All 39 Parliamentary debates on 21st Nov 2023

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House of Commons

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Tuesday 21 November 2023
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
Committee of Selection
Ordered,
That Jo Churchill and Steve Double be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Joy Morrissey and Stuart Anderson be added.—(Mr Marcus Jones.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Owen Thompson Portrait Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP)
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1. Whether he plans to take legislative steps to help end violence against women and girls.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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3. Whether he plans to take legislative steps to help end violence against women and girls.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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4. Whether he plans to take legislative steps to help end violence against women and girls.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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8. Whether he plans to take legislative steps to help end violence against women and girls.

Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
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19. What reforms he is making to the criminal justice system to tackle violence against women and girls.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Minister, welcome.

Laura Farris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Laura Farris)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Since 2010, this Government have transformed the legislative landscape on tackling violence against women. We have created new criminal offences of stalking, non-fatal strangulation and coercive control, recognising that the most pernicious abuse is not always physical. We have implemented comprehensive modern slavery and domestic abuse laws, and outlawed insidious harms, such as revenge porn and the so-called “rough sex” defence to murder. We are prosecuting more rape cases today than in 2010, with sentences that are about 50% longer. But we are going further still, in our Sentencing Bill, our Criminal Justice Bill and our Victims and Prisoners Bill.

Owen Thompson Portrait Owen Thompson
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I welcome the Minister to her place. We need to be doing much more to tackle the culture of toxic masculinity that, sadly, still exists. We recently had a situation in Midlothian where one of our councillors faced sexual harassment at a public event. When they complained and raised the issue, the perpetrator’s colleagues simply said, “But he’s a good guy.”. We need to do much more to tackle that sort of attitude. Despite the complaint being made and the complainant being believed, no action was ever taken. What more can this Government do to ensure that in these situations action is taken so that we protect women and girls from such unfortunate situations?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that he does a lot of work on perpetrator programmes through the White Ribbon scheme in Scotland. I am sorry to hear about the experience of one of his local councillors, and I draw to his attention the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Act 2023, which recently received Royal Assent. It creates an offence of intentional harassment carried out because of a person’s sex. It is quite possible that that covers his friend’s case, so I would be grateful if he wrote to me or came to see me to discuss it further.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Last month, Sex Matters presented the Prime Minister with a letter signed by almost 15,000 people asking him to

“take urgent action to halt an escalating campaign of violence and intimidation against women in the name of ‘trans rights’.”

It details how women and, in particular, lesbians are being threatened with the loss of their livelihoods and with physical violence, shouted down and intimidated at public events, and sometimes even assaulted for insisting on their rights to freedom of belief and of expression, and for calling for sex-based protections to be upheld. Will the Minister condemn that violence and intimidation? Will she urge the Prime Minister to do so as well and to commit to addressing it by commissioning a rapid review of the impact of extreme trans rights activism on women’s rights, including the rights of lesbians? Will she also open a call for evidence?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her question, and I certainly condemn the conduct that she has described. Even though holding a gender critical belief is protected in law, both under section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 and, more widely, under article 9 of the European convention on human rights, I am aware of the polarisation and, sometimes, intimidation that surrounds this debate. I have seen the letter that Sex Matters wrote to the Prime Minister, and the hon. and learned Lady should be in no doubt about how seriously this is viewed. I have made reference to the Protection from Sex-based Harassment in Public Act 2023, which creates an offence of intentional harassment where there is any causal connection, even a weak one, to a person’s sex, under which such conduct may fall. She has asked for a rapid review, and I would like to meet her to discuss that further and any next steps.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald
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A recent large-scale study by the Open University on societal attitudes and experiences of online violence against women and girls found that seven in 10 believe that the current legislation is not effective in tackling such violence. Almost three quarters of women in Scotland, and more than half of men there, want online violence to be made a crime—that is a higher level than was found among those surveyed in England. Platforms have a duty of care to their users, so what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that new guidance in the Online Safety Act 2023 is effectively enforced and encourages women and girls to come forward with cases of online abuse?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. There is no doubt that some of the toxic content, including violent pornography, has a serious impact on the way that women and girls are treated and the attitudes that certain men have towards them. As she will know, the Online Safety Act 2023 only received Royal Assent a month ago, and there is an extended implementation period. She will also know, I hope, that one of the later amendments to the Bill accepted by the Government placed a statutory obligation on Ofcom to publish guidance which summarises the measures that all online services need to take to reduce the risk of violence to women and girls. That is not on its own, but in consultation with the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, the Victims Commissioner and other experts. The Act also places an obligation on social media and pornography providers to prevent children from being exposed to harmful content through new and robust age verification exercises—

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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Sorry; I will come back to the hon. Lady on that.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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I welcome the Minister to her place. Her former colleague, the Home Secretary, thought homelessness was a lifestyle choice, yet in reality, almost a quarter of homelessness among women and children is due to a violent or abusive relationship. The Scottish Government are piloting £1,000 grants to assist women who have left violent relationships, to help pay for essentials including rent and clothing. Has she considered that approach, instead of taking tents off the homeless?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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We placed the safety of domestic abuse victims at the heart of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Local authorities have been given £25 million to ensure that all domestic abuse victims receive priority for housing. In addition, the Act places a legal duty on tier 1 local authorities to provide a wide range of support, including refuges. To date, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has allocated £377 million for local authorities to comply with the duty to provide housing.

Andrew Western Portrait Andrew Western
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It is vital that victims of serious sexual assault are supported through what can often be a lengthy and traumatic process, yet we know that many rape victims do not access early mental health support because their therapy notes can be requested as part of the criminal investigation. That happens far too often and treats the wrong person with suspicion. Does the Minister agree that a specialist legal advocate for victims could allow them to challenge invasive requests for private information and access the support they need at the time they need it most?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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This is an issue that the Law Commission is looking into, and it already appears in our Victims and Prisoners Bill, so that such requests will never be more than necessary and proportionate. On the subject of whether there should be a dedicated legal adviser, I respectfully draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that since 2010, there are now 950 dedicated independent sexual violence advisers, who can support victims of rape and serious sexual abuse every step of the way. We have quadrupled victims funding to ensure that we continue to grow that cohort.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Justice Committee.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her place on the Treasury Bench; it is much deserved, and she was a distinguished member of the Justice Committee. She will know from that time that much work has already been done, following on from Operation Soteria, to improve investigation, conviction and prosecution rates and the victim experience in relation to rape and serious sexual offences. Will she also bear in mind that there are further opportunities, which we highlighted as a Committee in our scrutiny of the victims element of the Victims and Prisoners Bill, to improve the victim experience and ensure that it is consistent across the whole country?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and applaud all the work he does as Chair of the Justice Committee. It is undoubtedly true that the Victims and Prisoners Bill plays an important role in putting the victims code on to a statutory footing and giving victims enhanced rights, including a right of review and a right to make an impact statement, which we have supported. I also draw his attention to not just Operation Soteria but the fact that we are training 2,000 specialist police officers in rape and serious sexual offences, as well as the national roll-out of section 28 evidence procedures, which enable victims of these hideous crimes to give evidence early, privately and behind closed doors, to completely change their experience of the criminal justice system and keep them engaged in the process.

Greg Clark Portrait Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con)
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I welcome the Minister to her well-deserved appointment. She will be aware of the case of David Fuller, who, as well as murdering two women, abused the corpses of over 100 women and girls in the mortuaries of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust. For these crimes, he will rightly die in prison. However, the current legislation is shockingly inadequate on the abuse of dead bodies. It covers only penetrative sexual assault and not other acts of sexual assault on dead bodies. Will the Minister meet me, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and other colleagues to discuss how we can rectify that in the Criminal Justice Bill, which comes before the House next week?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The David Fuller case is appalling, and I send my deepest sympathies to the families of his victims. It is unbelievably dispiriting that we are even having to talk about these acts, and of extending the definition of abuse to meet the width and depravity of his crimes.

As my right hon. Friend will know, the offence he is referring to is dealt with in section 70 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. As a result of the David Fuller case, the Ministry of Justice is now reviewing both the maximum penalty and the scope of the law to ensure that what my right hon. Friend describes is adequately captured. Of course, I will have a meeting with both him and my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) in due course.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I join others in welcoming the Minister to her place. A victims Bill has been promised by the Conservatives since 2016, but while the UK Government have dithered, the Scottish Government have introduced the Victims, Witnesses, and Justice Reform (Scotland) Bill, which seeks to put victims and witnesses at the heart of the justice system. It ensures that a range of trauma-informed support is available to child victims of violent and sexual abuse crimes, allowing them to give pre-recorded evidence without needing to go to a police station or a court. Have the Minister and the Government considered adopting that approach?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he will know, our Victims and Prisoners Bill is making its way through Parliament as we speak. He has talked about victim-focused support; I draw his attention to things like Operation Soteria, which is directed at rape victims and has now been rolled out on a national basis. That places victims’ rights at the heart of the inquiry and focuses all the effort on the suspects and their behaviour, so to be honest, what he has described is consistent with our current models of policing and investigating crime. I hope the Victims and Prisoners Bill will conclude its passage through Parliament and receive Royal Assent soon.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba)
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2. What additional (a) financial and (b) practical support the Government plans to provide the International Criminal Court for its war crime investigations.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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The UK is one of the major funders of the International Criminal Court, and provides further practical support including sentence enforcement, pro bono expertise in victim and witness protection, and secondments. In June, I met with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan KC, and I will remain in contact with the ICC to discuss what resources it needs to operate effectively.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey
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It should go without saying that the International Criminal Court needs to be able to do its work unimpeded if it is to establish when collateral damage transcends into deliberate slaughter, or whether self-defence was in fact collective punishment. Will the Government provide a guarantee from the Dispatch Box that they will not intervene—as they did alongside the United States in 2021—against any future ICC investigation into war crimes perpetrated against the people of Gaza?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Gentleman’s original question was about the resource that we provide to the ICC. We are the second largest donor after Germany, and we have provided some additional support this year. Questions about prosecution are matters for independent prosecutors. It is not for Ministers in this Parliament to make that sort of decision: that will be a matter for independent prosecutors, whom I would expect to exercise their discretion freely and fairly.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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5. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of legal aid for immigration cases.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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16. What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of legal aid for immigration cases.

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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Legal aid is available for asylum cases, for victims of domestic abuse and modern slavery, for separated migrant children, and for immigration cases where someone is challenging a detention decision. Through the Illegal Migration Act 2023, individuals who receive a removal notice under the Act will have access to free legal advice in relation to that notice.

David Linden Portrait David Linden
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The Law Society has warned that a proposed 15% increase in legal aid rates will not be enough to ensure that sufficient immigration lawyers are available to deal with deportations to Rwanda. Charities supporting refugees make 16 attempts on average before securing a lawyer, while in London, charities are only successfully finding legal representation for 4.1% of referrals. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the legal aid sector does not collapse in England and Wales due to the poor decisions made by his colleagues?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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The 15% was agreed after a six-week consultation looking at other increases for other specialist work. The Legal Aid Agency will always keep provision under review to ensure that cover is provided for those who need it.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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There are approximately 175,000 people trapped in the current asylum backlog, many of them living in hotels with no right to support themselves or their families through work. Instead of unlawful and pointless dog-whistling gestures such as the Government’s Rwanda policy, would it not be better to allow people the opportunity to work and support themselves, and to allow the Home Office and the legal aid system to be resourced adequately so that we can deal with our international obligations exactly as we ought to?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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The question about the Home Office is one the hon. Member may want to raise with Home Office Ministers themselves. On access to legal aid, I would not say that £2 billion of legal aid means this is under-resourced. This year alone, we have continued to increase levels of legal aid across the board, and specifically in specialist areas such as immigration, so I reject the notion that it is underfunded.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The Lord Chancellor is currently facing a judicial review over the failure to ensure that immigration legal aid is available to those who need it. For example, the south-west has capacity for fewer than 300 people per year, yet the Bibby Stockholm has capacity for almost 500. Is this not an abject failure of the legal aid system? It is operating exactly how the Government have designed it to: abandoning the most vulnerable to navigate a complex and hostile environment without any recourse to legal representation. Is this moral bankruptcy or incompetence, or is it a combination of both?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I do not accept that characterisation at all. In fact, this Government are putting legal aid in place to support those affected by the Illegal Migration Act and especially the uplift in fees to ensure that qualified legal advice is available to people, whether physically or through telephone advice. Access to justice, and access to legal aid, is there.

Andrew Jones Portrait Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con)
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6. What progress he has made on improving employment opportunities for ex-offenders.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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I am pleased to say that the proportion of prison leavers in employment six months after their release has more than doubled in the two years to March 2023. We have delivered significant reforms in this area, among which are prison employment leads to match prisoners to jobs on release, and business-led employment advisory boards that partner prisoners with industry to benefit from their expertise. While this is very significant progress, there is always more to do, and we are determined to continue to see that figure climb higher.

