. Our track record is clear: we have got the numbers of small boat arrivals down this year by over a third. That is what we are doing about it. The Labour party is voting against every measure that we have taken.

I chair the caucus of 38 Conservative Members of Parliament who have Britain’s longest river flowing through their constituencies, and we have presented a business case to the Chancellor for £500 million to try to manage the river holistically. Our constituencies are now facing flooding every year, causing damage to our businesses and our communities. This evening, I have an Adjournment debate on flooding of the River Severn. Will the Prime Minister take an interest, because the business case shows a gross value added uplift for the west midlands of more than £100 billion if we can manage and tame Britain’s longest river?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. I recall that he and I spoke about it when I was Chancellor, and I praise him for his work and leadership on this issue in his local area. I will make sure that the Chancellor does look at the business case. My hon. Friend will know that we have significantly increased funding for flood defences, to over £5 billion, protecting hundreds of thousands more homes, but if it is an interesting opportunity for the Chancellor, I am sure he will take that up.

Q14. What is worse: losing your WhatsApp messages as a tech bro, losing £11.8 billion to fraud as Chancellor, presiding over the biggest fall in living standards in our history, or desperately clinging on to power when you have become even more unpopular than Boris Johnson? (900696)

Given the appalling reports of sexual violence committed by Hamas on 7 October and the risk that hostages could have that treatment inflicted on them as well, will the Prime Minister raise this issue in international forums so that the international community demands, strongly, humanitarian access to hostages in Gaza?

The reports of sexual violence perpetrated by Hamas are deeply shocking. We have raised our concerns with the United Nations a fortnight or so ago, and we are engaging with the Israeli Government to consider what further support we can provide. More broadly, we continue to do everything we can to ensure that all hostages can return safely to their families, including the British hostages and those with links to the UK. My right hon. Friend can rest assured that the Foreign Secretary and I are working tirelessly to bring about their safe return.

LGBT Veterans Independent Review

With permission, I would like to set out the Government’s formal response to Lord Etherton’s LGBT veterans independent review.

The treatment of those armed forces personnel perceived to be LGBT between 1967 and 2000 has long been a stain on the conscience of the nation. Last year, this Government asked Lord Etherton to conduct a review into the impact of the historic ban on homosexuality in Defence. Following the call for evidence, the inquiry received 1,128 responses from those who were dismissed or discharged because of their sexual orientation; from those who felt compelled to resign, purchase their release from service or curtail their contracts because of the ban; and from those who, while not part of the LGBT community, witnessed the trauma of such antediluvian rules, as family members, colleagues or friends. Etherton paints an unflinching picture of the most shocking treatment of gay members of our Defence community by an institutionally homophobic organisation.

Out of the blue, when applying to be a reservist in 1980, I was asked if I was gay. Even then that struck me as hugely inappropriate, but that strong sense of impropriety, which has stayed with me for 43 years, pales into insignificance against the wall of hurt experienced by LGBT people in the course of their Defence journey, much of it evidenced by Terence Etherton.

Different members of the community have been impacted differently. Yet, for each and every one, the repercussions were enduring, with the tentacles reaching into all dimensions of their lives since. Sadly, we cannot turn back the clock, but we can apologise for decades of hurt. That is what the Prime Minister did after Lord Etherton published his report in July and what the Defence Secretary and chiefs of service have done in their turn. However, apologies alone are not enough.

Etherton demands more and we agree. That is why the Government took steps to right historic wrongs, even before the report was published. In 2021, we began handing back medals to anyone who had had them withheld or removed because of their sexuality. Medals matter; they should never have been snatched away. In December 2021, we removed the barriers that prevented those living with HIV from joining the military and, back in June, the Home Office extended its disregard and pardon scheme, wiping historic convictions for same-sex sexual activity. The extension was especially important for veterans, because it broadened the eligibility to include any same-sex conviction that would not be a crime today, thereby covering service disciplinary offences.

In addition, we published guidance helping to make LGBT veterans aware of things to which they might not have felt they were entitled. That includes information on mental and physical health support, as well as benefits that all veterans are able to receive, not to mention the armed forces veterans badge, which I handed out to a number of veterans at this year’s Pride event in London.

However, today we go further still. I can announce we are accepting the intent behind all 49 of Lord Etherton’s recommendations. In fact, to date we have already implemented almost half of them. We have established a legacy website to host the review, the Government response and information collected by the review, including testimonies. Through Op Courage, we are ensuring a focus on the non-combat mental health impacts of the ban.

Significantly, in some instances we have gone above and beyond the review recommendations. For example, Etherton advised making certain restorative measures available for the next of kin of deceased veterans, but we have created a broader definition of next of kin—namely, persons of sufficient interest—recognising the impact the ban may have had on LGBT veterans’ relationships and ensuring that those they would have nominated as next of kin are seen as such. Next year will see the expanded roll-out of the armed forces veterans card to all veterans who served in the UK armed forces before 2018, and planning for a veterans memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum is also now under way.

Today, we are throwing open the front door to our LGBT veterans. Today, we ask them to apply or register an interest for restorative measures that are relevant to them, including individual apology letters, return of berets and cap badges, amendments to veterans’ service history and additional personal testimony to evidence collected by the review. That testimony will eventually become part of the historic record in The National

Archives, signalling that our LGBT veterans will never be forgotten and that 33 years of national shame will never be expunged, and affirming and celebrating the part that those veterans played in our country’s history. I strongly urge colleagues across the House to encourage LGBT constituents to come forward, read the online guide and complete the application form for restorative measures. Importantly, the form will also allow veterans to indicate their interest in applying for a financial award when eligibility is confirmed and that scheme goes live.

Lord Etherton recommended that an appropriate award should be made to affected veterans, with the Government’s overall exposure capped at £50 million. We have agreed to that in full, but, in order to develop the scheme, we will first need to gain a much better understanding of what the affected cohort looks like. Hence, we are calling for veterans to indicate their interest on the form that goes live today. That data will help officials and the community—working together—to design a fair and equitable scheme for distributing the funds that Lord Etherton has called for and that we accept. There will be an opportunity for a full debate in the new year once the financial award scheme is matured and we have the benefit of the data captured through the front door that I am opening today.

Once again, I place on record my gratitude to Lord Etherton and his team for their outstanding work compiling a comprehensive and deeply affecting report. I thank Fighting With Pride and our working group, including trusted stakeholders and independent LGBT veterans, who not only made sure that their voices were heard, but helped steer our response throughout. They will not seek it, but may I mark out Craig Jones and Caroline Paige in particular for their part in bringing us to where we are today? Above all, I pay tribute to all those who came forward in the first place. Those veterans showed tremendous courage in chronicling traumatic experiences, which for many had been suppressed, causing grief and groundless silent shame for decades.

