“has been clear about what it would like to see: a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. And it has set a deadline for talks to produce something: April this year.”

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I apologise because I must shortly leave this debate to go to the main Chamber. I have repeatedly asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how long the two-state solution has to run. My view is that we have months rather than years. This debate is therefore not only timely but must lead to progress. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are talking in terms of months not years in order to get matters right, not only for Israel but for the people of Palestine?

Sir Tony Baldry: I agree entirely with my hon. and learned Friend. He has reinforced the point that it appears was made by both our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and John Kerry. As a lawyer, I think that there is a question under international law as to how long it is possible for part of the world to be occupied without such an occupied territory becoming part of the de jure state that is occupying it. The point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made is that Israel cannot continue to be both a Jewish state and a democracy if it denies rights to 2.5 million Palestinians indefinitely. It would appear that we have months rather than years to resolve the issue.

All that any of us can ask is that Israel, as the occupying power, complies with the norms of international law, and that we see some swift and speedy alleviation of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. I share his desire for urgency in bringing about a conclusion, or at least progress in the two-state solution talks. What signs has he seen from Hamas, the political power in Gaza, of willingness to participate in a peaceful settlement?

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Sir Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend, the chair of Conservative Friends of Israel, is of course right to bring Hamas’s role to the attention of the House. However, the state of Israel was created by the United Nations. It owes its whole de jure legitimacy to a UN vote in 1948. I would therefore urge my hon. Friend, before he tries to draw the attention of the House on to Hamas, to focus on the views and opinions of international lawyers whose mandate was also given to them by the UN General Assembly. So long as my hon. Friend and other supporters of the state of Israel—of which I am one—remain deaf to the clear advice that has been given about the illegitimacy of the collective punishment of the people of Gaza for the actions of a few, we are never going to see a resolution of the tragedy that is affecting so many people in Gaza.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench speakers at 3.40 pm. I have a long list of speakers, so to ensure that they all get the chance to contribute I am going to put a time limit of five minutes on speeches.

3.5 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I once led a delegation of 60 parliamentarians from 13 European Parliaments to Gaza. I could no longer do that today because Gaza is practically inaccessible. The Israelis try to lay the responsibility on the Egyptians, but although the Egyptians’ closing of the tunnels has caused great hardship, it is the Israelis who have imposed the blockade and are the occupying power. The culpability of the Israelis was demonstrated in the report to the UN by Richard Goldstone following Operation Cast Lead. After his report, he was harassed by Jewish organisations. At the end of a meeting I had with him in New York, his wife said to me, “It is good to meet another self-hating Jew.”

Again and again, Israel seeks to justify the vile injustices that it imposes on the people of Gaza and the west bank on the grounds of the holocaust. Last week, we commemorated the holocaust; 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza are being penalised with that as the justification. That is unacceptable.

The statistics are appalling. There is fresh water for a few hours every five days. Fishing boats are not allowed to go out—in any case, what is the point, because the waters are so filthy that no fish they catch can be eaten? The Israelis are victimising the children above all. Half the population of this country is under the voting age. What is being done to those children—the lack of nutrition—is damaging not only their bodies and brains; it will go on for generation after generation.

It is totally unacceptable that the Israelis should behave in such a way, but they do not care. Go to Tel Aviv, as I did not long ago, and watch them sitting complacently outside their pavement cafés. They do not give a damn about their fellow human beings perhaps half an hour away. The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) quoted the Prime Minister as saying that Gaza is a prison camp. It is all very well for him to say that, as he did, in Turkey—he was visiting a Muslim country—but what is he doing about it? Nothing, nothing, nothing!

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The time when we could condemn and think that that was enough has long passed. The Israelis do not care about condemnation. They are self-righteous and complacent. We must now take action against them. We must impose sanctions. If the spineless Obama will not do it, we must do it—even unilaterally. We must press the European community for it to be done. These people cannot be persuaded. We cannot appeal to their better nature when they do not have one. It is all very well saying, “Wicked, wicked Hamas.” Hamas is dreadful. I have met people from Hamas, but nothing it has done justifies punishing children, women and the sick as the Israelis are doing now. They must be stopped.

As has been pointed out, there is a time limit for what we are talking about. The idea that things can go on, while we wait for a two-state solution, is gone. Sooner or later, the Palestinians will say, “We are dying anyhow, so let us die for something.” Let us stop that: I do not want a war. I do not want violent action, but the action that the international community takes must be imposed, otherwise hell will break loose.