Andrew Jones Portrait Andrew Jones
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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We know that ex-offenders are at high risk of homelessness, particularly immediately on release. We also know that being in work significantly reduces that risk, so the link between the probation service and Jobcentre Plus in supporting ex-offenders into work is of critical importance. Will the Minister do everything possible across Government to ensure that ex-offenders leave custody with the best possible chance of getting a job?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor as prisons and probation Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), for his work in this space?

My hon. Friend, as always, is absolutely spot-on that securing employment and preventing homelessness are essential to tackling reoffending. Those in work are nearly 10% less likely to reoffend. We work closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that prison leavers have effective support to prepare for employment on release. For example, prisoners can meet a DWP prison work coach from 12 weeks before release to provide advice on benefits and employment, including day one access to DWP employment programmes, and we continue to foster those strong links.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his response. Veterans very often fall on hard times, find themselves in prison and then become ex-offenders. Has the Minister had any opportunity to work alongside the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs to ensure that priority can be given to help veterans get over the bad times and to re-engage in society again? They have offered so much during their time in the services, and they can do so again if given the opportunity.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right to highlight just how much veterans, even when they have got themselves into bother, can offer the community through rehabilitation and through work. Although I have not yet had the opportunity to engage with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, I intend to do so. A whole range of opportunities can work for veterans. Just this weekend, I saw the ex-jockey Ryan Hatch on ITV Racing talking about his work highlighting equine job opportunities—which are often appropriate for veterans—in prisons. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend—and, indeed, with the hon. Gentleman, if he wishes—on this issue.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Ind)
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7. What steps he is taking to increase the number of prison places.

Gary Sambrook Portrait Gary Sambrook (Birmingham, Northfield) (Con)
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9. What steps he is taking to increase prison capacity.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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This Government have embarked on the biggest prison building programme since the Victorian era, to create 20,000 modern, secure, rehabilitative places. To date, we have already delivered 5,600 places, a third prison at HMP Millsike is under construction, and last week we secured outline planning permission for our fourth prison, near the existing HMP Gartree in Leicestershire.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton
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I welcome the delivery of 20,000 additional prison places, as well as plans to deport some foreign criminals, rather than jailing them here in the UK. That will free up spaces and deliver considerable savings to the taxpayer. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to work with the Home Office to mitigate the risk of legal challenges as we seek to deport some of those who may pose a risk to the public?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. Between January 2019 and March 2023, 14,700 foreign national offenders were served with deportation orders and removed. As he has indicated, we have expanded the early removal scheme to allow for the removal of FNOs up to 18 months before the end of the custodial element of their sentence, so that we can bring forward the deportation of criminals who should not be here. On his specific point, we work closely with the Home Office to ensure that the right people and processes are in place to resist legal challenges.

Gary Sambrook Portrait Gary Sambrook
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I welcome the measures that my right hon. and learned Friend has outlined to increase prison capacity to its largest ever, but he will recognise that capacity in prisons needs to come with capacity in staffing in order to make it a reality. Will he update the House on the progress made so far, particularly in the midlands and Birmingham?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is such a champion on this issue. He is right, and to increase the number of staff we have increased pay, accepting the recommendation of the independent pay review body in full. That means an increase of 7% for band 3 to band 5 officers, which is wing officers up to custodial managers. We are also backing our officers with the roll-out of body-worn videos for every officer on shift, as well as PAVA spray in the adult estate. The net result is that the resignation rate is down significantly. That means more people remaining on the wings, improving the quantity and quality of our prison places overall.

John Cryer Portrait John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
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May I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), to her well-deserved place on the Treasury Bench? As well as expanding prison capacity, has the Secretary of State looked at the possibility of investing in women’s centres? That was part of the Government’s female offender strategy, but it also has a proven track record in cutting reoffending?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my hon. Friend. Yes, absolutely; where the court determines that an alternative disposal is appropriate, we are keen for non-custodial options to be available. That is why we are investing heavily in alternatives. There are cases where women offenders must go to jail, but where that is not necessary we want to ensure that alternatives remain so that rehabilitation can take place in the community.

Feryal Clark Portrait Feryal Clark (Enfield North) (Lab)
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Now that the Government have left themselves with no choice but to send fewer people to prison and let more out early because there is simply no space for them, how many convicted criminals are currently on bail awaiting sentence, compared with this time last year? When do the Government expect normal service to resume?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am proud of the fact that, unlike the previous Government, we are rolling out a prison expansion programme—something that entirely defeated the Labour party when it was in office. Labour said it was going to roll out three Titan prisons. How many did it produce? Absolutely none. On bail, it is the case that the number of those awaiting trial is higher, and up by 6,000 compared with the pre-covid period. That is why this Government are expanding capacity on the estate. We have 1,000 more judges, we are increasing the amount of legal aid, and we are ensuring that when people come to be sentenced, unlike under the Labour Government, they are going to prison for longer.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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The Secretary of State’s emergency early release scheme is meant to tackle a capacity crisis that is entirely of this Government’s making, and it excludes only serious violence. Surely domestic abuse and stalking are serious offences, yet they are not excluded from early release. What kind of signal does that give to victims, the public, and indeed perpetrators of violence against women and girls?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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We are proud that under this Government sentences for offences such as rape have gone up by a third. We have a situation in which charges are up, the conviction rate is higher and sentences are longer—and, unlike under the Labour Government, people are spending a higher proportion of those sentences in custody. We think that is the right thing to do. To the hon. Member’s point, the exclusions in place go beyond what he indicated, so he is factually incorrect; they also include sex offences and terrorist offences. Here is a really important point: where the custodial authorities are satisfied that there is a specific risk, there is an opportunity to ensure that release is blocked. That is important, because we will always stand up for victims of crime.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan
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Argument weak? Go long and do not answer the question—the classic response from this Government. The truth is that without any Government announcement of a start date, prisons began releasing offenders over a month ago. These men are already walking our streets, but the Government will not tell us how many, or why they were behind bars in the first place. Why do the Government not believe that the public deserve to know who is being released back into the community when a court decided that they should be in prison?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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We will make whatever appropriate announcements in due course; we will not demur from that. We will also not apologise for having, under this Government, a higher custodial population than before. We are taking robust steps to ensure that the public are protected, which means unashamedly that those who commit the most serious offences—those such as murder in the context of sexual or sadistic conduct—go to prison for the rest of their lives. Will the hon. Member support that? I wonder. We are also using the evidence so that those capable of rehabilitation are rehabilitated. One thing that we will not ever put at risk is the threat to women and girls. As the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), indicated, we have taken steps to ensure that victims of domestic abuse will be properly protected under the Government.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Here is a man who will go short: I call Sir Desmond Swayne.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
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10. Whether he is taking steps to increase levels of public confidence in non-custodial sentences.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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To earn public confidence, non-custodial sentences must self-evidently be punitive, so that the British people can see that offenders are being punished for their crimes. They must also be enforceable, so that judges and magistrates can be confident that those who step out of line risk being brought back before the court and sentenced to immediate custody. That is why we are doubling the number of the latest GPS tags available to the court, so that offenders can be strictly monitored, and we have increased funding for the probation service by £155 million a year.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne
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It is essential that every advantage be had from the latest monitoring technology, isn’t it?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Pithy and perfect—my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the old technology, all that the so-called radio frequency tags could tell the probation service was whether that individual had left the premises to which he had been bailed or curfewed. The modern GPS tags are far more effective, because they can indicate where that person has gone, keeping them under a tight rein. We have additional tags, including alcohol monitoring tags to allow the courts and probation services also to monitor alcohol where that is the root cause of the offending.

Tony Lloyd Portrait Tony Lloyd (Rochdale) (Lab)
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Is the evidence not clear that short prison sentences do not work, and that women’s centres, which deal with drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues and so on, can be effective? It would make a lot of sense to roll that out for the male population—it is cheaper and it is better.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am delighted to hear that from the hon. Gentleman. We have to follow the evidence, which shows that short sentences of immediate custody lead to a higher reoffending rate than those where the sentence is suspended, albeit on tight conditions, which might include curfew, an unpaid work order and potentially a rehabilitation requirement. Why? Because if the offender fails to comply, the probation service can find them in breach and bring them back before the court, where they will then likely hear the clang of the prison gate. We will follow the evidence. We make no apology for using our custodial estate to lock up the most dangerous offenders for longer and take them out of circulation. But protecting the public also means ensuring that those who would otherwise reoffend get off the conveyor belt of crime.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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11. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the conditions in the prison estate for the rehabilitation of offenders.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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By the end of the spending review period, we will have invested nearly £4 billion to deliver an additional 20,000 modern prison places and ensure that the right conditions are in place to rehabilitate prisoners, cut crime and protect the public. The key to effective rehabilitation is the provision of education and skills training, to increase a prisoner’s employability and ensure that they can access employment upon release, alongside providing support for substance misuse, treatment and so on. We are also investing to improve rehabilitative spaces in prison, having delivered our employment hubs, where prisoners can access job vacancies. We will renovate prison workshops through our HMP academies programme.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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No glass, just bars at the window; mice and rats; faeces in the gravy; and sewage overflows regularly in his cell. This is not the start of a Victorian novel, but the disgrace experienced by my young constituent, who was locked in his shared cell for 23 and a half hours a day, having never received the vital specialist mental health support that he needed. When can we expect such draconian conditions at HMP Hull to end? What appropriate steps will the Minister take to ensure that people in prison experience rehabilitation, not the conditions that my constituent faced?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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If the hon. Lady would like to write to me, I will be happy to look into that specific case. But in broad terms, in the last financial year this Government invested £217 million in capital and maintenance spending, up from £149 million in 2010-2011. That includes, since 2020, delivering £73 million of capital maintenance projects across Yorkshire. Security is not a dirty word in this context but is vital to creating conditions in which people can be safe and rehabilitated. We continue to work closely with the NHS on improving things such as mental health support for those in prison, but I am happy to engage with her on this issue.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con)
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12. If the Government will make an assessment of the potential merits of extending the unduly lenient sentence scheme to include additional offences.

Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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In 2019 we expanded the unduly lenient sentence scheme to include 14 new offences, including further child sexual offences and coercive or controlling behaviour. We have no immediate plans to extend the scheme further, but we keep it under constant review.

Gareth Johnson Portrait Gareth Johnson
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I welcome the new Minister to his place; his is an excellent appointment and I wish him every success. The fact that malicious wounding, actual bodily harm, burglary and even rape, when dealt with in the youth courts, do not come under the unduly lenient sentence scheme is plain wrong. Will he please review that situation, which time and again lets down the victims of those serious crimes?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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The unduly lenient sentence scheme is intended for use in serious cases for offenders sentenced in the Crown court. The Attorney General has the power to refer a sentence to the Court of Appeal for review if they believe it is unduly lenient. A youth court can sentence a child to up to two years of detention only. Where a child’s offence is likely to attract a sentence of more than two years, the case must be passed to the Crown court for sentencing, where the scheme therefore applies.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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Stiffening unduly lenient Crown court sentences is all very well, but there will still be delays in the system if there are backlogs in prosecuting in the courts. Up to 25% of criminal barristers have left the profession over the past five years, so what action are the Government taking to address the exodus of criminal barristers?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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In recent years the Government have invested an extra £141 million in criminal legal aid, which should expedite a solution to the situation.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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13. If he will make an assessment of the impact of changes in sentencing guidelines on causing death by dangerous driving on the length of sentences.

Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 increased the maximum penalty for causing death by dangerous driving from 14 years to life imprisonment. In June 2023, the independent Sentencing Council published revised sentencing guidelines for motoring offences, including for causing death by dangerous driving. It is too early to assess the outcome of those changes, but we regularly publish sentencing statistics on gov.uk. The Sentencing Council also monitors all guidelines in accordance with its statutory duty.