Today’s Defence has come a long way since 2000. We cannot change the past, but we can make the future better. In accepting Lord Etherton’s recommendations, we salute a slighted generation and ensure that its successors can hold their heads high in a place that wants them, values them and honours them. I am today placing a copy of the Government’s response in the Library, and I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for early sight of his statement.

With due respect to the right hon. Gentleman, who is a diligent Minister, this statement should have been made by the Defence Secretary; the last one was. This no-show from the Defence Secretary downgrades the importance that the Government give in July to backing up the Prime Minister’s apology to LGBT+ veterans. Crucially, it undermines the confidence that LGBT veterans will have in the Government being serious about fully implementing the Etherton review and fully righting the injustices arising from the ban on LGBT people serving in our armed forces until 2000.

This is unfinished business for Labour. We lifted the ban in 2000. We argued for the Etherton review in the Armed Forces Bill. We welcomed its publication and recommendations. We again thank Lord Etherton for his review and the inclusive way in which he conducted it.

At the heart of the review were the statements of those who were victims of the overt, often brutal, homophobic policy. We pay tribute to them for sharing their experiences and giving their testimonies. Like the Minister, I also pay tribute to groups such as Fighting With Pride, which have campaigned for justice, along with backing from wider veterans organisations such as the Royal British Legion and Help for Heroes. This is a cause that unites the House.

The previous Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), said in a powerful and moving statement in July that he had

“decided specifically that a debate in the House should take place”

in order to

“make sure that the House properly debates the report and the Government’s response to it,”

and not just the compensation scheme, as the Minister has implied. Will the Government honour that promise to the House in full? When will that debate take place? To be clear, the debate is of profound importance to veterans. It should be a watershed moment for defence to move beyond the long, shameful shadow of the past, and to say in the future, “We are deeply proud of our LGBT veterans. We honour your service to our nation. You are part of us.”

The previous Defence Secretary also said:

“We will be very happy to work with the Opposition…to discuss our thinking on the recommendations.”—[Official Report, 19 July 2023; Vol. 736, c. 921-24.]

That has not happened. The Minister confirmed today that the Government

“are accepting the intent behind all 49 of Lord Etherton’s recommendations.”

The previous Defence Secretary pointed out that the Government

“may deliver a number”

of those recommendations

“in different ways from that described in the report.”—[Official Report, 19 July 2023; Vol. 736, c. 921.]

In his statement today, the Minister was not clear on that.

We welcome progress on handing back medals, on an armed forces veterans badge and on a national memorial, and we welcome the opening of registrations of interest for the restorative measures, but what action is the Minister taking to ensure that pensions are fully restored to those who were misinformed that their pension rights had been abolished, and to guarantee that those whose evidence of investigations was destroyed in 2010 do not lose out? Will he fully involve Fighting With Pride and other veterans groups in developing the compensation scheme, and confirm that the scheme will make provision for the two main groups proposed by Fighting With Pride? Is the financial provision of £50 million in the 2024 Ministry of Defence budget, and when does he aim to open up the scheme?

We cannot change the past, but we can act to make amends. We can honour the service of our LGBT veterans. We can take pride in the inspiration that they provide to future generations. That is what they, and we across the House, have the right to expect from Ministers.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I gently remind him that it was this Government who set up the Etherton review, and it is this Government who are carrying out the 49 recommendations. I am proud of that. He needs to be very careful: political parties should not throw stones, and I think that he would be the last to try to make party political points out of this subject matter. To a large extent, I think that we have resisted that.

I said that a full debate would happen in the new year, but it must have the advantage of there being something meaningful to debate—namely, the financial elements, which I perceive to be the main point of likely controversy. The right hon. Gentleman made it clear that we are all in agreement with the general thrust of the review, so the controversy will be around how we structure the financial award. I expect to be in a much better place in the new year to bring a suggestion to the House about how we might do that, having consulted others and observed the lessons of the past and experience in other countries. However, the debate will not be confined to the finances. I think that was implied by my use of the phrase “full debate”. I hope that reassures him.

On intent, we have discussed before other ways of delivering the same outcome to the satisfaction of veterans. For example, some veterans want a veterans badge that is different from the existing veterans badge; some do not. We have therefore designed a ribbon, which I have seen the prototype for, and I think that is a compromise. That is an example of how we might do things differently from the ways described by Lord Etherton. Lord Etherton also talked about re-listing people on the Navy, Army and Air Force lists. Those lists do not exist in the way they once did, but we can publish those names, if people want them published, via the London Gazette. That is a further example of doing the same thing, but in a different way.

We debated pensions in the summer, when we last went round this particular buoy, so the right hon. Gentleman will know that accrued pension rights remain. However, some people were misled when they left the armed forces, and I strongly recommend that they refer to the guidance available on gov.uk. The “LGBT veterans: support and next steps” page is very comprehensive and will take people through how they can apply for pensions if they are not currently drawing them.

Destroyed documents, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, are impossible to rediscover. However, there are tags attached to most of them that highlight the fact that material has been removed following the advice of the Association of Chief Police Officers in 2010, so there is a marker, at least, of why those pages are missing. He will know too that ACPO made those recommendations for very good reasons at the time—namely, the desire of people who had been wronged to have reference to those wrongs expunged from their records.

I think that I have covered most of the right hon. Gentleman’s points, but I want to be as comprehensive as I possibly can, so if I have missed anything out, I will be happy to write to him.

I welcome the Minister’s statement. Last week, I met Fighting With Pride and one of my constituents, who I will not name because he has not given me permission to do so. Three points came across in that meeting. The first was the importance of testimonies. He was a grown man who had been discharged in the 1980s and whose mother had received a letter from his commanding officer outing him as gay. He was still traumatised and crying in my office last week. This is about making sure that those testimonies are heard. The second point was about having the debate on the Floor of the House and not farming it out to Westminster Hall. Will the Minister make sure that the debate happens on the Floor of the House?

The third point was about financial redress. I welcome the opportunity that my constituent will now have to feed in how he has been impacted—how he has lived a life alone, because he has carried that shame for all these years. On behalf of my constituent and all the other LGBT servicemen and women who suffered in that way, I put it on the record that they want the opportunity to feed in their own stories so that the financial redress addresses the harm they suffered.