3.10 pm

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I have visited Israel and the west bank several times, and I occasionally heard Israelis say things about the Palestinians similar to what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) has said about the Israelis. I pointed out that they were wrong to say so and that many Palestinians seek a peaceful solution and look forward to working with Israel in future if possible.

I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) the humanitarian wish to improve conditions in Gaza, in a practical way. He spoke at length about the juridical and legal situation, going back to the creation of the state of Israel. He will remember that that UN resolution—in 1947, I think—was accompanied by a proposal for a partition of what was then Palestine, under the British mandate, into an Israeli and a Palestinian part. The Israelis accepted that, but the partition did not come about. As soon as the state of Israel was created, the partition was made redundant through an invasion of Palestine by five Arab armies, for the purpose of attacking Israel. It is necessary to move on from there.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Of course it is necessary to move on. I am afraid that is history, though. We have to address the humanitarian crisis facing us now. That is what my hon. Friend must do.

Mr Clappison: I went back to the founding of the state of Israel, but it is worth putting that on the record.

I do not believe, and will not be persuaded, that the state of Israel has any interest in imposing the present conditions on the people of Gaza for the sake of it.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): Come off it!

Mr Clappison: Hon. Members need to contain themselves. Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, and it was hoped that that would bring about a solution to Israel’s immediate problems. It did not. Since then—and my right hon. Friend touched on the point—there have been about 8,000 rocket attacks on Israel. There have been many thousands, certainly.

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Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is trotting out the usual Israeli propaganda. I went to Gaza three weeks after Operation Cast Lead, where 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. That was the ratio—100 Palestinian deaths to one Israeli death. Yes, of course we condemn rocket attacks, but let us remember—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is not making an intervention; he is making a speech.

Mr Clappison: The hon. Gentleman will have his chance. I regret all deaths on both sides, but the hon. Gentleman must face the fact that it was Palestinian—Hamas or Islamic Jihad, whatever it was—rocket attacks that began it. In each case that is what has begun the problems.

Israel has no interest per se in doing such things to Gaza. It is in the same position as any state would be that faced rocket attacks on such a scale—not to mention the other terrorist attacks, the digging of tunnels into Israel and attacks on border crossings, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury mentioned. The situation is not helped by suicide attacks on border crossings, or all the other things that have happened in the recent past. Israel has behaved with restraint on many occasions and I hope it will always do so, and that things will improve. However, we must face the fact that the only way to bring about a material improvement is to make progress in the peace talks.

There is a problem for my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and others who talk about how urgent it is to get a two-state solution. I agree, but as I understand the matter Hamas has set its face against a peaceful solution in its charter—[Interruption.] I may be corrected, but hon. Members can see the Hamas charter.

There is some doubt about the responsibility of Hamas for the rocket attacks, but in recent times it has, we know, ordered the withdrawal of its forces preventing rocket fire; that has been interpreted in some quarters as giving a green light to rocket attacks. In January the attacks intensified. They must be brought to an end if there is to be a peaceful solution. No country—certainly not this one—would permit its citizens to live under the threat of rocket attacks. We must have progress towards a peaceful situation, and an improvement in the security situation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is right to make his case about the conditions in Gaza, but they cannot be seen in isolation.

I join my right hon. Friend in wanting progress on a two-state solution, compromise on both sides and, in the meantime, every possible flexibility and accommodation on the part of Israel. I understand that more construction materials have recently been permitted into Gaza—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may have better statistics than I do, but that is what I understand, and I hope for improvements.

I also hope that medical help will be facilitated. I understand that Israel permits a huge proportion of Palestinians seeking medical treatment to leave Gaza and that many receive medical treatment in Israeli hospitals; in some years, it is as many as half of those people. [Interruption.] My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury spoke at length about medical matters; if he

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wants to contradict me on that point I shall give way, but I do not have much time left. He should be fair and put what I have said into the balance.

The real solution will be progress in the peace talks. I agree with the Government’s statements. Progress is urgent and important for both sides, and in their interest, but the security situation in Gaza cannot be detached from peace talks, peaceful negotiations and a peaceful settlement. Two countries cannot live in such a state of conflict, with continual attacks by one on the other. We must have a balanced picture. I look forward to future progress, but we must face the fact that Hamas as it stands is an obstacle to a peaceful solution. It amounts to almost half the Palestinian population.