James Wild Portrait James Wild
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I welcome my hon. Friend to his position. It is over a year since Parliament legislated to increase the maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving to life imprisonment. However, three members of my constituent Summer Mace’s family were killed in a horrific incident, and in June the offender got only 10 and a half years. That is totally inadequate. As RoadPeace has shown, far too many sentences are too short. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss those sentencing guidelines, so that we can ensure that they reflect what Parliament actually legislated for?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I was very sorry to hear of the death of Paul Carter, Lisa Carter and Jade Mace in January 2023 in a collision caused by Aurelijus Cielevicius, and the devastating consequences for their family and friends. I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned hard on this issue, and I read his Adjournment debate earlier this month. Sentencing is entirely a matter for our independent courts, based on the facts of each case. In July 2023, after Cielevicius was sentenced, the revised Sentencing Council guidelines for causing death by dangerous driving came into force, following the increase of the maximum penalty introduced by the PCSC Act 2022. I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that further, should that be helpful.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
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The man who was convicted of causing death by careless driving when he killed my young constituent Gregg was sentenced to only nine months in prison. However, because he was charged with causing death by careless driving, not dangerous driving, Gregg’s family had no right to appeal under the Attorney General’s unduly lenient sentence scheme. Will the Minister agree to discuss this with the Attorney General and look into revising the scheme to include causing death by careless driving?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I was very sorry to hear the details of that particular case. I will, of course, be very happy to raise it with the Attorney General.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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14. What steps he is taking to improve the provision of education for children in custody.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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We work closely with education providers to drive up standards of teaching and improve academic outcomes. The curriculum offered to children in custody is needs-led and determined by individual aspirations, literacy and numeracy levels, interests and sentence length. Where education provision is inadequate, we will hold providers to account to ensure that children receive the education they need to turn away from crime.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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Earlier this year, I visited Feltham young offenders institution and witnessed at first hand the very challenging conditions in which dedicated professionals work with young people who have committed the most serious crimes and had a very difficult start in life. Back in 2016, the Charlie Taylor review recommended that we move away from young offenders institutions to secure schools. The Government fully accepted his vision, yet seven years on not a single secure school has opened. One has been built, but it has not admitted any pupils. If the Government are serious about rehabilitating young offenders and cutting reoffending, when will they finally roll out secure schools for those pupils?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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In a previous life as a Minister, as it were, I had youth justice in my portfolio back in 2018-19, and I had the opportunity to visit Feltham at that time. I worked with Charlie Taylor on delivering those recommendations into practice. I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady that we anticipate the first secure school opening in 2024.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I welcome the new shadow Minister.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Education is vital to reduce violence, especially on the youth estate. However, violence on the youth estate is skyrocketing. Since last year, assaults on staff have increased by 33%. That puts prison staff at risk in their workplace and increases the trauma experienced by children and young people. It can also prolong their rehabilitation. How will the Minister use education and other methods available to him to reduce that violence?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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It is nice to be taking questions from the hon. Lady in her new role as shadow Minister, rather than when she used to question me in the Justice Committee. She is absolutely right to highlight the challenges of violence across the youth estate, which have been too high for too long, and we continue to work hard across all sites to address it. Among the measures put in place, we are ensuring that each child receives a full needs assessment, covering education, psychology, resettlement, health and behavioural support. Education and skills play a vital part in helping children and young people to get their lives back on course, but that must be in the context of a secure environment, because security has to be the premise on which all those other benefits can be delivered.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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15. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the suspension of short sentences on the probation service.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
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17. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of the suspension of short sentences on the probation service.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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To expand probation capacity, we have increased funding by £155 million a year to deliver effective supervision of offenders in the community. In 2020-21 we recruited an additional 1,000 trainee officers, 1,500 more in the following year, and 1,500 more in the year after that. This means that offenders who pose the highest risk to communities will receive robust supervision.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Successive Conservative Ministers have allowed the criminal justice system to fall into its current parlous state, making many communities, including in Cambridge, less safe. Now they propose to shift the burden from an over-pressed prison service to an over-pressed probation service. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the money that should have been available to prisons will be moved to the probation service to allow it to keep our communities safe?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The first point is not right; since 2010, the overall levels of crime have fallen by 40%. As for the second point, reoffending has dropped from about 32% to about 25%. The third point, on probation, is, with respect, a better one. As we move towards suspended sentence orders, it is right for them to be robust and enforceable so that if people step out of line they can expect to hear the clang of the prison gate, and that is why I am engaging with the leadership of the probation service. Yesterday I also met frontline probation officers, because I want to hear from them how we can ensure that their workload is manageable and they have the resources that they need to keep our communities safe.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore
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I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I echo the concerns of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and the British Independent Retailers Association, which fear that the scrapping of short sentences will only embolden retail criminals. The Secretary of State will know that far too many shop workers face being attacked in shops across the UK, particularly as we approach the festive period. According to the police, there has been a 24% increase in shoplifting in the past year. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the probation service can cope with the expected surge in retail crime, and ensure that those who work in shops will be protected and anyone who attacks them will face the full force of the law?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Those who behave in such an appalling way should expect to feel exactly that: the full force of the law. Let me be crystal clear: those who pose a particular threat to individuals can expect to hear the clang of the prison gate. Those who commit offences while subject to an order—be it, for instance, a community order, a stalking prevention order or a domestic abuse protection order—can also expect to be outwith the presumption. Through the use of tags, we can ensure that people who do not abide by stringent requirements—which, by the way, could include not going to a particular shopping precinct—can expect one outcome, and one outcome only: prison.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
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In response to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), the Secretary of State said that he had recruited 1,000 additional probation officers, but in fact that recruitment campaign has resulted in 76 fewer probation officers between March last year and March this year. Owing to the excessive workload, staff are leaving in droves. The proposed new presumption in favour of extended sentences and the extension of electronic monitoring will simply offload more pressure from prisons on to the probation service, will it not? What are the Government doing to address these issues of excessive workload and the loss of probation staff?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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On a point of detail, as of 30 September 2023 the increase on the previous year was 4.2% for band 3 probation officers, 6.9% for band 4 officers and 13% for senior probation officers. The so-called attrition rate, or resignation rate, is also down. There are more probation officers, and more of them are remaining in place. The reason that matters is the fact that experience counts. This is an extremely difficult job, and making good judgments requires wisdom and experience. We are investing in the probation service so that its officers can do their job on behalf of our communities.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Since the last Justice questions, we have introduced a Criminal Justice Bill, which responds rapidly and robustly to the latest criminal threats. It will include strengthened laws to criminalise those who breach trust by taking intimate images without consent; broaden the offence of encouraging and assisting self-harm; give judges the power to order offenders to attend sentencing hearings; and enable the probation service to polygraph-test more terrorists and sex offenders. Meanwhile, the new Sentencing Bill has public protection at its core, making the severest punishments available for the most dangerous offenders, such as murderers who kill with sexual or sadistic conduct, to take them out of circulation forever. It will protect the public by breaking the cycle of reoffending to reduce crime.

We have also welcomed my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Laura Farris) and for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) to the Front Bench. As I think the House has already observed, they will make a formidable contribution to public life.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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The Prime Minister and certain other senior Government figures have suggested that the European convention on human rights should be disapplied in some asylum cases, and the deputy chairman of the Conservative party, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), has said that the Government should simply ignore last week’s Supreme Court ruling. Does the Justice Secretary agree?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The Government are confident that we can deliver on the priorities of the British people while remaining within the four corners of our international legal obligations. Make no mistake, we are determined to ensure that our borders are secure. This is a rule of law issue. It should not be the case that those who try to jump the queue and arrive illegally should derive some sort of advantage from that. We understand that clearly on the Government Benches and we will do everything we can to stop the boats.

Andy Carter Portrait Andy Carter (Warrington South) (Con)
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T3.   One of the primary reasons for adjournment and relisting in magistrates courts is a lack of trained probation officers to carry out pre-sentence stand-down reports. Could the Minister outline what steps he is taking to address this so that courts can get through caseloads more speedily?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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My hon. Friend speaks with great authority as a magistrate, and I know from my own experience as a practitioner how important stand-down reports are. They provide the bench with information about the offender—their relationship situation, their record of previous convictions, their mental health problems and so on—so that the court can tailor a disposal that punishes the offender but also progresses their rehabilitation. We are working closely with the probation service to ensure that that resource is properly allocated so that we can have more stand-down reports to ensure better justice on the facts of each case.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister, Alex Cunningham.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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Contrary to the claims of Ministers at every Question Time that they are getting the courts backlog sorted out, they are not, and the pain just drags on for victims. The Crown court backlog reached a record 65,000 cases at the end of June. Nearly 5,000 of them have been waiting for two years and 36,000 cases have defendants on bail. Why are things still getting worse?

Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mike Freer)
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I have to say, Mr Speaker, that God loves a trier. Yes, the backlog has gone up. The hon. Gentleman will know that post covid and post the Criminal Bar Association strike, the backlog did increase. On top of that, this Government have cracked down on crime with more police officers, and that has meant more people being charged and appearing in court. We are addressing this with unlimited sitting days. We recruited 1,000 judges across all jurisdictions last year and we are doing the same this year. We have invested in the court estate to improve resilience, and we have extended 24 Nightingale courts to ensure that we have capacity.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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Come on now—we know that the statistics tell a very different story. The Crown courts remain in crisis, and what about the civil courts? The quarterly civil justice statistics from April to June 2023 show that the average time taken for small claims and multi-fast-tracked claims to go to trial was 52 weeks and 78 weeks respectively. Is it the same excuse for the crisis in the civil courts?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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Since the Government have increased the amount of money spent on the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, we have recruited judges across the jurisdiction to help in the civil courts, increased the number of days that fee-paid judges can do from 30 days to 80 days a year, introduced regional virtual pilots to support London and the south-east, and invested in mediation. All of this is ensuring that people have access to justice in a court system that is dealing with higher numbers of cases than ever before.

Priti Patel Portrait Priti Patel (Witham) (Con)
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T5. The Minister will be aware that approximately £1 million of taxpayers’ money was spent, including through legal aid, on finally deporting the vile sex offender Yaqub Ahmed, whose crimes were just unimaginable. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister ensure that legal aid processes are reviewed and, importantly, dust off the previous plans to introduce wasted cost orders in immigration cases so that lawyers who pursue these spurious cases are prevented from doing so?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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As my right hon. Friend will appreciate, I cannot comment on individual cases, but I can reassure her that the payment of wasted or unreasonable costs can already be ordered by the tribunal if it considers it appropriate. Given the issue that she has raised, however, I would be more than happy to meet her to ensure that her concerns are conveyed firmly to those responsible for the reviews.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter  (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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T2.   Eight courts have so far been named as containing reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—and three of them are closed. The Government will not say which prisons are affected, but will they guarantee that funding for RAAC removal will not come at the expense of existing maintenance schemes, given the huge backlog of repairs in courts and prisons?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Gentleman is right about the eight court buildings, but that is in the context of an estate of over 300 buildings. It is important to note, however, that we have massively increased the budget for the court estate, and that enables us to do two things. First, we can take on more projects and also plan them because we have guaranteed this over two years, meaning that we can plan in a more efficient and effective way. The second issue so far as prisons are concerned is that separate considerations apply because the buildings are used for a whole range of different purposes; there is the prison itself, but there are plenty of ancillary buildings. This is all being inspected in the normal way, and the budget is certainly there to effect remediations if required.

Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers  (Stockton South) (Con)
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T10.   Last week I visited my local Co-op store in Hartburn, where I met staff and Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers reps as part of Respect for Shopworkers Week. There are around 867 assaults on shop workers not each month, not each week but every single day. We cannot go on like this. Will my right hon. and learned Friend look again at what we can do to tackle this issue and deliver justice for shop workers?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those people are on the frontline of society, acting effectively in public to do an incredibly important public service. We have already moved to ensure that the courts can treat assaults on shop workers as an aggravating factor when it comes to sentencing. To be clear, this means that, in appropriate cases, the fact that a person has assaulted a retail worker can mean the difference between a non-custodial penalty and a custodial penalty, which is absolutely right. Those who behave in such a cowardly way should expect all consequences.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
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T4. The rule of law is sacrosanct, isn’t it?

Michael Ellis Portrait Sir Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con)
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Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the judiciary must not make incendiary comments about Israel? At Walsall magistrates court, a district judge recently acquitted defendants who had vandalised a factory, believing it to be supplying Israel, and is reported to have told them their action was

“proportionate in comparison to the crimes against humanity which they were acting to stop.”

Does he agree that judges are supposed to uphold the law, not encourage its breach? This brings our legal system into ill-repute, so will he take this from me as a complaint to the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. We are not meant to criticise the courts, and I know that such a learned Gentleman will know better; I am sure we can avoid any criticism.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I simply note the question. Plainly, I make no comment on the specifics. I have heard my right hon. and learned Friend’s point, and I will happily take it up with him subsequently.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op)
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T6. The Ministry of Justice has released its latest quarterly statistics on deaths and self-harm in the England and Wales prison estate. The rate of self-harm incidents among female prisoners went up by a stark 63% compared with the same quarter last year, and there was an overall 24% increase in self-inflicted deaths. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of the MOJ’s policies on these increases across the prison estate?

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this, as every death in custody is a tragedy. We continue to do all we can to improve the safety of prisoners, both in that respect and in respect of reducing instances of self-harm. We are continuing to deliver on our safety commitment outlined in the prisons strategy White Paper, including by introducing more ligature-resistant cells, funding a study to understand the extent of deaths, and rolling out an emotional resilience and peer-support programme in six prisons. Of course, our staff are vital to this, and I take the opportunity to pay tribute to them; we are investing to support them to continue to do that work.