My right hon. Friend is right that testimonies are vital. Those testimonies will ultimately be lodged in the National Archives and they will be part of our national story. I urge her to encourage her constituents to log on and provide their testimony—that is very important. I can confirm that the debate will be on the Floor of the House and not in Westminster Hall.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. In it he said:

“The treatment of those armed forces personnel perceived to be LGBT between 1967 and 2000 has long been a stain on the conscience of the nation.”

It has also been a stain on the conscience of this place, so I welcome his statement today and the work of Lord Etherton. The apologies the Minister spoke of are welcome, but they will never take away the hurt or the terrible impact on the lives of those affected by this institutional homophobia. We must remember that while homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967, the ban on LGBT people in the armed forces remained for 33 more years. That is three decades of additional harm. The reality is that all our veterans deserve respect and proper support, and all the more so those ostracised and shamed in that way.

I recognise what the Minister said on reparations, but what assessment has he made of the adequacy of the reparations cap? I wonder how that arbitrary cap on reparations payments will work, particularly when, as he said, we are asking people to come forward. How can he set a cap at this stage? He said he is throwing open the doors today, but that needs to be done in a way that is as easy as possible for people to navigate and that works for all those affected. No one must be left behind.

My colleague Keith Brown MSP, himself a veteran, is leading a Members’ business debate in the Scottish Parliament today on Fighting With Pride. I was pleased that the Minister spoke about Fighting With Pride and I would be keen to hear more about his reassurances that he will continue to work with that group and others to make sure that all LGBT veterans are properly and adequately supported in the way that is right for each of them individually.

The cap is part of the Etherton report. We have accepted all 49 recommendations and are working them through. I do not know—the hon. Lady will have to ask him—but I suspect that Lord Etherton was mindful of the Canadian experience in that regard. The Canadian scheme is not directly comparable to anything we might set up, not least because of its scope, but nevertheless there is precedent and I imagine Lord Etherton was mindful of that. The hon. Lady is right to suggest that we should work with the community, and she cited Fighting With Pride in particular. We have of course done that throughout and I pay tribute to them. We will continue to work with them on the details of the financial scheme as we work those out in the next few months.

When Fighting With Pride described to me, some time ago now, the awful things that we had done to LGBT veterans, it was the worst injustice I had heard of in my 26 years in Parliament. I welcomed the Etherton report, which came about as a result, and I welcome the Minister’s warm, deep and expansive response to it today. The fact that he is accepting all 49 recommendations is vital. The debate is also important, because veterans want to tell their tales through their own MP, and I think that will be a great opportunity to do so. However, like the SNP spokesperson, I have a concern: if the claims that come through the website that the Minister describes come to more than £50 million, will the Government undertake to revisit the cap? It would be crazy if £51 million was applied for, but the cap said that only £50 million could be paid out.

My hon. Friend will know full well that we cannot write a blank cheque. It is just not possible to do that. Lord Etherton came up with £50 million, which is a significant amount of money. He will have been mindful of other schemes, albeit not directly comparable, in this country and overseas. That is why, I believe, the figure of £50 million was arrived at.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Recommendation 16 of the report references pensions. In his statement, he said that people can apply for pension that had been accrued, but some individuals will have expected a pension for longer service but been dismissed before they could accrue it. Will that be taken into account, and will next of kin be able to access those pension benefits?

On the £50 million compensation, which is recommendation 28 of the report, I am a little lost to understand how that will be distributed. If the Minister is going to come up with a scheme, I suggest that he looks at the Post Office Horizon compensation scheme, of which I have been on the advisory board for the last year, helping to develop it. We are going to have to look at what elements are taken into account before we get to an accrued sum. Setting up an advisory board or some steering group to work up the scheme would be a good idea—and let me say that I do not think £50 million will even touch the sides.

There is precedent for such a scheme, as I say—I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Canadian scheme—so we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper, and neither was Lord Etherton.

On pensions, it is important that those who thought they did not have an entitlement to pensions look again, because accrued pensions are accrued pensions and were not forfeit. I take the right hon. Gentleman’s point about pensions that might have been accrued after the point at which individuals left the service. There is no way of restoring those pensions, and I hope he will understand that. It would be incredibly difficult to do that, so I am not going to give him any encouragement that that will form any part of our deliberations in relation to the financial award.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women in defence, and of the Defence Committee’s inquiry on women in the armed forces and female veterans, I wholeheartedly welcome the statement and thank Lord Etherton for his work. However, I am also acutely aware of the strength of feeling on this matter, which disproportionately affected women, and on the ban on pregnancy in our armed forces. Our armed forces still have pockets of misogyny, poor leadership and inappropriate behaviour, so will the Minister continue to commit to rooting that out so that we can have a better environment for our armed forces now and in the future?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and predecessor. I pay tribute to her for the work that she has done, not least in her report, which has been extraordinarily impactful. I agree with her 100%: we need to root out misogyny wherever it is found in defence. I hope she will accept that, thanks to her report and the work of others, we have taken significant strides in that direction.

On 9 May 1996, I spoke in this House about the case of John Beckett, one of my constituents. He was a young man who had been in the Royal Navy for five years and was going to train to be an officer. Along with three other young men, he was discharged for being gay. All he had done was to have a civilian gay relationship, about which we had told his padre and his commanding officer, and it was sufficient to have him discharged. We can try to undo the wrongs that were done to John Beckett and others at the time. I know that John got another job afterwards, but can the Minister possibly believe it is right that someone who committed no crime—all he did was offend against the bigotry and prejudice of those who discharged him—will potentially have to suffer financially for the rest of his life for what was done to him? Surely, when we come to look at compensation, the principle ought to be to not merely to rectify the hurt and the prejudice of the time, but to ensure that people do not lose out financially for the rest of their lives.

That is why Lord Etherton has made his recommendations on financial awards. The structuring of that is yet to be determined, but I just want to manage expectations—as I suspect my Canadian counterparts managed the expectations of the Canadian community—about the quantum. I do not want people to think that all that financial loss will be restored to them—it would be unwise of us to suggest that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned padres. I hope that he reads the Government’s response to the report in full. If he does, he will see that there is a specific section relating to chaplaincy, and contrition on the part of chaplaincy about how some of its practitioners behaved during that period, which I think did them no credit at all. I am very sorry to hear the testimony that he has just given. I encourage his constituent to engage with the front door that I am launching today.

I join others in thanking Lord Etherton and all those who took the brave step of sharing their experience with him to inform the review and all 49 recommendations. Although significant work clearly needs to be done to follow through on those recommendations, will my right hon. Friend consider how we can use this work to help parts of the world that are still facing up to this realisation? They may need to do a wholesale piece of work to understand how they can change the way they deal with the LGBT community among their military personnel and veterans. The change that we are seeing in the UK must not be stopped from happening elsewhere in the world.