I do not doubt the good faith of the Palestinian Authority about wanting a peaceful solution. We have been told many times that Hamas is about to make progress towards peace, or a statement, or give a sign that it is interested in peace. None has been forthcoming. I hope that those right hon. and hon. Members who take an interest in such things will use their influence with Hamas and the Palestinian side to turn them towards peace. At the moment they have set their face against peace, and they are the problem.

3.17 pm

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): I associate myself completely with the comments of the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who secured today’s debate, and with everything said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman); and I dissociate myself from virtually all the comments of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), the chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel. His remarks showed why there is a problem in getting a resolution for Palestine.

The hon. Gentleman was talking about a small nation that is being persecuted, millions of whose people are refugees, and whose citizens on the west bank have been living with Israeli occupation. In Palestine people are suffering collective punishment. Millions of people do not have decent housing, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) mentioned, 90% of the water is contaminated. I do not know how the hon. Member for Hertsmere can say that that is justifiable, whatever may be happening.

People cannot fish in the sea or get proper produce to provide food. They cannot build houses, so their economy cannot regenerate. The United Nations has an organisation that builds homes. It is not a private organisation, but because of the blockade it cannot get the equipment and materials to build those homes and create jobs. What is happening in Gaza is intolerable, and if any other country were inflicting that level of punishment on people, the whole United Nations, the Security Council and the whole international community would be up in arms. Yet, what do we have? Yes, there are some good people in this country and even in Israel who campaign against the actions of the Israeli state in not only Gaza but the west bank, but guess what? The leaders of most countries in the world are saying nothing and turning a blind eye.

The situation has been going on for nine years. Everyone, from all parties—this is not a party political issue—and every one of our Foreign Secretaries have said, “Yes, we

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think this is wrong, and we all believe in the two-state solution. Yes, we are friends of Israel, and we have told Israel that it should not be doing this.” But guess what? Nothing has happened.

Mr Winnick: What would be the position if 90% of the water in Israel proper was undrinkable? Would there not be an outburst, and rightly so, of indignation and anger, as there should be over the situation in Gaza?

My hon. Friend touched on an issue raised by our right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman). There are people in Israel—a minority, unfortunately—who take the same views as most of us on human rights and share our anger over the denial of justice to the Palestinian people. We should not forget those brave people in Israel who stand up for human rights—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is not making an intervention, but a speech. That is not fair on hon. Members who put their name on the list to speak.

Yasmin Qureshi: I agree with everything my hon. Friend said. I want to praise the people in Israel and the Jewish people in this country who campaign actively for the rights of Palestinians. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, I am sure that they are criticised by other Jewish people perhaps for trying to betray the state of Israel. However, the issue is not about a state of Israel, of Jews or of religion; it is about the millions of people who used to live in the state of Israel, who have been made homeless and who have sought refuge in various parts of the world and have not been able to return to their country. Particularly inhumane actions are being carried out in Gaza, causing the suffering that we see.

It is all very well for the Prime Minister to say that Gaza is a prison; others have said that it is like an open prison. Actually, there is a difference: in open prisons, people get clean water, food, medical treatment, and even books or television to watch at times, so even the comparison with open prisons is not accurate. If Palestinians were in that situation, they might think that that was a bit of a rejoicement. Gaza is a real prison in the worst sense of the word.

What has struck me in all this is that the state of Israel was founded because of what happened to the millions and millions of Jews who suffered genocide. Their properties, homes and land—everything—were taken away, and they were deprived of rights. Of course, many millions perished. It is quite strange that some of the people who are running the state of Israel seem to be quite complacent and happy to allow the same to happen in Gaza.

The issue is not just about Gaza; let us think about the west bank and Jerusalem as well. Many Palestinians are being turfed out of their homes in Jerusalem. The Israelis are the occupying power in the west bank, where they have got rid of Palestinian homes and replaced them with hundreds of thousands of settlements, recognised by the United Nations as illegal.

Whether we are talking about the west bank or Gaza, the policy pursued by the state of Israel is not helping to lead to a two-state solution. All it is doing is making

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Palestinians even more depressed and anxious. They think, “What hope is there for us?”, and they rightly ask, “What is the international community doing about this?” Let us face it: if what is happening to Gaza, done by Israel, were happening to any other nation, the whole world would be up in arms, and rightly so. So why are we not getting the same in Palestine?