Wendy Morton Portrait Wendy Morton (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con)
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In the summer, the Government made a welcome announcement on banning zombie knives and machetes and doubling the sentences for supplying a knife to an under-18 and for possessing a knife with intent to cause harm. Now we are in a new Session, will the Secretary of State set out the timeline for bringing forward legislation to make this happen?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is a passionate and principled campaigner on the issue of public safety. These measures will find their way into the Criminal Justice Bill. I look forward to her support, which I know will be forthcoming. Let us hope that hon. Members right across the House will put public protection as one of their priorities.

Jim McMahon Portrait Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab/Co-op)
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T7. New figures released by the Co-op Group show that a staggering 300,000 incidents of shoplifting, abuse, violence and antisocial behaviour in Co-op stores have been reported this year alone. Surely the best way to stop violence against shop workers is to make it a stand-alone offence, as requested by the Labour party, the Co-op party and the USDAW trade union.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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It is important to establish what is already available to the police: section 39 on common assault, section 47 on assault occasioning actual bodily harm and—heaven forbid—sections 20 and 18, which relate to more serious cases of grievous bodily harm. Plus, if an individual is convicted on any of those grounds, the courts can—indeed, ought to—consider assault on a retail worker as an aggravating factor. As I have indicated, that can mean the difference between a non-custodial and a custodial penalty.

We will keep these matters under review, but the central point is that before someone can go before the court, they have to be arrested. That is why I am delighted that we have more police officers than at any time in our history, ready to take the fight to those who assault shop workers.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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My right hon. and learned Friend has a terrific record on dealing with SLAPPs—strategic lawsuits against public participation—so he will understand how greedy lawyers encourage their billionaire clients to crush their opponents by extending court cases, dragging them out and multiplying them. What has not been taken on board is that that also costs the taxpayer millions of pounds. I think those lawyers should have to meet those costs. With that in mind, will he publish the costs incurred by SLAPPs cases?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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No one in this House has done more than my right hon. Friend to clamp down on this iniquitous behaviour, and I am pleased that we have been able to make some progress. He makes a really important point: every day that is spent in court pursuing ill-founded and abusive litigation is time that could be spent on other matters in the public interest. I will certainly look into the interesting suggestion he makes about publishing the cost of that behaviour.

David Linden Portrait David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)
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T8. After the Supreme Court ruling on Rwanda, the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) said that the Government should “ignore the laws” and put planes in the air anyway. The Prime Minister has failed to distance himself from those comments. Does that disappoint the Justice Secretary?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave a few moments ago. There is understandable righteous indignation about the situation that exists. We believe that we can comply and deliver our policies within the four corners of international law—that is our approach. However, those who arrive illegally threaten to corrode the rule of law, because that of itself sends out a poor subliminal message that those who do so can act with impunity. That does not strengthen the rule of law.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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The Justice Secretary will know of the hard work undertaken in this Parliament to bring the Desecration of War Memorials Bill into law. Elements of that Bill were subsumed into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, but will he now undertake to complete the job?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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My hon. Friend is one of two hon. Members who have fought hard on this issue, and he does so from the position of having served his country. It is completely iniquitous that people should seek to act in a way that desecrates war memorials. His specific point seems utterly compelling and I am happy to discuss it with him hereafter.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry  (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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T9.   The Justice Secretary is an experienced lawyer, for whom I have a great deal of respect. Will he explain to the Prime Minister that following the Supreme Court’s judgment on Rwanda, merely to legislate that the facts on the ground in Rwanda are the opposite of what the Supreme Court found them to be will make no difference to the problems the Supreme Court has identified, and will simply make the Government a laughing stock?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her point. At the risk of harming her political career, the respect is entirely mutual. In a rule-of-law country, people can disagree with the decision of a court but they must respect it. We respect the ruling and of course we will abide by court orders, but it is also right that we carefully consider what the Supreme Court said and seek to adjust appropriately. We will do what we properly and lawfully can do to stop the boats. That is our mission and the mission of the British people, and we will deliver on it.

Edward Timpson Portrait Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)
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I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s commitment to increase the use of tagging, where appropriate, to reduce the amount of reoffending. In doing so, what plans does he have to include high-risk domestic abusers and, potentially in the future, those who are illegal drug users?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Not for the first or last time, my hon. and learned Friend has got absolutely to the point. We have deliberately constructed the policy so that if an individual presents a significant threat to a particular individual—often a spouse or a partner—the presumption would not apply. That is critically important and I was happy to discuss that point with Women’s Aid and other relevant bodies. We are on the side of victims of domestic abuse and violence, and nothing that we do will cut across that important principle.

Imran Hussain Portrait Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab)
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Supporting offenders in practising their faith is regularly cited as playing a key role in their rehabilitation in prisons. However, as the Minister will know from my frequent correspondence with the chief executive of His Majesty’s Prison Service, many prisons either do not provide the facilities required or actively hinder offenders in practising their religion. HMP Full Sutton has been brought to my attention as one such example. Given its importance, will the Minister assure me that a full review of faith provision across the prison estate will be conducted and guarantee that no one will be denied the ability to freely practise their religion?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is absolutely right to highlight not only the right of people to practise their religion, but the important role that that can play for those individuals in coping with prison life, rehabilitation and getting on the straight and narrow when they come out. I am happy to engage with him directly on any specific case that he wishes to bring up, and it is an issue that I am happy to look at.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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I thank the Courts Minister for his recent letter on recruitment and retention of legal advisers in Essex and the impact that that is having on court listings. Although I know that he and I agree about the independence of the judiciary regarding individual cases, will he meet me to discuss what more might be done to fill the vacancies for legal advisers in Essex?

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I am always happy to meet my right hon. Friend.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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The Secretary of State has alluded to the continuing reduction in reoffending rates among those leaving prison. Does he agree that central to maintaining confidence in the wider community is that the reoffending rate goes down further still?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Gentleman makes a simple but incredibly important point. We want to follow the evidence so that we protect the public. We will do so, on the one hand, by locking up the most serious offenders for longer and taking them out of circulation, and, on the other, by cutting offending. Fewer crimes mean a better protected public. That is the approach that we will take.

Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler (Aylesbury) (Con)
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Yesterday, I met former prisoner LJ Flanders who, while serving his sentence, devised a fitness regime that can be conducted in a cell with no special gym equipment. With the support of Bucks Association for the Care of Offenders, he has just run a two-week training programme in HMP Aylesbury to train other prisoners to provide coaching and mentoring of a similar style. Will my right hon. Friend please encourage everybody in His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, particularly governors, to facilitate such courses to reduce reoffending?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who knows about what he speaks. I pay tribute to him for his work in the criminal justice system. He highlights an example that sounds extremely interesting. I would be happy to meet him to hear more about it and to see where we can take things from there.

International Development White Paper

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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12:37
Andrew Mitchell Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell)
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Mr Deputy Speaker, since my statement to the House on 18 July, the Government have consulted extensively to secure evidence and ideas on international development that will transform our world. I pay tribute to the team of 15 officials who have worked night and day and most of their weekends for nearly six months on this, under the leadership of Nick Dyer and Annabel Gerry, and to Geraldine Bedell and the Richard Curtis team who have helped with the shortened version of the international development White Paper.

We drew on the sharpest and most expert minds from non-governmental organisations, academia, business, nearly 50 Governments around the world, and all political parties in the House. I particularly wish to thank colleagues across the House for their contributions to shaping this White Paper. This is an area of policy that does not belong either to the Conservative party or to Labour; it is a British policy and commitment.

As the whole House knows, development has helped transform the lives of billions of people. The UK can be immensely proud of our distinct contribution to this incredible success story. Two centuries ago, three quarters of the world lived in extreme poverty. When I was born, around half still did. By 2015, when the world met the millennium development goals, the proportion of a much larger global population had fallen to just 12%. Evidence shows that development works, but it also shows that we now need to think about how we do development.

After decades of hard-won but persistent progress, we live in a world facing a daunting set of challenges: a world that is seeing rising poverty, where progress is in retreat; a world where the UN sustainable development goals are nearly all off track for 2030; a world where faith in multilateral institutions is fading despite co-operation being desperately needed; a world facing a climate crisis, growing conflict and the prospect of further pandemics; a contested world, where unity and solidarity are increasingly important, yet ever more difficult to achieve. This White Paper sets out a road map to 2030, charting the path the UK must take to galvanise global attention and lead by example in the fight to end extreme poverty, tackle climate change and address biodiversity loss.

When it comes to international development, finance matters. The Government have been clear on our intention to return to 0.7% of GNI when the fiscal circumstances permit, but the White Paper also makes it clear that we will not achieve the sustainable development goals through business-as-usual official development assistance funding. We need a quantum leap in financing and investing, which only the private sector can provide. The private sector is an essential engine of development, giving communities the building blocks for economic independence. Self-sufficiency is development’s essential purpose, and our work with the UK private sector delivers back for taxpayers many times over.

British Investment International, formerly known as CDC, is already a core part of the Government’s offer on international development. It has an impressive track record, and now will go further and faster, investing in the hardest places. As was suggested by the International Development Committee, to whom I pay tribute, BII will aim to make more than half of its investments in the poorest and most fragile countries by 2030, while also enhancing its transparency, cementing its place as a world leader.

The White Paper presents our vision for much-needed reform of the international financial system, mobilising greater finance from the private sector and scaling up the lending capacity of the international financial institutions. The UK has pioneered the use of climate-resilient debt clauses, enabling vulnerable countries to hold off on debt repayments following an extreme weather event. Together with Prime Minister Mia Mottley and other supporters of the Bridgetown initiative, we are driving reforms of the multilateral development banks so that they can scale up financing for low and middle-income countries. We will also work with institutional investors such as pension funds to plug the SDG’s $3.9 trillion annual financing gap.

International development and climate action are inseparable. Climate change and nature loss are being felt everywhere, and their impact will only intensify over the next decade. It will be most acute in developing countries, reversing fragile development gains, increasing food prices and compounding insecurity and instability. To meet that challenge, we must mobilise more—and more reliable—finance. We will deliver on our pledge to provide £11.6 billion in international climate finance in the five years up to 2026. We will ensure a balance between adaptation and mitigation financing and provide at least £3 billion to protect and restore nature.

Britain’s work on women and girls is paramount. We cannot understand development unless we see it through the eyes of girls and women. Increasing access to education, empowering women so that they can decide for themselves whether and when they have children, and ending sexual violence are central to economic opportunity and growth. Those rights are universal and should be non-negotiable. The White Paper extends and reinvigorates that work. We will use research and diplomacy to end the preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children. We will deploy policy and investment to defend and advance sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Effective development is rooted in respectful partnerships of equals, but the Government will continue to stand up for our values. We know that individual rights, the rule of law and strong institutions are essential to achieving sustainable development. Take for example the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, to which Members of Parliament make such a substantial contribution. It is the UK’s leading champion of democracy globally. We are increasing our support for its work so that we can support fairer, more inclusive and more accountable democratic systems around the world.

We must also find better ways to anticipate and prevent humanitarian crises and the conflicts that often drive them. Conflict and instability are on the rise and hold back development: by 2030 up to two thirds of the world’s poor will live in fragile and conflict-affected contexts. Humanitarian needs are at their highest since 1945, with twice as many people needing assistance compared with five years ago. The resulting devastation is spreading across affected regions, as seen at present in the Sahel and the middle east. The tragic events in Israel and Gaza bring home the humanitarian costs of conflict and violence, with women and children most directly affected.

I am therefore pleased to announce today that we will create a fund dedicating up to 15% of our bilateral humanitarian spend to support resilience and adaptation alongside our delivery of humanitarian relief, which we expect to amount to £1 billion next year. When I visited families in east Africa suffering the worst drought in 40 years, it was clear that the current focus on immediate relief comes at the cost of early thinking and building in resilience and adaptation for the future. The new fund will respond directly to that specific challenge.

Innovation is at the heart of our efforts to transform lives through sustainable growth. The wondrous creativity of science and technology can address problems that money alone will never solve. Only by sharing research and innovating together can we make the breakthroughs that our world needs. The world has never been so intimately connected, nor our fates so closely entwined. Although we can rightly be proud of all we have done to deliver international development, the UK and our global partners must redouble our efforts given the challenges that we faced to achieve those goals.

We asked in the White Paper what the UK could do. We were told to make a new development offer based on mutual respect, powered by finance at scale, and supported by a more responsive international system. We have listened: that is what the White Paper will deliver. The Prime Minister has launched the White Paper to do development more effectively and differently, and yesterday’s global food security summit was an example of that. I commend this statement to the House.

12:46
Lisa Nandy Portrait Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for his statement, for advance sight of the White Paper, and for our frequent conversations about it since I was appointed to my post.

The catastrophe in Gaza is a strong reminder not just of the need for humanitarian assistance and expertise, but of the heavy responsibility that we all face to play our part in the world through the painstaking hard yards of diplomacy, and of the crucial role of development in providing the hope that breathes life into any peace process. I thank the Minister for his personal efforts to bring some energy and direction to this agenda again. In fact, I would go as far as saying that I do not believe that the House would be in a position to consider a new White Paper were he not in post—a view that I think is shared by many on the Opposition Benches.