None of us has a monopoly on this. We are learning from the Canadian experience, and I expect others will learn from us. Across the board, this country is looked up to as a purveyor of norms and values of the highest order. When, for example, we train people from among our allies in how to conduct themselves, as is happening right now, those norms and values are inculcated, including this material.

In the late ’80s, I was very close to someone who suffered considerably as a result of this ban when she was thrown out of the Army for being a lesbian. She had her distinguished and lengthy period of military service cut short, she was humiliated in the process, and, initially, she found it hard to find employment commensurate with her skills and worth as a human being. All that happened to her just because she was a woman who loved other women. It was a ban based on sexual orientation—nothing more, nothing less. Her loss, and that of others, includes pain and suffering, loss of earnings, loss of employability and loss of pension rights. Any compensation scheme should seek to put them back in the position that they would have been in were it not for that homophobic ban. Can the Minister confirm that all those heads of damages—pain and suffering, loss of earnings, loss of employability and loss of pension rights—will be taken into account in the compensation scheme?

The hon. and learned Lady will be aware that, in the early 2000s, the MOD was taken to court by a significant number of people who had been maligned in the way she has described. The MOD was found wanting and awards were made at that time. I cannot give her the assurances that she seeks because the financial awards scheme—it is a financial awards scheme, not a compensation scheme—is still being worked through, but I hope that we will be able to come back to the House soon to describe at least the bare bones of what we have in mind.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for the tone in which he delivered it, and express my pleasure that there will be a memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in my constituency? What discussions has he had with colleagues in the Home Office regarding any convictions that there may have been for servicemen in connection with their military service and their sexual orientation?

My hon. Friend will be aware of the disregards and pardons provisions in part 12 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. They have the effect of expunging those offences, which are no longer offences. That clearly applies to what we are debating today. The answer to his question is that that expunging of material will be complete in relation to offences that are service offences and go outwith the civilian—then criminal—offences listed in part 12. [Official Report, 8 January 2024, Vol. 743, c. 2MC.]

My constituent worked for the Secret Intelligence Service between 1975 and 1984. In 1984, he was offered a posting overseas, at which point he declared that he was gay, and he was then dismissed expressly because of his sexual orientation. I thank Lord Etherton for the review and for meeting me to discuss this. Clearly, the review does not cover my constituent, but he and others in his position do not even have the comfort of being able to go public at any point because of the nature of their employment. Has the Minister spoken to colleagues in other parts of Government? If not, will he undertake to do so, because this experience should not be prolonged for those in the secret element of service to this nation?

I am more than happy to discuss the details of that constituent’s concerns separately. This is a review into the way in which Defence handled the matter between 1967 and 2000, and Lord Etherton’s terms of reference were drawn up accordingly. From what the hon. Lady has just told me, I do not think that her constituent will be covered by the review, but I am more than happy to have a conversation.

I commend the Government for commissioning the review and thank Lord Etherton for such a thorough piece of work. I also thank the Government for accepting all 49 of the recommendations—it is pretty unusual to accept all the recommendations, so the Government should be commended for that.

To follow on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) about the disregards—or “expunging”, as the Minister suggested—am I right in thinking that those who have had service convictions would need to apply? If so, what more can be done to encourage them to apply to the Home Office for those disregards? Perhaps the Ministry of Defence could proactively suggest to them that they could do so.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier), the UK intelligence community should not be overlooked. There should perhaps be a second review, or at least some sort of internal review, about the treatment of UK intelligence officers over the past few decades.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. Lord Etherton’s terms of reference were deliberately drawn in the way that they were to focus specifically on defence, but my right hon. Friend has made a reasonable point, and I am sure colleagues across Government will hear what he has said. I am more than happy to have a discussion about this specific case with the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Dame Meg Hillier) and with my right hon. Friend, if they wish to do so.

It is important that if we are considering the implications for wider public service, we learn from what has gone before and from this review. I am confident that colleagues right across Government will be looking at what we have proposed doing in response to Lord Etherton’s report today and drawing their own conclusions. Perhaps they can learn from what has gone on and assure themselves that they, in turn, do not have dark corners that need to be given the light that Lord Etherton’s report has certainly given to defence.

I draw attention to my declarations in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests, including those relating to my recent Army Reserve service. I was very happy to be able to do that as an openly gay man alongside many other LGBT+ service personnel who serve us bravely around the world and in this country. That opportunity was not available to the many generations who went before who were equally courageous and brave in the service of our country in so many contexts, but who faced horrific discrimination.

One of those discriminated against was one of my constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth. She was discharged in a totally humiliating way from the RAF in the 1970s for being a lesbian, but in her service record, the reason was recorded as “services no longer required.” I have raised her case with the MOD over many years, but was told that it could not be changed because it was correctly administered. In his statement, the Minister referred to amendments to veterans’ service history, which recommendations 26 and 27 of the report also refer to. Will he confirm that where individuals were discharged for reasons other than their sexuality, but their sexuality was clearly the reason, that will be considered in restitution for them and their service?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—I remember him raising his constituent’s case when we debated this matter in the summer. The straight answer to his question is “yes”, and I encourage his constituent to go to the front door that is now open to ensure her case is properly examined and, if she wants, references to what happened to her are removed or expunged.

It is impossible to put a price on, or indeed measure, the extent of the grief, trauma and shame that was caused to LGBT veterans, so why should we be putting a financial cap on the compensation they are going to get? When I was at a Fighting With Pride event recently, that grief, trauma and shame were palpable, so I plead with the Minister that although there is much to celebrate in Lord Etherton’s report—I congratulate him and the Government on it—there are clearly shortfalls, and given that nothing has been decided, he could go further. I am sure he agrees, and I think he should do so, given what has been experienced by our LGBT veterans.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Lord Etherton recommended £50 million, and we have accepted that recommendation. The details of the scheme will be worked out in the next few months, and I hope she will be pleased with what she sees.

We need to know what the cohort looks like. At the moment, we really do not know that, which is why the front door opens today. In a very short while, I hope, with the help of right hon. and hon. Members across the House encouraging their constituents, we will have a better handle on who needs to be marked with this financial reward, and what they suffered at the time and the degree of that. Once we have a handle on that, we will be better placed to design a quantum that will be appropriate to people who were maligned between 1967 and 2000.

I welcome the Government’s recognition of and apology for the persecution, dismissal or forced resignation of LGBT personnel, but the answers the Minister has given are raising more concerns. The first is the cap on reparations, the second is whether there is a deadline for those reparations, and the third is this: if people’s records did not actually state that their dismissal was because of LGBT persecution, how are they meant to prove that it was?

The answer is “with difficulty”, given what happened in 2010 for perfectly understandable and perfectly good reasons—it is the law of unintended consequences, is it not? I cannot give the hon. Lady that detail at the moment, because it is being worked out. It is so very difficult: if everybody had their records marked up, it would be quite straightforward, but they do not. We need to know who the folk are who are in scope, and then we need to look at what records exist. Many of those records had tags placed on them when papers were removed, which I think will help.

We also have to look at other schemes, such as the Canadian scheme. However, I suspect most right hon. and hon. Members in this House would be cautious about the Canadian scheme, because it drew the criteria very narrowly. Those who were nudged out, or inched out, through all sorts of means—innuendo, personal pressure, or being tipped the nod and the wink that somebody was on to them—would be disadvantaged under the Canadian scheme. I hope they will not be disadvantaged under ours.

The RAF lost a courageous serviceperson in 1997 when it sacked Carl Austin-Behan. Carl won the Royal Humane Society bronze medal for rescuing a pilot from a burning Hawk aircraft at RAF Chivenor. Last September, an inquiry found that there had been accelerated enlistment for women and ethnic minority candidates in the RAF, which was found to be dubious and possibly in breach of the Equality Act 2010. Clearly, we are not looking for that sort of overcorrection, but what assessment have the Government made of the legacy of the sackings of people such as Carl for recruiting the next generation of courageous gay service personnel?

Let me be absolutely clear: Defence wants people, regardless of their sex, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and social class. We just want people with talent—that is the touchstone for recruitment into the Army, Navy and Air Force right now. I do not care if people are gay; I welcome gay people serving side by side with everybody else. Our history is full of examples of the most courageous individuals who served in uniform and were gay.

I am privileged to be an ambassador for Fighting With Pride, and I worked with the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs on this matter before he took up his role. I pay tribute to Caroline and Craig in particular, as well as all the people they have been working with.

Fighting With Pride has welcomed the pace, positive intent and completeness of this process, but the next stage is a full debate in this Chamber to which Members can contribute. I hope the Minister will listen to the representations he has heard today. Finally, I put on record my concerns about the £50 million cap and the fact that the Minister has spoken about this being a financial award scheme, not a compensation scheme. I think the Government are in the wrong place on that and that they will end up causing themselves more problems if they do not seek to compensate veterans who have lost livelihoods, careers and pensions through their mistreatment by Government.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s observations. He may like to look up the Canadian scheme, which is a reasonable exemplar, although the circumstances are different. It awarded 110 million Canadian dollars, and this morning a Canadian dollar was worth 58p, but that scheme covered a much broader scope and the population of Canada is smaller than that of the UK. It covered police, the armed forces and civil servants, so the scope was much wider. Although the two are not directly comparable, the Canadian scheme does at least make us feel that we are in the right ballpark. I am afraid I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the commitment he is seeking, but I urge him to look closely at other schemes and certainly at the Canadian one, which is probably the closest comparator we have.

May I impress again on the Minister the importance of hearing LGBT veterans’ voices on the Floor of the House, just as it was important to hear the apology from the Prime Minister at the time? I, too, want to share my concerns about the structure of the scheme that the Minister has talked about. He has referred to a front door; can we have an assurance that that front door will remain open for as long as is needed? Many of our LGBT veterans suffer great trauma and shame, and will be quite far away from that front door. They will need support from trusted partners such as Fighting With Pride to get anywhere near it.

Yes, the front door will remain open, but a stakeholder pack will also be sent to all organisations that we know are interested, urging them to socialise it, which is vital. I cannot emphasise enough that it is vital that those who believe they are eligible for some restorative action—in the first instance, non-financial—should register their interest. In doing so, they are able to register or flag the fact that they may be interested in a financial award as well. Unless we have that data, I think our job of determining what the scheme ultimately looks like will be very difficult, and the sooner we get a handle on that, the sooner we can start to get money out of the door.

This is an issue I raised many times over the five years that I was the armed forces spokesperson for the SNP, so I very much welcome Lord Etherton’s review, and I pay tribute to Caroline and Craig at Fighting With Pride. We have mentioned the spurious reasons for which many LGBT veterans were dismissed. Of course, the other thing is that the colleagues they served with were encouraged to report their supposed misdemeanours. I do think one of the difficulties for the Government will be tracking down all those who have been affected and impacted by this, but it will not just be in their own records. I am sure there must be things in other people’s records that can be tied into this as well.

I want to mention the £50 million. I have done a quick sum, and if the 1,120 people who responded each got a share, it would be £44,000 each, which is an absolute pittance for a lost career, a lost pension, loss of earnings and the loss of a reference to go on to a new career outside the armed forces. We really have to look at that £50 million figure, which does not even touch the surface.

The Canadian scheme offered sums ranging from 100,000 Canadian dollars to 5,000 Canadian dollars depending on what happened. It was tiered in a way that gave a range of awards depending on the experience evidenced, and it was evidenced. It is more difficult when we come to a scheme where evidence is difficult to come by. I think the hon. Member would accept that, for some of the higher level awards, we do have to have some form of evidence that people were forcibly ejected from the armed forces. Now, £50 million is a great deal of money. It is a recommendation in the Etherton report, which we have accepted. We will use that as our guiding star in designing the scheme that we have in mind for financial awards. I am not going to promise her or indeed give her any hope that we will breach the £50 million. It is the Government’s intent that we should stick at that figure.

I want to add my gratitude for the work done by Fighting With Pride and to those affected veterans who gave evidence to the review, including a constituent of mine. In response to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who is no longer in his place, the Minister mentioned—I hope it was a slip of the tongue—the debate today. I do hope that the debate will be soon in the new year in this Chamber and in Government time.

It is being reported that an earlier draft of the Etherton review recommended double the compensation offer for LGBT veterans than has come out in the final version. Can the Minister tell the House if that was the case and, if so, why the compensation offered has been halved?

I am certainly not aware of that. Lord Etherton is known for his independence, and his report was independent. Lord Etherton said £50 million, and I will leave it at that.

Afghan Resettlement Update

In September this year, I notified Members of the House that on 31 August the Government had successfully ended the use of bridging hotels for thousands of legally resettled Afghans, and through the hard work and determination of central Government officials and local authorities, the vast majority of them are now in settled accommodation. Hotels were never designed to be a permanent solution either for the Afghans who risked their lives working for UK forces in Afghanistan or, indeed, for the British taxpayer. Ending the provision of bridging accommodation was the right thing to do for our Afghan friends, who can now get on with rebuilding their lives.