However, to have an honest conversation about where we are heading, we need a frank assessment of where we have been. There was the mindless vandalism of the decision to take one of our most respected, influential contributions to the world—the partnerships, thought leadership and innovation—and trash the lot to deflect from a domestic crisis. There was the former Prime Minister who, shamed by a young footballer into abandoning his decision to allow children to go hungry in a pandemic, pulled the rug out from under the poorest people in the poorest countries. Make no mistake: that cost lives, but it also cost Britain its reputation as a gold-standard leader in the field. As the Minister said then, it was

“a strategic mistake with deadly consequences.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 118.]

He knows that I admire his determination to speak out against those decisions, and I know that he does not shy away from acknowledging the damage that they have done.

Although the former Prime Minister may be gone, his second in command, whose signature is scrawled across those documents, now sits in No. 10. His short words at the start of the White Paper leave me in no doubt that, although his posture has changed, his position has not. Frankly, asking the man who signed off the devastation of this vital agenda, only to breathe new life into it again, is like calling out the arsonist to put out the fire. For much of the agenda that the Minister set out today, he will have our support. The question is whether he will have that of his Prime Minister.

The Minister is right to recognise that the major obstacle to eliminating extreme poverty is the growing challenge of climate change and debt, but the key is how to resolve it. The multilateral system is strained—much of the world’s debt is owed to private creditors, and over recent decades China’s influence has grown—so we strongly welcome the recognition in the White Paper that Britain’s approach to development must sit in a multipolar world. However, multilateral aid will fall to just 25% of aid spending by 2025. Although the commitments in this White Paper are welcome, the Minister is prioritising multilateralism while his Department prioritises bilateralism. Which is it? We have a strategy at odds with the ambition.

The second problem is that to make the strategy work, the Minister will need to convince the world that Britain is a long-term reliable partner with serious commitment at the highest levels of Government, yet his own White Paper is silent on protecting the overseas development assistance budget from raids from other Departments, after 30% has been raided in the past year by the Home Office alone to pay for spiralling hotel bills and the cost of this Government’s chaos. What chance does he have of convincing the world that this area is a priority for the Government if he cannot convince his colleagues around the Cabinet table? I suspect that on the central issue—the need to deal with debt and finance constraints that block action on climate—he and I have more in common than he does with most of them.

There is much to welcome in the White Paper, but access to finance for many of the most heavily indebted countries is ultimately unachievable. He is embracing some of the new ideas on finance, but when it comes to the central issue of debt, where is the fresh thinking? The outsized role of the City of London compels us to do more. Now is the time not to cling to existing strategies, but to leave no stone unturned.

The problem of climate finance and debt for middle-income countries enables us to focus on low-income countries and the core task of eliminating extreme poverty, but there is far too little in the White Paper about how that can be achieved. We welcome the focus on conflict, but the route out of poverty lies not just in access to finance and in functioning economies, but in self-sustaining health, education and welfare systems designed and run by the people in those countries. What can he do to reassure the House that that is not a second-order issue?

Finally, the Minister and I have discussed the central importance of women and girls many times. They have been among the biggest losers of the decisions of recent decades. Empowering them is the biggest untapped driver of growth in the global economy, and there is no way of meeting the sustainable development goals without closing that shameful gap. That is why they must run like a thread through the whole agenda—not just in addition to it, and not a few pages in a document. Every single decision that comes across his desk must consider whether it does more to empower and enable women and girls to succeed, or less.

I welcome and support the Minister’s commitment to this agenda, but without the political backing, without the budget and without the priority in Government, he will not succeed. He is far more alive to the scale and nature of the problems that Britain and the world face than most of his colleagues, but the challenges of this era demand an end to old ways of thinking and an embracing of the new. I know he is open to it, but are his Government?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank the hon. Lady for her co-operation and her kind personal remarks. She will know that, in order to get buy-in from our friends and experts around the world and from the civil service, the White Paper needed to run to 2030. In the unlikely event that my party is not in government after the next election, any other Government would, I hope, build on it to make it a huge success.

I note the hon. Lady’s remarks about the merger of DFID into the Foreign Office. My task, which the Prime Minister gave me, was to try to make the merger work. That means there needs to be an ability within Government to focus on global public goods and delivering them into the 2030s. That is what I am trying to do. She rightly asks how we get the balance right between multilateralism and bilateral funding. The answer is that we use either, depending on what delivers for our taxpayers and what delivers results on the ground. That is the yardstick; there is no ideology. We go with what works and what is best.

The hon. Lady pointed out the increase in spending in other Departments of ODA money and the development budget. It is true that that has gone up, but every penny is spent within the rules laid down by the OECD Development Assistance Committee. We brought in the innovation of the ODA star chamber in Whitehall, co-chaired by the Development Minister and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. There is already clear evidence of that ratcheting up the quality of ODA, as the hon. Lady would wish.

The hon. Lady talked about access to finance for poor countries, which is incredibly important. Mitigation projects in middle-income countries are easy by contrast; when it comes to poor countries and adaptation, it is much more difficult. She will see the emphasis in the White Paper on accepting the advice from the Select Committee on increasing the amount that British International Investment does in poor countries. She will notice, too, the emphasis on social protection, and the fact that 62% of the budget will now be spent in fragile and conflict states.

Finally, the hon. Lady asked about debt, where she is right that we need to do far more. It is absurd that a country such as Ghana can borrow only for seven or eight years, yet our children can get mortgages for 30 years. Ghana borrows at 7%, and our children borrow at 2%. That is clearly completely wrong, but there is a lot of new thinking. She will have seen the climate resilient debt clauses launched by Britain and the work we are doing on the G20 common framework to increase access for countries. It is also important to ensure that the private sector is bound into debt settlements when they affect sovereign states.

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con)
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I welcome the White Paper and its focus on using ODA to leverage private sector investment in the way that my right hon. Friend has described. Whether the MENTARI programme for energy transition in Indonesia or the guarantees that the UK provides to the African Development Bank on climate finance, does he agree that it is the combination of aid and British business that is a real force multiplier in this area?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My right hon. Friend knows a great deal about this area from his past ministerial posts, and he is absolutely right. The key trick is to secure the status money, whether provided by the multilateral banks or the development finance institutions, and to marry it with the private sector and the $60 trillion of pension funds out there. If we can marry the two, de-risk through using that status money, and show pension managers what the real risk and the scale of the returns are, we can achieve the holy grail of getting enormous amounts of more money into climate finance, mitigation and adaptation, which is what the Bridgetown agenda is all about.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Anne McLaughlin Portrait Anne McLaughlin (Glasgow North East) (SNP)
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The Minister has consulted widely, and he truly has a refreshingly collaborative cross-party approach. We in the SNP broadly welcome the tone of it and some of the detail around mutual respect, listening to local partners, the recognition of civil society and the potential role of diaspora communities. However, the Minister will not be surprised that we want him to go further, and I will list a few of the things I would like to hear more about. SNP colleagues will have more to add on that.

The first and probably the most important thing is the fact that there is no concrete recommitment to 0.7%, as recommended by the International Development Committee. In the entire document of 154 pages, there is one mention of 0.7%, where the White Paper states that the Government will recommit to it

“once the fiscal situation allows.”

If the fiscal situation currently allows for tax cuts, I would say that that moment has arrived. The new Foreign Secretary was instrumental in getting us to 0.7% in the first place, so I hope that he and the Minister will expedite that intention.

Secondly, there is no recommitment to the restoration of programmes that have been cut since 2021, including in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan, all of which had cuts of more than 50%, taking several million pounds of their support away. Those nations are all suffering significant repercussions from the climate crisis and the fallout from conflict.

Although I am pleased that women and girls and gender equality are to be put at the centre of bilateral funding, stakeholders have said to me this morning that it is short of the transformative approach espoused by others, including the Scottish Government. Let us not forget that the cuts I just mentioned extended to girls’ education programmes, which is estimated to have resulted in 700,000 fewer girls receiving an education. That is one of the greatest scandals of our lifetime.

Finally, I was surprised that there was nothing in the White Paper about public perception of international aid and how we can challenge and change it. I have my own thoughts on that, but if most right-thinking people understood the role that their Government and their predecessors had played in some of these countries over centuries, and the ongoing legacy of that, they would understand that we have moral obligations. I know the Minister agrees, so I would appreciate his assurance that the omission of that point was simply an oversight. I look forward to continuing with the collaborative approach that he has brought to the role.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank the hon. Lady for her party’s collaboration and for the tone and content of what she said. She mentioned that the 0.7% figure does not feature extensively in the White Paper, but the White Paper is about doing development in a different way. We are ratcheting in, through these new mechanisms, billions and billions of pounds, which makes a huge difference. In many ways, it dwarfs the difference between the 0.51% or 0.52% that we are spending at the moment, and the 0.7%. She will have seen at the time of the autumn statement last year that the Treasury estimate of when the two fiscal tests would be satisfied was 2028-29—in March, it was 2027-28. All of us hope that the two tests will be satisfied as soon as possible. As far as I am aware, there is no difference between the policy of the Government and that of the official Opposition on the restoration of the 0.7% target. She talked about cuts in programmes, but the White Paper explains how many of the programmes will be increased. She specifically mentions South Sudan. As the budget is now in much better shape, next year the bilateral programme spending in South Sudan will increase from £47.9 million to £110 million, which is an increase of 130%. The Kenyan bilateral programme spending will increase by 225% and the Jordanian one will increase by 130%. So we are now able to do more through our bilateral programmes. She asked in which areas we would be specifically restoring funding where cuts had been made; she will see in the White Paper that the International Citizen Service is set to return and our aid match will increase. As for the humanitarian work we will do next year, we expect to spend £1 billion on humanitarian relief, plus we have the new resilience and adaptation fund, which will produce an extra 15% on that. The White Paper is long and to many of us it is a most exciting read. A short form is available—I have a copy here—as I mentioned. Thanks to the Richard Curtis team, it is also an excellent read. She chides me for not having made the point about civil society and the platform, but I am delighted to tell her that although I did not mention it in the statement, it is in there; UKDev—UK International Development—is a platform to achieve precisely what she said needs to be achieved in that bridge between civil society and Government and state work.

Tobias Ellwood Portrait Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con)
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May I push back gently on what was said by the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), because many Conservative Members are passionate about this issue, have been supportive of the Minister through thick and thin and really welcome this White Paper? We are hoping that it will be a stepping stone to 0.7% ODA spend. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a symbiotic relationship between our economy and our security, and that our security is dependent on stability abroad? When we step back from helping fragile states, that void is too often filled by authoritarian regimes pursuing a very different agenda.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My right hon. Friend is right on that, and of course he was one of the 26 Conservative Members who voted not to cut the 0.7%. I hope that he will be energised by the alternative means we have found—the multipliers to ratchet in enormous amounts of money. He is right in what he says about the link between defence, development and diplomacy. When he gets a moment to read to read this White Paper, he will be enthused by the lines it is taking.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)
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The right hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, knows that I admire much about the mission he has set out in this White Paper, but chapter 3 needed to say a lot more about the money. He could have said more about doubling the fraction of the special drawing rights we share, as Japan is doing, which would have provided an extra £4 billion of development assistance. He could have said more about using the money we get back from the European Investment Bank to invest in building a bigger World Bank in order to unlock $200 billion of concessional lending over the decade ahead. He could have said more about leading a global initiative to keep the interest rate on special drawing rights down so that the International Monetary Fund remains as lender of last resort, rather than China. Those are practical steps that we could work on together—otherwise we end up with all mission and no model, which will not help the world’s poorest.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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If the right hon. Gentleman reads with care the chapter to which he referred, he will see that it is one of the most brilliant chapters in it—that is my biased opinion. The reason for that is that we have in Washington an extraordinary team of young and brilliant officials who have enormous influence in the World Bank, and he is a considerable expert on this area. As for the multipliers and making sure that we sweat the balance sheets of these multilateral banks to ratchet in huge amounts of more money, he will see a great deal to please him. If these reforms are implemented, as I believe they will be, driven hard by Britain through the multilateral sector, we will see a vast increase in funding. As for what he says about the SDRs, using them creatively is something we are keen to do. He will recall that at the spring meetings the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that Britain would use its SDRs to the tune of £5.3 billion to elevate the two IMF funds that directly deal with poverty and international development.