The hotel exit plan required a considerable cross-Government effort and represented a significant national achievement, but our debt of gratitude to our Afghan partners is ongoing. We are now working to ensure that Afghans who are eligible for relocation via the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, and who remain overseas in Pakistan and other third countries, are moved over here at pace so they can start to rebuild their lives here in the United Kingdom.

On the current trajectory estimates, we expect to have welcomed around 3,500 arrivals by the end of 2023 across ACRS and ARAP, and wherever possible new arrivals will go straight into settled accommodation. For ARAP families, this will largely be into service family accommodation options, which have been made available by the Ministry of Defence across the country. The Ministry of Defence is also providing shorter-term transitional accommodation until movement into settled accommodation is possible. For ACRS arrivals, we are committed to bringing eligible persons over to the UK as fast as possible, and this week we will welcome 250 arrivals from Pakistan, with a further flight arriving next week. Some 70% of families manifested on these flights have been pre-matched into settled accommodation, but for a small number of this cohort transitional accommodation will be required.

The Government remain committed to ending the systemic use of hotels, and we do not plan to open new hotels to meet this increased demand. A small number of hotels with existing contracts will be extended for a limited time period to help accommodate ACRS arrivals who have yet to be matched to settled housing solutions in the United Kingdom. The Home Office has already undertaken initial engagement with local authorities in which those hotels are located, and it will continue to work closely with councils across the United Kingdom to ensure they are receiving the support they need to relocate Afghan families into settled accommodation as quickly as possible.

The Government recognise the challenges that local authorities face when it comes to resettling communities across the United Kingdom, and that is why we put in place a generous funding package of £285 million in March to help fund housing solutions and support councils to provide integration support to Afghan families. While the scale of the task is much smaller this time than it was in the summer, with the vast majority of arrivals this year already pre-matched to settled accommodation, the Government will be matching the commitment we previously made to local authorities by offering a similar funding package of financial support for the resettlement of these new arrivals.

That includes wraparound funding of £28 per person per day, which is available to councils that are supporting households in transitional accommodation. In addition, local authorities will be able to draw on the flexible housing fund, which provides over £7,000 per Afghan individual to enable them to support move-ons, and that will be capped at £35,000 per household. Furthermore, funding will be provided to mitigate any additional pressures of homelessness from transitional accommodation, and there will be up to six months of wraparound funding for those in temporary accommodation. Where local authorities are supporting Afghan arrivals into settled accommodation, they can claim the integration tariff funding of £20,520 per person over the first three years towards resettlement and integration costs.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will continue to explore a range of accommodation options to ensure the use of transitional hotel accommodation is kept to an absolute minimum. This includes exploring a pilot sponsorship scheme that aims to support ACRS households and builds on the learnings from the Home Office community sponsorship scheme and the Homes for Ukraine scheme that proved so successful. As was the case before, the role of the voluntary sector is vital in providing support at a local level.

I want to reassure Afghan families who remain in Pakistan and other third countries, and who are eligible to come to the United Kingdom, that this Government will work night and day to bring them over as quickly and as safely as possible. I recognise the uncertainty that comes with living in temporary accommodation. That is why Departments across Government continue to work at pace, and in step with their local authority and third-sector partners, to provide suitable settled housing solutions as quickly as possible. The Prime Minister has asked me to oversee the successful delivery of that operation, and that is exactly what I intend to do.

No one knows more than me the debt we owe to our Afghan partners. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that we continue to support them, as they once supported us. I urge local authority leaders to engage as much as possible with central Government over the coming months, to replicate the collaborative spirit that proved so successful during the hotel exit scheme over the summer, and to ensure that all new arrivals to the United Kingdom under those pathways continue to be met with the warm welcome they deserve. I remain determined to deliver that for the Afghan people, and I commend this statement to the House.

As this is my first outing at the Dispatch Box in my new role as shadow Minister for Veterans, let me say that the Labour party is proud of our service personnel, our veterans and our armed forces communities. I also thank my excellent predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for all her hard work. I will attempt to build on her efforts to improve the lives of veterans and their families across the UK—I hope I can work with the Minister on that.

I pay tribute to all those involved in Operation Pitting, all those who served alongside our forces in Afghanistan, and all those who worked to assist them. I thank the Minister for, as he acknowledged, his first oral update on Afghan resettlement since September. Since then it has been confirmed that, unfortunately, Ministers have missed their target to clear the ARAP backlog. Thousands are still waiting in Pakistan. There is real concern that ARAP and ACRS applicants could be sent back to Afghanistan.

Families are still awaiting permanent accommodation in the UK, and military sites, as we have heard, are being used as temporary housing. Just today, I understand that the Government have been fined £350,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for a data breach concerning the ARAP scheme. It is hard to feel proud of our record in relation to those events. Britain’s moral duty to assist these Afghans is felt most fiercely by the UK forces they served alongside. We as a nation gave a commitment to those who served with our forces that we would do right by them when they arrived on our shores.

I note the Minister’s comments about the hotel exit plan. Will he confirm that zero Afghans have returned to bridging hotels since September, and that the contracts that he referred to as being “extended” are only for new arrivals? How many new arrivals have been placed in hotels since September? The Minister said in his previous statement that

“some families have moved into temporary accommodation under local authority homelessness provision. That is less than 5% of the 24,600 people we have relocated from Afghanistan.”—[Official Report, 19 September 2023; Vol. 737, c. 1254.]

That was still over 1,000 people registered as homeless. What is the figure now?

As the Minister mentioned, it has been reported that the Ministry of Defence has made available 700 service accommodation units for Afghans. Yesterday it was announced that the Government are now using Chickerell Camp near Weymouth to house Afghans who supported the UK. How many Afghans are currently in military accommodation, how many MOD sites are currently in use for that purpose, and for how long does the Minister expect Afghans to be accommodated in military housing?

The Minister for Armed Forces said on Monday:

“There are around 2,000 people in Afghanistan who we need to move out and around 1,800 left in Pakistan who we need to bring in. In all, I would expect another 4,000 to 4,500 arrivals.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 635.]

When does the Minister expect those people to arrive, and where will they be housed? Too much of this feels like a saga of failure. It cannot continue. Lives cannot remain in limbo, and Afghans cannot be put in danger from the Taliban. On behalf of our veterans and members of the armed forces, who feel so strongly about this, we must fulfil our duty to them and provide a new and secure life in the UK.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post, and on another day I look forward to engaging with him across the Dispatch Box on veterans policy. As of 8 December, 215 families remain in temporary accommodation, and as of a few days ago, around 1,826 ARAP-entitled personnel are still in Pakistan. That is obviously blending with the ACRS pathway. Indeed, a flight of 246 people is arriving today on the ACRS pathway and will be met by Home Office officials. As I said, 70% of those have been pre-matched to houses, and we are looking to accommodate the remainder and get them into settled accommodation as soon as possible.

The red lines remain the same: nobody has slept rough as a result of this policy. We are clearly juggling multiple different dynamics when it comes to getting people into this country, into temporary transit accommodation so that we do not delay the flow out of Pakistan or Afghanistan, and then into settled accommodation, which is where we all want these people to be. The numbers are changing every day, and I am more than happy to share what they will be. I do not want anybody to be in a hotel for a day longer than they want to be, whether in Pakistan or the United Kingdom. I am not really interested in what has happened before; we are where we are today.

I am determined that we will see through our duty to this cohort—both ARAP and ACRS—and I will turn myself inside out until we get to the place where all entitled personnel are in settled accommodation in the United Kingdom, in line with our commitments.

It is a matter of honour and common human decency that we should give these people, who served us so well in Afghanistan, proper accommodation and a safe refuge here in the United Kingdom. I very much welcome the fact that the Minister is doing that for the remaining people in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I also welcome the fact that he has been clear that hotels are not the right place for these people to be housed, and I am proud that we in Wiltshire are making a significant amount of our empty military accommodation available to them, including 40 in my own constituency, but also a large number across the county. That is a good use for empty military accommodation and I hope it will work extremely well.

Will the Minister make representations to his colleagues in the Home Office that the strength of feeling against the use of hotels for these people stands in some contrast to the Wiltshire golf club hotel, not one mile away from Lyneham, where those people will be housed, which is crammed to the doors with 120 other asylum seekers and refugees of one kind or another? The Home Office must take steps to do what the Minister has done by removing those people from unsuitable hotel accommodation and into decent, permanent accommodation.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Wiltshire Council is one of many local authorities across the country—I had a call on Monday with officials, and yesterday with council leaders, 270 of them across the country—that are part of this real national effort, and I pay tribute to them for their work on this. The operating box that I am within is the Afghan cohort, both ACRS and ARAP-entitled personnel. Those in the Home Office are dealing with the wider migration issue, and I will let them write to my hon. Friend and answer those points in due course.

Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021, and it should be a source of shame and embarrassment to this Government that we are still talking about bringing people to safety over two years later. A marker of the failure of the ACRS and the ARAP schemes is that it is known that there are 17 Afghans in every small boat in the channel for every one who has come over on those schemes. When the Government talk about small boats, they know that it is a result of their own failure to deal with and to support Afghans, to whom he says—and I agree—we owe a significant debt of gratitude.

Can I ask the Minister about his conversations with his counterparts in Pakistan, because it seems very much as if the Government are watching as Pakistan sends people back into the hands of the Taliban? I would like to know what those conversations are. The message going out that he will bring people in Pakistan as quickly and safely as possible will ring hollow to the many constituents who are still in touch with me and desperately afraid for friends and family who are in hiding in Pakistan, waiting for a chap at the door.

I will return to the case of those people who are perhaps owed a debt of gratitude in the schemes and who have not been successful in applying. The case of the Triples has been called a “disgrace” by General Sir Richard Barrons, because:

“It reflects that either we’re duplicitous as a nation or incompetent.”

Which of those does the Minister think he is?

On access to services, the Minister talks about £28 a person a day. That will barely cover the cost of an interpreter, never mind anything else that people who have experienced such trauma may require. It is just not appropriate at all. On the accommodation side of things, I agree that hotel accommodation is never appropriate for the long term, but I have visited the former Napier barracks, which are also extremely poor quality and not suitable for long-term accommodation, particularly in the depths of winter. How long will people be held in that accommodation before they can move on to something more suitable? What support services will be put in place, because I have found them to be completely inadequate?

A constituent of mine has been working since the fall of Afghanistan to get a particular colleague and his family over. He has found it desperately difficult to negotiate the paperwork. As far as I am aware, they have still not been able to bring them over. Will the Minister look at that particular case if I write to him? Finally, can he tell us some numbers? How many expressions of interest are still outstanding? How many people have been lost contact with or have passed away waiting for this incompetent Government to deal with their case?

The hon. Member refers to what has happened in the past, and I have been asked to look at this from a clear date in time. Since then, I have been working day in, day out to get as many as we possibly can of those to whom we owe a duty back to this country and into settled accommodation.

When it comes to conversations with Pakistan, I am clear and have had assurances—as have the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Staff—that these individuals will not be deported back to Pakistan.

The hon. Member shakes her head, but that serious threat is hanging over these families. It has not happened, and it is not right to overplay that when officials and others are working incredibly hard to make sure that we do not cross that red line for anyone who is entitled to be here in the United Kingdom. She well knows it is not £28 per day; that is on top of the £7,000 a person and the £20,520 for integration. I am focused on trying to solve an incredibly complicated and difficult scenario so that we see through our duty to those to whom we owe it. If there are contributions that will help me do that, I will always listen to them, but I am obviously not going to engage when contributions are just used as a stick to try to beat the Government.

I thank the Minister for this statement, and I know he takes these matters seriously, as do Members across the House.

On Monday, in response to an urgent question, the Minister for Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Wells (James Heappey), said that

“certain members of the CF333 and ATF444 taskforces, will not be eligible for relocation under ARAP.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2023; Vol. 742, c. 629.]

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs well knows, as do I, that the Triples were recruited by the UK, led by the UK and paid by the UK. By design, they served shoulder to shoulder alongside us. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and it is a matter of honour. Does the Minister share my concern that, based on what the Minister for Armed Forces said on Monday, the ARAP criteria do not guarantee qualification for the Triples? He will share my concern that many have already been rejected, and some undoubtedly already are dead. What more can be done to support the Triples?

I pay tribute to my friend, the hon. Member, who I know commanded one of these units at a similar time to when I was in Afghanistan, and he has a deep and intimate knowledge of how these taskforces were set up, paid for and funded. It is for the Ministry of Defence and the Minister for Armed Forces to speak about what that Minister said on Monday, but I am clear that we have a duty to these individuals. While technically the Minister for Armed Forces was right that they were led and had direct command chains into the Afghan Government, there will be no attempt whatever from this Government to close down avenues for those who served in 333 and 444, who the hon. Member personally trained and fought alongside. While I recognise the concern, he will know that I will not oversee a scheme that does not do its duty to those he and I served alongside in Afghanistan, particularly in the 333 and 444 taskforces,.