Thérèse Coffey Portrait Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con)
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“People, planet, prosperity” is summed up entirely in this document, and I commend my right hon. Friend on the White Paper, particularly chapter 5, which I am passionate about. Building on chapter 3, it is vital that we accelerate the transition and support the Bridgetown initiative. Countries are getting terribly frustrated that although the talk is done and the UK is exceptional, there is a need to make sure that banks are getting the money to the people so that the projects can deliver for people, prosperity and planet.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank my right hon. Friend for the tremendous contribution she has made on the matters she is addressing. Chapter 5 directly addresses tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, and delivering economic transformation, and I am glad it has her approval. Chapter 3 deals with mobilising the money and what I described in my response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), the former Deputy Prime Minister, as the “multipliers” and how we ratchet in private sector money. Those will make a fantastic difference and we also have to make sure that this money reaches the poorest people in the world. Britain’s role in the G7, in these international organisations, has always been to focus on the poorest people in the world. We are proud of doing that and the House would expect us to do it. This White Paper amplifies that mission.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Chairperson of the Select Committee on International Development.

Sarah Champion Portrait Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)
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Let me start by giving my huge congratulations to the Minister. I hope that the whole House has recognised his personal involvement and the tenacity with which he has got this document out. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I also congratulate our civil servants, who for the past three years have been doing an amazing job in challenging circumstances. I really hope that this White Paper re-establishes our position on the international stage. I particularly welcome the embedding of localism; more money to the poorest; debt relief; and the focus on atrocity prevention. The White Paper outlines several initiatives aimed at increasing the amount of climate finance available for vulnerable countries such as small island development states, which is welcome. The Minister referenced biodiversity loss a couple of times in his statement, but will he explain why no specific mention is made in the White Paper of the loss and damage fund, which I predict will be at the centre of COP28 in the coming weeks?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank the Chair of the International Development Committee and, through her, all of its members, who bring their expertise and enthusiasm to this subject with eloquence and skill. She mentions the importance of debt relief and localism, and she is absolutely right on that. She also mentions the work on atrocity prevention, which we have particularly been doing in Sudan since the crisis emerged there. That work is very important and we are finding new ways of amplifying it. What she says about biodiversity may well be true. The White Paper runs to 148 pages. If she and I had our way, it would have been longer, but we have to draw a line somewhere and I yield to no one on the importance of the point she makes about biodiversity. She will know that there has been argument about loss and damage, and a holding position has now been secured, ahead of the COP. That is very important, but loss and damage must do two things. It must get a broader spectrum of where the money is coming from, otherwise we will just be reorienting it within the international development budget and that will be robbing Peter to pay Paul—there is no sense in doing that. The other thing is that it must bring in a wider group of countries, not just the narrow OECD ones that account for aid—it must be wider than that. Those two things are required to make loss and damage work.

Maria Miller Portrait Dame Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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I very much welcome this White Paper, which reiterates the importance of eliminating gender-based violence. Last week I worked with parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth, thanks to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and my right hon. Friend’s Department, and we resolved that there is a real need for international leadership to effectively challenge what are still called cultural norms—things such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation and rape. Will he join our calls for eliminating gender-based violence to be at the heart of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Samoa next year?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My right hon. Friend makes a very interesting point about the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Samoa next year; I will take that away and see what we can do on the matter. Gender-based violence, for the reasons she has often said, is central to what we are doing. We cannot understand all these matters unless we see international development through the eyes of girls and women, so she is absolutely right about that. On gender-based violence, she will be well aware of the work led by my noble Friend Lord Ahmad in the other place, which he continues to do with great vigour and success.

Chris Law Portrait Chris Law (Dundee West) (SNP)
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I welcome the White Paper, but I want to put on record very clearly that it is lukewarm and tepid. It shows how much wreckage has been done in the last three years. I welcome the Minister moving it forward, but we are not moving forward enough.

I have three short questions. First, the Minister referred to the Prime Minister asking him to try to make the merger work. We all know it has been a disaster. It was in the press last week that there was no rationale or reason for it to have happened in the first place. I would like to know why there is no thought put behind restoring that separate Department, because it was world-class, and the world looked to it for leadership.

Secondly, the Minister talked about ODA being legal. It might be legal, but one third of the budget—over £3.7 billion—is being spent on domestic issues of asylum seekers, not on extreme poverty, which he just said is a priority.

Lastly, to reiterate the point made by the Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), loss and damage was not mentioned. Two years ago in Scotland, we were world-leading, with the first pledge made by the Scottish Government. When I was at COP27 last year, the UK Government asked me to go and speak to partners on this. I am happy to do that when I am at COP28 in two weeks’ time.

In terms of where the money needs to come from, we need to get behind the Make Polluters Pay programme, which is across the world and is about the largest oil and gas companies that are most responsible for fossil fuels. If we have collective support from this Government and Governments around the world, we will find the money.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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On the hon. Gentleman’s last point about loss and damage, I set out the position of the Government. Some progress was made against expectations a couple of weekends ago. Expanding the pool from which the money comes—the payers—perhaps in the way he suggests and trying to find a deeper pool than just the development budget is extremely important.

The hon. Gentleman’s second point was about the percentage of the development budget that goes to pay the first-year costs of asylum seekers. He will know that that is absolutely part of the rules on the way in which the budget is administered. We would be asking for a change in the OECD Development Assistance Committee rules, which is very difficult to achieve, as we have to get 30 countries to agree. We decided not to do that. We did get an extra £2.5 billion out of the Treasury to compensate for it, and he will have noticed that the figure being spent on that has been quite sharply reducing over recent months.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the merger. My views on the merger before I entered Government were fairly lurid, but surely the right thing to do now is to focus on whether we can create an entity that will deliver the global public goods we all support for the 2030s. If we can, that will be building on when we had two Departments. I notice that the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who speaks for the official Opposition, is nodding at those remarks.

Chris Grayling Portrait Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend. This is a comprehensive document that contains some really important strategies. I particularly pay tribute to him for the sections on biodiversity, which he knows I regard as enormously important for a variety of reasons. Climate change and the restoration of nature are all part of an essential task that the world faces over the coming years.

My right hon. Friend mentioned civil society, which plays a really important part in all aspects of development. He knows of my involvement in and support for one of Africa’s leading conservation NGOs, which does valuable work on the ground in Africa. What routes will be available for that organisation and other civil society organisations in the developing world to access the support set out in this White Paper? What channels should they be using?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments about the importance of nature and biodiversity, which are very prominent in the White Paper. He asks how civil society can access support. The section of the White Paper about the new platform, UKDev, which I hope he will read with interest, talks about engagement with civil society, but there are a number of programmes that meet his suggestion, including the UK Aid Match programme. Where good charities are using their own money, if the taxpayer puts similar amounts of money alongside that, we are getting two for one—we are getting double the results for the taxpayer’s money.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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I echo the words of thanks to the Minister for his assiduous engagement, which is incredibly welcome. There is a lot to welcome in this White Paper, including the focus on the SDGs and the climate crisis. From our conversations, he will know that the Liberal Democrats continue to have concerns about the fact that we are not immediately returning to 0.7% and about the restoration of the Department, because this is not just about money—on that we agree; it is about culture. I met an official in one of our east African embassies who told me that, at the moment, the D in FCDO is silent. While no one would question the Minister’s commitment to this, it must go beyond one man. What are he and his Department doing to change the culture within the FCDO, so that the D is no longer a whimper but a roar?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I think the D is a good deal less silent than it was. I thank the hon. Lady for what she has said. On the immediate return of the money, she is right; that is the stated policy of the Government and, I think, of the official Opposition. On restoring the Department, I draw her attention to what the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), have said, which is that they have an open mind on this, and they are trying to see where we get to by the time there is a general election, were they to come into government. If we can produce something that is better than the two separate Departments and delivers global public goods in the 2030s, that might well be seen by everyone as a step forward.

The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) is right about the cultural point. To make a merger work—there is no such thing as a merger; one side wins and one side loses, as I learned many years ago in the City of London—the culture is very important. If development practitioners and experts are respected by the traditional British Foreign Office and they work together, as they have done on putting this White Paper together, that is a very great strength indeed.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
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One reason the SDGs are off track is that they have not to date recognised that leaving someone behind, whether out of education, a job, healthcare or otherwise, simply on account of their religion or beliefs means they will be poorer. Discrimination and persecution are drivers of poverty, affecting millions globally. I warmly congratulate the Minister on listening and including clear recognition of this in several places in the White Paper, but words need to be turned into action. What action is planned to ensure that religious minorities are taken into account in the design of development assistance programmes and in the forthcoming review of the SDGs?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I am very glad that my hon. Friend—who is, after all, the Government’s envoy on these matters—has already read the White Paper so assiduously. She will, as she said, have noted that there is a clear commitment to do what she sets out, and I have every confidence that working with her, the Government will be able to advance that important agenda.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
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I also add my congratulations and broad support for the progress in the White Paper, but may I draw the Minister’s attention to the position in Gaza, particularly in relation to humanitarian relief? On top of the 13,000 civilian deaths, half of whom are children, nearly all power plants, hospitals, and water desalination and sewage plants have been destroyed. Does the Minister agree that 20 to 30 trucks of humanitarian assistance a day is a drop in the ocean compared with the 450 a day that were being delivered previously, and that what is really needed is a ceasefire and a peace process resulting in a safe and secure Palestinian and Israeli state?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I think everyone is praying that a peace process will start as soon as possible. We need to get a political track, and as the hon. Lady will know, we are pressing for humanitarian pauses to achieve what she wants us to achieve. I provided a statement to the House last week, and indeed the week before; both went on for an hour and a half and involved 70 Members asking questions, so I do not wish to try Mr Deputy Speaker’s patience by addressing that point directly. However, in the White Paper, the hon. Lady will be able to see Britain’s commitment to humanitarian relief.

Julian Sturdy Portrait Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con)
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The White Paper is a great blueprint for the UK to once again be a global leader in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, but as my right hon. Friend knows very well, we cannot do this alone. Will he work with his global counterparts and use the White Paper as a platform ahead of the UN General Assembly high-level meeting on AMR, so that we can build the global consensus to tackle it head-on?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of AMR, and we certainly aspire to be a global leader in that area. As he knows, I spoke about AMR when I was in New York earlier this year, and we are guided specifically by Sally Davies, the master of Trinity College Cambridge and former chief medical officer, who is an expert on this matter. AMR is now the world’s third biggest killer after strokes and heart attacks, and we will be prioritising it in the way that my hon. Friend suggests.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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There is a welcome change of tone in the White Paper—the language about partnership, for example, will not be unfamiliar to those of us who have worked with the Scotland-Malawi partnership for many years. However, in all the “Britain is great” language, I cannot see much recognition of the incredible work that has been done over many years by the devolved Administrations, particularly the Scottish Government, who have ambitions further to the UK Government’s on the empowerment of women and girls and, indeed, loss and damage. Can the Minister confirm that the work of the devolved Administrations in international development, and particularly the work of the Scottish Government, is recognised, accepted and valued by the UK Government, given that they count that spending towards the ODA target?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the White Paper, and for bringing the expertise that he deploys in the International Development Committee to bear on it. We did indeed consult the devolved Administrations; I myself had, I think, two very useful discussions with the Government of Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I share his view that the work Scotland has done in places such as Malawi is highly effective.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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This outstanding White Paper focuses on a locally led approach to development because, as the Minister has said, co-operation and partnerships are the way forward. As chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to increase grant in aid to the WFD’s partnerships for fairer, more inclusive, and accountable democratic systems around the world. For the benefit of my right hon. Friend and the House, may I also highlight that the Cabinet Office’s conflict, security and stability fund recently scored all 103 of its successful bidders, and the WFD came top?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does as chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. He will know that the team that put together the White Paper looked carefully at what the WFD does, and recognised the unique contribution it makes, supported as it is across the House and in the other place. I am very glad that, following the public accountability process—which, as my hon. Friend knows, is going on at the moment—we expect to be able to substantially reinforce the funding for the WFD.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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Like my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), our foreign affairs spokesperson, I welcome many aspects of the White Paper. However, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Afghan women and girls, I was interested in the case study in the paper that stated that the Government

“will invest further to support women’s full participation in all political dialogue”.

I place on record my thanks to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for inviting former Afghan MP and Deputy Speaker Fawzia Koofi to appear before it. What steps is the Minister going to take to ensure that full participation? Is he speaking to Afghan female leaders here and in Afghanistan, and how is that happening in the context of budget cuts in the region?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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As the hon. Lady knows, next year, we will increase bilateral funding to Afghanistan to £151 million. We are able to do that because the budget is much more carefully targeted and is now properly cultivated to deliver results. On the subject of education and of the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan, which is absolutely abhorrent, we do everything we can through various mechanisms, including the Afghanistan World Bank trust fund, to boost those important objectives. As the hon. Lady would expect, we focus on trying to win results with that money—which is paid by the British taxpayer—in the best way we possibly can.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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As this excellent paper sets out, the rise in autocratisation, the rise in humanitarian need, and the row-back of women’s rights are all terrifying. They are often linked, and it is women’s voices that are being silenced across the world. A woman’s right to education, to employment and to contraception are basic, fundamental rights. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we really care for the world’s most vulnerable women, we should set aside our party political differences in this House, and get behind this White Paper and make sure its objectives are delivered for women?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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My right hon. Friend speaks with great wisdom; from what we have heard today, her final point is clearly being achieved, which is very welcome. What she says about women’s voices being silenced and their fundamental rights being fettered is, I fear, absolutely right, and the White Paper addresses that head-on. We are finding ways of stopping impunity and calling to account those people who abuse human rights in a number of new ways that target accountability, and which I know my right hon. Friend—who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan—welcomes.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank the Minister for his important statement and White Paper. He has stated that humanitarian needs are at their highest level since 1945, and has also rightly stated that the devastating events in Israel and Gaza bring home the humanitarian cost of conflict, which was so powerfully expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). He will agree that humanitarian and development co-operation are key to British foreign policy, so could he outline the Government’s commitment to supporting the ongoing work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the important development and humanitarian work in the middle east, particularly with UNRWA having lost so many staff in Gaza? That ongoing work is needed, both now and for the long term.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point about the increase in humanitarian need—as she rightly, says, it has increased significantly—that I set out in my statement. That is why we have found £1,000 million to allocate in a budget for tackling humanitarian need next year. If she has a chance to look at the White Paper, she will see that it includes the resilience adaptation fund, which is designed to ensure that when crises take place, we can do things such as provide for greater irrigation, water retention and reservoir capacity in a drought, so that in the event that such crises take place again—which, alas, happens all too often—their impact is not as great as before.

The hon. Lady asks specifically about UNRWA. As we know, a very large number of UNRWA humanitarian workers have lost their lives, along with others, in the Gazan conflict. Any attack and any loss of life by a humanitarian worker is deeply to be regretted. Those are people who have put themselves in harm’s way for fellow members of humanity. They are unarmed and just trying to do good to their fellow citizens. On the humanitarian need overall, climate change has particularly exacerbated that, and it is of course the poorest who are hit first and hardest, as the White Paper emphasises.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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The lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in developing countries particularly affects women, especially during childbirth, when they are routinely prescribed prophylactic antibiotics, and a greater number of women suffer from urinary tract infections when toilet facilities are absent. What discussions will the Minister have with partners at COP28 to further the WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—agenda?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I anticipate, along with my colleagues, having many such discussions, and not only at COP but in other fora. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the absence of water and hygiene facilities hits girls in particular and stops many from going to school. He will know that Education Cannot Wait—an international fund strongly supported by the British taxpayer, to which we allocated £80 million earlier this year—is able directly to help people caught up in conflict in that way. We want them to go to school and they often cannot do so, for the reasons he has given, and Education Cannot Wait tries to alleviate that directly.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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I welcome the White Paper and commend the Minister for his persistence on this issue. Does he agree that, in order to maintain public support for programmes such as those outlined in the White Paper, we need to clamp down vigorously on any misappropriation of funds—in the past that has happened in some of these nations—so that the money goes to those who need it, not those who have easier access to it?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The hon. Member is right to make it clear that corruption is the cancer in international development spending. That is why we always ensure that, if there is any hint of that, we intervene immediately to stop it. It is also one of the reasons why we so seldom work directly through budget support, where we cannot track so easily the way taxpayers’ money is being spent, but allocate very directly in a way that we—and, more importantly, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact—can properly hold to account.

Anthony Mangnall Portrait Anthony Mangnall (Totnes) (Con)
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I, like the Minister, find this White Paper to be an enlightening and exciting read. It goes a long way to setting out our stall for what we want to do on international development, and I commend the civil servants and special advisers for their work on it. It identifies localism, partnership and transparency as being at its core, but could the Minister just say a little more about mobilising finance through British International Investment, and whether more risk needs to be taken in less economically developed countries? As chair of a group supported by HALO and of the Conservative Friends of International Development, I also welcome the focus on conflict prevention and the opportunities to build resilience and adaptation. Could the Minister please say a little more about that, and how this fund is going to work to help in those areas?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I am not remotely surprised that my hon. Friend has already read the whole paper—all 148 pages. It is two pages shorter than the White Paper produced in 2009, but I beg to suggest that it is a rather better read. On BII, we have taken the advice of the Select Committee, recognising that it could do more in the poorest and most difficult countries. BII is investing in a port in Somalia, which, as he will understand, is quite a gritty thing to do, but we will see the funding to the poorest countries from BII rise in the period to 2030 from about 38% to 50%. That is a very significant increase, and one that the Select Committee has urged us to embrace. HALO is a brilliant charity that does work far beyond just dealing with high explosives, and we give it our strong support.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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The White Paper’s focus on fragile and conflict-affected states is to be welcomed, but the Minister will know that, due to their very nature, these can be the most difficult places to operate in. Will he commit to reporting annually to the House so that we can monitor progress on the strategy?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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Conflict-affected and fragile states are indeed the most difficult places in which to operate, but they are also two of the most important types of place in which to operate. The hon. Member will be interested to know that, while over half of the development budget goes to the least developed countries, something like 62% goes to fragile and conflict-affected states. There is no doubt that the Select Committee and ICAI will ensure that the focus he requests is maintained.

Alistair Strathern Portrait Alistair Strathern (Mid Bedfordshire) (Lab)
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I welcome the Minister’s statement and the White Paper. Having had just one or two months to speak to my constituents, I know that many of them felt a real sense of dismay about the lack of global action and national leadership on these issues. The welcome return to the focus on the development goals and recognition of the importance of co-ordinated action on the causes and consequences of climate change globally will go down very well with many of my constituents. Although I welcome the recognition of the challenges posed by the barriers to finance and the burden of debt mentioned in the White Paper and the Minister’s remarks, I fear that a lack of ambition in this area may undermine some of the goals set out today. Can the Minister commit to bringing forward in due course further legislative action to ensure that we tackle that burden appropriately, including on private finance, and so have the real ambition we need to see on this agenda?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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Ambition is not lacking, but driving these things forward takes an enormous amount of time and is subject to international co-operation, as the hon. Member suggests. However, if he looks at British leadership on climate resilient debt clauses, for example—we introduced them and UK Export Finance, which is the export credits guarantee department of the British Government, is championing them—he will see that these clauses make an enormous difference. For example, if the Government of Ghana are hit by a pandemic, they need all their liquidity to look after their own citizens, but they have to pay interest and capital on their debt. What these clauses mean is that they would get a two-year window during which they can spend their liquidity on their own citizens. That is a small but vital and very impactful innovation. Britain has produced these clauses, and we have done the right thing on that.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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The Minister is absolutely right to say that international development and climate change are inseparable, and I commend him for his work in this area. However, many of my constituents have written to me to express frustration about how little the Government are doing at home to attain the sustainable developing goals, and they rightly ask how we can ask other countries to do what we are not doing ourselves. So what does the Minister think I should say to my constituents who are so concerned about the absence of any measures in the King’s Speech against fossil fuels and about tackling poverty at home?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The hon. and learned Member will have seen the huge commitment that Britain has made through the Green Climate Fund internationally. I think that we can be very proud of the leadership that we are giving through the green climate fund, of which we are now the co-chair. On UK achievement of the SDGs, she may recall that in 2019 there was an audit of how Britain was doing. Britain came out very well from that audit, and we will of course have a further audit in due course.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I very much welcome the Minister’s commitment to ensuring that women and girls have the same opportunities within the labour market as men. That could potentially add trillions of pounds more to global GDP in 2025. What steps will and can the Minister take to ensure that women and girls internationally have the means necessary to improve the societies they live in and to accelerate their development, which we all wish to see?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The former Foreign Secretary unveiled Britain’s new women and girls strategy in Sierra Leone this year. It is a very good read—if I may add it to the hon. Member’s reading on international development. I was not an unalloyed fan of the merger, as he knows, but when I got back into the Government I saw that the Foreign Office had completely internalised the importance of putting girls and women right at the centre of everything we do in this area, and it is to be commended for that.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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The Minister is exactly right to say that little development happens in the absence of security. Speaking in 2014, before he joined the Government and during Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, he said that a ceasefire in Gaza should be made permanent before talks move on to addressing wider issues in the middle east peace process. Does he now agree that talks addressing the underlying grievances of the moderates would be part of a successful counter-insurgency campaign, part of bringing about greater security, and hence would foster international development in the middle east?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The quote that the hon. Gentleman found from 2014 was made in very different circumstances, but he is right to say that development will almost always fail where there is no security. Indeed, as Sir Paul Collier memorably said, conflict is “development in reverse”. On the middle east and Gaza—that is not, of course, the subject of the statement, Mr Deputy Speaker—the sooner we can move to a political track in the region, at the United Nations and in the international Assemblies, and start working on what a future two-state solution would look like, with a state for both Israel and Palestine, the better.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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That concludes the statement on the international development White Paper. I thank the Minister for yet another marathon question and answer session.

Veterans Welfare Services

Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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13:40
Johnny Mercer Portrait The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs (Johnny Mercer)
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With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to update the House on the work that the Government are doing to ensure that our welfare services for veterans are fit for the future.

Under this Prime Minister, what it feels like to be a veteran has fundamentally transformed, with the introduction of defined pathways for veterans to access support, including with housing and healthcare, backed by record amounts of Government funding. As we continue to pave the way forward, we knew the time was right to look back and consider carefully the efficiency and effectiveness of pre-existing services, including some services under the banner of Veterans UK. That is why in March this year my right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families and I informed the House that we had commissioned an independent review into a total of seven bodies, including the Veterans Welfare Service, Defence Transition Services and Veterans’ Gateway, which I was pleased was published in full in July.

The welfare services review contained recommendations to improve and simplify welfare provision for veterans across a variety of channels, and it marked the first time that those services had been considered in the round, looking at their role, scope and breadth. The Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families and I welcome the review’s findings as an important step in making the UK the best place in the world to be a veteran.

The Government have already committed to responding formally to the review by the end of the year, but Members of the House and their constituents rightly expect an update from me on what progress we have made so far. I am therefore delighted to announce that the Government accept the principles behind the vast majority of the review’s 35 strategic and operational recommendations. Thanks to close collaboration between the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, I am pleased to update the House on how this Government are taking decisive steps to deliver a number of the review’s recommendations.

First, the “Veterans UK” branding will be retired in 2024, with the Government announcing a replacement in due course. Indeed, as the review acknowledged, staff involved in delivering welfare services for veterans sincerely care about their work, but sometimes analogue processes have historically hampered the level of service provided. With initiatives such as the Government digitalisation programme, backed by £40 million of Government funding, we are confident that the experience of service users will be genuinely transformed. The retirement of the “Veterans UK” branding marks a clean break from the past, and represents a vital step forward in regaining trust between the service and its users.

Secondly, The word “Veterans” will be removed from the title of the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families—the title will be renamed “Minister for Defence People and Families”. We agree with the review’s recommendation that that will provide clarity about the responsibility for co-ordinating veterans policy across Government. Indeed, although the MOD will continue to provide support—including on pensions and compensation, on transition from service for veterans and their families, and beyond transition on issues resulting from service—the change to the ministerial title further clarifies that the primary duty for co-ordinating veterans policy across Government sits with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, at the heart of Government in the Cabinet Office, and with me as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs reporting directly to the Prime Minister in Cabinet.

Thirdly, I can announce that the OVA is currently exploring options for transforming Veterans’ Gateway, which has already had more than one million visits to its online guides. The House will be pleased to know that we have recently launched a refresh project for the gateway, and are in the process of bringing the service into central Government, within the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, ensuring that the gateway delivers streamlined access to the plethora of support available to veterans. Tied into that work, the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs will jointly assess the relationship between Veterans’ Gateway and Veterans UK helplines. We will be mindful throughout of the need to simplify how veterans access support, and ensure that veterans who are unable to access services online, or who have more complex needs, are still supported.

Finally, the welfare services review will, alongside the Veterans and Advisory Pensions Committees Act 2023, contribute to clarifying the future role of the VAPCs in a way that supports the Government’s vision for veterans’ welfare services. Today puts us yet another step closer to delivering on this Government’s ambition to make the UK the best country in the world to be a veteran. I pay particular tribute to the review team, the independent veterans adviser, and all 150 contributors to this review, for the considerable amount of work that went into producing the report in a relatively short space of time. I look forward to publishing the Government’s full response to the review later in the year, and to ensuring that our welfare services for veterans and their families, service leavers and the bereaved community, are as efficient and effective as possible.

This country has an unwavering duty to those who put their life on the line for our freedom. As today’s statement demonstrates, this Government are committed and determined to discharge that duty with the honour and respect that our courageous ex-service personnel deserve, and I commend this statement to the House.

13:46
Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank the Minster for advance sight of the statement. Labour is deeply proud of our veterans, and for the enormous contribution they have made and continue to make to our country.

There was not very much in that statement, but what there is I can welcome. There seem to be two bits of rebranding, and two things that the Minister should already be doing, and that seems to be about it. I was expecting the Minister to have published the full Government response to the independent review of UK Government welfare services for veterans, instead of a statement that is just designed to look busy. When can we expect that Government response? It is due by the end of the year, but we are already in late November so there is not much time left.