I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I have to use the opportunity to speak on behalf of my constituent. Since travelling to the UK as part of Operation Pitting in August 2021, my constituent, who was a military police officer, has been separated from his wife and four children who were unable to travel due to the chaos at Kabul airport. Two years on, he has been resettled under ACRS pathway 1, yet he is still waiting for further information on how his family will be resettled. His wife, unfortunately, is receiving death threats. He is concerned for their safety, and they are still in Afghanistan. Will the Minister meet me to help get clarity on how my constituent’s family can travel to the UK so that they can get on with their lives together?

If the hon. Member writes to me with that particular case today, I will have a look at it and have an answer for her today.

The data breaches affecting 265 people who worked with the UK Government in Afghanistan, for which the MOD was fined by the Information Commissioner’s Office yesterday, are incredibly serious and could have cost numerous lives. We know now that the Afghan resettlement scheme, which was set up to support such individuals, has had numerous issues from the start, with a number of people being incorrectly categorised as ineligible. I welcome the families who are settling into service accommodation in Leuchars in my constituency, but does the Minister accept that eligibility loopholes remain, as eloquently pointed out by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis)? Will the Minister commit to correcting those in the new year, so that we can support all those who are rightly eligible?

I reiterate what I said earlier: it is a clear red line for me, as it is for this Government. For those who are eligible for those schemes and who are entitled to be in the United Kingdom in settled accommodation, it will happen. We will keep going until we achieve that objective. We stood here in the summer looking to get 8,500 Afghans out of hotels and into settled accommodation. That was a significant challenge, but we achieved that, and I fully intend to achieve this task, too.

I thank the Minister for his statement, but the system is still shambolic. I had a constituent who was a member of the special forces who arrived here, but trying to get his family here was complete chaos. We were being bounced between the Home Office, Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. We finally succeeded, but the process was not easy. Who is actually in charge of this? The frustration in this case—it was clear that they were eligible for the scheme—was that without my intervention, it perhaps would not have been solved.

May I pick up on what the Minister just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis)? Is the Minister actually saying, in contradiction to what the Minister for Armed Forces said on Monday, that this scheme does apply to the Triples? The Minister for Armed Forces clearly said that it did not.

The two things that the Minister for Armed Forces was saying on Monday are correct. Being in a taskforce does not automatically entitle someone to be in the United Kingdom, because while that might initially get them through the eligibility criteria, there may be well-founded reasons why that individual does not settle into accommodation in the UK, including many different national security reasons that have been outlined. He was correct to say that, and he is correct to say that the Afghan taskforce had an Afghan command reporting chain. I am clear about the criteria for ARAP entitlement, and the vast majority of triple-three and triple-four operators should fit within those criteria. If they meet the criteria and deserve to be in the United Kingdom, I will do everything I can to get them here. This is a Government effort; it is not led by a single Department. This is a cross-Government issue for the Home Office, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Ministry of Defence. I have been asked by the Prime Minister to oversee it, and that is what I am doing at the moment.

I thank the Minister for including the word “integration” in his statement. This weekend I met a man who is now settled through the ARAP scheme in a permanent home in my constituency after living for over a year in a hotel elsewhere with his family. Although he is hugely grateful to the Government, Hounslow London Borough Council and Refugees Welcome Hounslow for the support he has had to ensure that he and his family are safe and secure, it is not everything. He is working 16 hours a week in a minimum-wage catering job. He has had no support to find properly paid work that uses the skills and experience that the UK valued when he worked for our specialist services in Afghanistan. As well as providing adequate housing, will the Government please ensure that those settled through ARAP and ACRS get quality support to help them into a future career in this country, so that they can be fully integrated?

I do not accept that this individual will have had no support. There would have been a lot of money and support thrown at such individuals and communities as they came in. There is the £20,520 integration fund, which is specifically for that purpose. Clearly, we are balancing different competing pressures when it comes to individuals getting into jobs and using skills that they had in Afghanistan, and that work continues. That will be stood up again for the process that we stood up in the summer, to make sure that we get people out of hotels and into good, long-term accommodation. I fully accept that there is a job of integration to be done there, and that is what we are working to do, using the voluntary sector, the third sector, local authorities and everybody else who is willing to lean into this.

My constituent’s sister and 70-year-old mother, who were accepted on to the ACRS in January this year, have since been stuck in Pakistan alone and are now homeless, with the constant threat of being returned to Afghanistan. They cannot afford exit visas from Pakistan, and the UNHCR is not currently paying for exit payments. My office has contacted the Home Office on several occasions, receiving only template responses, so will the Minister take a look into this individual case and get back to me as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman must be telepathic, because just this morning I have commissioned work to look at what we can do about visa fees. I do not want an extraordinarily complex and expensive programme set back by having to pay a £500 visa exit fee in Pakistan. We are looking at how we overcome that, but I am more than happy to look at his individual case as well.

I was pleased to hear this week that unused MOD service family accommodation in my constituency is going to be utilised to house Afghan families, and that the Government now aim to bring people waiting in Pakistan to the UK. The Minister seems to have gone some way to unblocking the logjam—I am buttering him up because I want something.

I met the Prime Minister earlier this year to ask him to look at rescuing Afghan women judges and prosecutors, who have been left behind in severe danger, yet nothing has happened. We could look at doing this through community sponsorship, but in the meantime these women are at desperate risk. Will the Minister meet me in the new year to see if he can help break the logjam on this issue as well?

I will absolutely meet the hon. and learned Lady, because I hope we will soon have something to say on one of these schemes. She can have a look at it when we get to that moment, and then we can meet in January to discuss what else she thinks we might do.

I thank the Minister again for visiting Cardiff to meet Afghans living in a hotel in my own constituency. He will know about the constructive approach that was taken by Cardiff Council and Vale of Glamorgan Council in working with his Government’s officials to move people into long-term settlement. Can he assure me that underused MOD estate in Wales will be used to the fullest extent that it can be to support new arrivals? All our local authorities are obviously under substantial housing pressures at the moment. They have gone above and beyond in giving Afghans a very warm welcome. Can we make sure that we are using the MOD estate in Wales fully?

Yes, of course. I had local authority leaders on the phone yesterday, and I know it is frustrating for people if they feel that the MOD has empty properties in their area that it can be using. To be clear, the MOD is bending over backwards to try to accommodate as many people as we can. Just because a property is empty does not mean that it can be used; there will be plenty of rotational work going on, plenty of maintenance upkeep and so on. We are straining every sinew to make that happen, and it is happening in Wales as well, but I will continue to work closely with MOD colleagues and make sure that we meet this challenge.