As we head into the winter months, the Conservatives are still failing to deliver the support that our veterans and their families deserve. This review is long overdue, but Ministers have been responsible for worsening veterans’ services over the past 13 years. They have created a postcode lottery for veteran support, they have cut employment support for veterans, and they have continued to make little progress in the slow roll-out of veterans’ ID cards. As temperatures drop, the cost of living crisis is going to be tough on families across the country, and our veterans are no exception. People are worried about how they can afford to pay bills, and many could be making that horrific choice between heating and eating, as many did last year and the year before. This is why it is essential that they are able to access the services and support they need here and now.

The veterans’ welfare system can feel “almost impenetrable” for those seeking support. It is “overwhelming and off-putting” leading to a

“distrust of the Ministry of Defence and Veterans UK”.

Those are not my words; they are the damning conclusions of the independent review.

Our veterans do not need empty promises. They need action. As there was not much in today’s statement, we are left with more questions than answers—and here are some more. When will the Government design and articulate a single strategy for veterans’ welfare services, and will that be inclusive of family members and the bereaved? What steps are being taken to prepare personnel throughout their entire military career for civilian life, not just as they come into the transition timeframe? Will the MOD commission a review of tri-service welfare support provision, with a particular focus on transition and the wider discharge welfare provision processes?

Paragraph 4.7 of the independent review states that casework management in veterans welfare services is not fit for purpose due to

“a significant (and out-dated) reliance on paper records”,

and a lack of interoperability with other MOD IT systems. I therefore welcome the introduction of the £40 million digitisation programme that has previously been announced, but will the Minister tell us what proportion of that is being spent on veterans’ welfare services and in what timeframe? Will that end the outdated reliance on paper records that was made clear in the independent review?

Paragraph 4.18 of the review says that welfare managers are “over-stretched”, and paragraph 4.19 says that they are

“fundamentally…not professionally trained to undertake these roles”,

which are part financial adviser, part trauma caseworker, and part social worker, which is

“in stark contrast to…the charity sector”

and has contributed to

“a high turnover of staff in recent years”.

What is the Minister doing to address the training needs and capacity shortages?

It was disappointing that the content-light King’s Speech contained no new legislation to put the armed forces covenant on to the statute book. Labour has been clear that in government we would fully incorporate the armed forces covenant into law. Why does the Minister not agree with us on that? Why does he oppose that Labour policy?

We all understand that veterans’ identity cards will speed up access to services, but throughout the last year the Minister has used various language, which has changed, about when he will hit the targets for delivering them. This time last year, he promised that by summer 2023 all veterans should have received a veterans’ ID card. In April, he moved the goalposts, saying that it would be completed

“by the end of the year”.

Now, as we approach the end of the year, he is claiming that he is delivering on the promise, but not every veteran has an ID card. When will they?

Labour is deeply proud of our veterans. They deserve better than Ministers repeatedly breaking promises, moving the goalposts and failing to deliver the welfare support that our former service personnel and their families deserve. The next Labour Government will stand side by side with veterans and their families, because we are a party committed to fulfilling the important promises our society makes to those who serve. The Conservatives like to talk up their support to veterans, but it is clear—very much like today’s statement—that although there are a lot of words, there is not always a lot of substance.

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I will be brief, because I am afraid that whenever the hon. Member rises to talk about veterans, he simply demonstrates his vast lack of knowledge in veterans’ affairs. He asked me questions that he knows, or he should know, are questions not for me but for the Ministry of Defence. For example, how we prepare people when they are in service is nothing to do with veterans’ affairs and veterans’ services. If he wants to stand up in the House and say that veterans’ services have got worse over the last two, three, five or seven years, that is fine, but everybody listening and watching knows that he is simply trying to make a political point and play politics with veterans. I will not waste the House’s time by going into too many of his points.

I have been consistent on veterans’ ID cards. I ask him to look at this and write to me with a time when I ever said that every veteran would have their ID card by the summer of this year. That never happened, and it is important that in this House we do not say things—inadvertently—that may not be correct. We are delivering ID cards by the end of the year, which was always the promise. By January, we will be printing 10,000 a month, and the veterans I speak to are happy with the process.

The hon. Member asked plenty of questions that do not relate to the statement or this area. Again, I implore the Opposition to move away from glib statements about veterans. They need to intellectually apply themselves to how policy can change to improve the lives of veterans. There is a desert on the Opposition Benches, and that is deeply disappointing.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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I thank the Minister for his statement. He will recall that last year the all-party parliamentary group on veterans did a survey on Veterans UK, and I hope that survey played a small part in the statement. What is his vision for what comes after Veterans UK?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that he has championed over many years in the APPG, along with all its members. He has specifically focused on Veterans UK. The ambition is to make it far clearer and easier to navigate and understand the functions of Veterans UK, and simultaneously to improve outcomes. The quinquennial review into armed forces compensation, which will report by the end of the year, tied into the full response to the veterans’ welfare review and will go into detail about some of those issues.

I would like to put on the record my sincere thanks to all the staff who work at Veterans UK. I will always rally hard in their defence, because I have been there myself and seen how hard they work. They genuinely care and they are committed, but the resource envelope that they operate in has not been good enough for a long time. The Government have changed that, and I am proud of that, as it will change what it means to be a veteran in the UK.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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I thank the Minister for the statement, but he cannot escape from the fact that this is quite thin gruel. It amounts to a rebranding exercise, and I cannot think of many veterans who will be excited about what he said.

There is a cost of living crisis, and what veterans want to hear from the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs is what he is doing, or what lobbying he is undertaking, to have practical steps put in place to help them right now. Nothing was said about that, despite that being a matter most pressing for so many veterans who are finding it hard to secure the dignity in retirement to which they should have a right.

The Minister said that veterans must be given the recognition they deserve because they have put their lives on the line on our behalf. He also said that he wants to simplify welfare provision for veterans, yet we continue to see too many veterans struggling to pay for essentials. I am sure he will say that that is not a matter directly for him, but I am keen to hear what lobbying he is undertaking—with his Cabinet colleagues and the Prime Minister, to whom he reports directly—on their behalf. This goes to the heart of veterans’ welfare, which is surely his business.

In the 2021 census, 1 million UK veterans were aged over 65, and an estimated 146,000 were eligible for pension credit, but, by treating military compensation awards as income, some of our poorest veterans and their families are pushed beyond the pension credit threshold and missing out on thousands of pounds of support that other civilians can access. Of course, that extends beyond national support and includes benefits paid out by councils such as housing benefit, council tax support, discretionary housing payments and disabled facilities grants.

When I raised that in the Chamber yesterday, the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families told me that compensation is calculated with an understanding of how it will interact with welfare benefits. I must tell the Minister that the MOD has not said that before, and that has not been understood heretofore by the British Legion. Perhaps he could explain why compensation incurred as a result of service in the line of duty is not included in mean-tested benefits for civil servants but is for veterans. Will he support—

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I get the gist of the question. When it comes to issues that affect the veteran community and what is going on in that space, these are not just ideas that come from Ministers or others sitting around and thinking, “What is the most important thing for veterans?” Cost of living support is one of them, and that is why a number of funds are available. The Royal British Legion has done a terrific job on that over the winter, and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs leans into the armed forces covenant trust fund money as well. Consistently, the No. 1 issue in veterans’ affairs over the last seven years has been the identification of military service among the service charities. That is why between the Ministry of Defence and the OVA we have put so much effort and resource into delivering on our promises on veterans’ ID cards.

The hon. Member raises a legitimate point about the Royal British Legion’s current campaign on separating allocations of income for armed forces compensation scheme awards or similar. We will look at what can be done on that, and we are meeting representatives of the Royal British Legion—I think before Christmas—to work out what is the art of the possible. But I am afraid that I do not agree with her assertion that life is a misery as a veteran in this country. Things have improved exponentially in the last seven to 10 years. Never have opportunities or the support available been like they are now, but we continue to work hard. I always listen to the veterans community and work hard to ensure that we meet that need.

Julian Lewis Portrait Sir Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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From his maiden speech onwards, the Minister has relentlessly promoted the cause of service veterans, and the whole House should be grateful to him for it. Even longer in their service are tremendously experienced charities such as Veterans Aid in Victoria, under the inspirational leadership of Dr Hugh Milroy. To what extent is Government strategy drawing on the vast experience of such organisations, which know so much about the frontline issues faced by veterans who fall on hard times or even into destitution?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I pay huge tribute to the charities in this space. I know the work of Veterans Aid, and Hugh does a terrific job down there. The key in all this work is collaboration. Nobody will deliver this by themselves. The expertise in the charity sector is unrivalled. In Op Courage, we have delivered a dedicated mental health care pathway for veterans, which is commissioned centrally but delivered by different charitable partners all over the United Kingdom. It works for the Government, because we know that the services are happening; it works for individuals, because they know that a service is available for them; and it works for the vital charities in the sector, which can have longer-term contracts. We are doing that on homelessness: Op Fortitude has set up a network of wraparound service provision to end homelessness this Christmas. I know that there is always more to do, and I would love to see Veterans Aid and to catch up with where it is with its work.

Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab)
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The Minister has recently been shown evidence that blood testing was carried out on servicemen in the ’50s and ’60s—testing that the MOD denied existed. His response was to say that he could not do anything and that the nuclear veterans should sue the MOD. To dismiss those veterans in that way is a dereliction of his duty as Veterans Minister, is it not?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I recognise the politicisation of the campaign on nuclear test veterans. The truth is that no one has done more than those on the Government Benches to deliver that medal, more than 70 years later, to our veterans who served.

There is no cover up; I have worked extensively with the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families to uncover records in this space. Some records were taken, some were not. There is no cover-up policy to discriminate against that cohort. It is simply does not exist. What would be the reason to cover it up rather than look after these people? I have travelled halfway round the world to Fiji to meet them, to look after them, to give them their medals and to try to support them. I rally against the politicisation of this veterans cohort, who will of course continue to drive down this space. We all have a responsibility to act maturely and to ensure that they receive the answers they deserve after a very long time.

Darren Henry Portrait Darren Henry (Broxtowe) (Con)
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I welcome the Minister’s statement. Last year, I ran my first half marathon to raise money for Forces in the Community, a Broxtowe charity that supports veterans through all walks of life. Such small organisations do life-changing work and desperately need our support. Will the Minister lay out what support is in place for small organisations such as Forces in the Community?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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Of course. The Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust is fantastic in that regard. It is an independent body that receives at least £10 million a year from the Government to support vital charities and what they are doing. The charity space is made up of large and small charities, and they are all equally important. They save lives and work on the frontline every day. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his fundraising, and to all colleagues across the House who support veterans charities, which are a vital part of delivering this nation’s commitment to our armed forces veterans.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
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I am sure that we are united in this House in wanting to secure the best outcome for veterans. An important part of that is remembering their service and ensuring that we never forget the sacrifices that they made on behalf of our country. I am conscious that the Minister is sitting next to the Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, who knows a little more about commemoration, but he will also know that we are very privileged to still have some veterans from Operation Overlord and Operation Market Garden. On behalf of the Government, will he say what work is under way to ensure that there will be a fitting 80th anniversary tribute to them next year?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I pay tribute to the relentless way that the hon. Member provides a voice to veterans in his community and across the country. Next year is an incredibly important year. While we contemporise remembrance, as we did this year in the way we changed the parade and such things, we are incredibly privileged to have people still with us who experienced a conflict that none of us could ever imagine. They are a living and breathing example. The Government are determined to honour that in the correct fashion next year. I look forward to sharing those plans with him in due course.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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I had cause to raise problems with the UK’s handling of some Stroud veterans, particularly those with complex cases, and I thank the Minister for his time in that regard. I can see what an extremely difficult but necessary step the fearless Minister has taken in relation to VUK in his quest to help veterans. Will he talk through the transition period towards the new services, particularly to reassure anybody who is already involved with VUK, and expand on the Veterans’ Gateway timeline and approach?

Johnny Mercer Portrait Johnny Mercer
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for championing these issues over many years. Retiring the brand of Vets UK may seem like a small thing to people who do not know much about veterans. In the veterans community, it is a massive moment to retire that brand and look at what the organisation does in relation to the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. We need to make sure that it does what it says on the tin for our bereaved families and delivers an improved service through the maturity of these reviews, which will be delivered by the end of the year.

Veterans’ Gateway was a fantastic idea when it came in, and it has been run very well by the Royal British Legion over many years, but I have always had an ambition for it to do more. I have a vision of everything being in the palm of your hand in future, so people can go somewhere like Veterans’ Gateway to access support, submit an armed forces compensation scheme application or geolocate support services in the community. It is an exciting vision and we can only do that by bringing it back into Government. It is now back in Government. We are working on those plans, and I will have more to say on that development in due course.