3.25 pm

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): We should thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), because this is a debate and both sides of the issue have to be put. I am sure that everyone in this Chamber is totally committed to Israelis being allowed to live in peace and security in their state. Given the appalling oppression that they have suffered historically, how could anyone disagree with that?

Everyone accepts that Hamas is an appalling organisation and that the rocket attacks are appalling. However, I want to focus on humanity. That is what this debate is about. It is not, in a sense, about high politics, the two-state solution, or why the state of Israel was founded, but about the suffering humanity and 1.7 million of our fellow human beings who are living in appalling conditions. It is not just that they are in a vast prison camp; unlike the rest of us, they do not have any right to economic self-determination or to travel—all the normal things we take for granted.

Just listen to this report:

“Daily life is a battle for the deprived residents of one of the world’s most densely populated places on earth.”

We can look just at one person cited by the report:

“The horrific scars disfigure Mona Abu Mraleel’s otherwise strikingly beautiful face. Swathes of bandages cover the injuries the 17-year-old sustained to her arms and legs in a blaze from which she narrowly escaped with her life. Still racked by pain from burns to 40 percent of her body, she goes to hospital on a daily basis to have her dressings changed. Specialist doctors are preparing to carry out a delicate skin graft... Yet the hospital on which her recovery depends is woefully ill-fitted to the task—riddled by equipment failures, power cuts and shortages in a mounting crisis that doctors fear is leading to a ‘health catastrophe’.”

That is daily life for 1.7 million of our fellow citizens. Despite the horrors of Hamas and the rocket attacks, we cannot punish the many because of the sins of a few. That is what this debate is about.

Mr Love: Against the backdrop of what is happening in Gaza, which has clearly and emphatically been laid out in this debate, what chances are there for the peace process?

Sir Edward Leigh: I do not think we should have a sense of hopelessness. We should be indebted to my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and others who try. We may have inadequate means, but we are parliamentarians, and at least we are trying to do our bit to highlight the issues.

I do not share the general pessimism about the peace process. I was in the west bank recently, visiting a hospital in Bethlehem run by a charity of which I am a part. The hospital helps many young people to have children in good conditions, and we do our best to run it properly, but how can we have a peace process when virtually every month ordinary Palestinians see a new

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settlement coming on the hillside? I saw for myself, travelling through the checkpoints, how people were humiliated.

Israel has a right to peace and security, but surely the people of Israel and all of us must rise up and say, “There is hope for peace. They must stop these settlements, and they should start dismantling them. They must end the blockade of Gaza for the sake of the people who live there and the fishermen.”

We have heard about the fishermen. How can anyone fish just 6 miles out in filthy water? How can anyone live in a place where 90% of the water is undrinkable? How can farmers be shot just for going within a mile of an electric fence while going about their business? As the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) asked, would that be tolerated in any other part of the world? Would our Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the UN not be stopping it?

Yes, this is only a little debate in Westminster Hall and we are only Back Benchers, but we must do our bit to articulate a sense of outrage that our fellow human beings are being treated like this, and we must spare no effort, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said in his most passionate speech. I share his passion. We must spare no effort in trying to persuade our Israeli friends that they are losing the battle—to put it that way—of world public opinion. They are not helping their cause.

By all means, if someone is attacked, they should reply strongly in military terms, but not punish a whole people and reduce them to utter poverty and destitution. I say this as a strong supporter of the state of Israel, but there is a real danger that more and more people in the world believe that a people who were formerly oppressed are now becoming the oppressors, and that the state of Israel is thereby losing its soul. What is its soul? It is the soul of an oppressed people who have made a great and wonderful nation. But there are other nations in this world and they must be treated fairly and must have an equal right to health, dignity and freedom.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I now have to impose a four-minute limit on speeches to get more speakers in.

3.30 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hood, for calling me to speak; I will do my best to convey my concerns in four minutes.

I have been to Gaza on a number of occasions, most recently as part of a delegation with the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather). We visited an awful lot of facilities—health, environmental and agricultural facilities. I was struck by two things. One was the hope, determination and inspiration of many of the people who were trying to provide services and food against appalling odds, using their ingenuity to do so.

Secondly, and at the same time, I was struck by the random nature of bombardments and attacks. In Operation Cast Lead, illegal weapons were used and the most appalling abuse was meted out against people. The abuse has not stopped. Random bombings and air attacks still take place.

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In Gaza, I visited the crater made by a bomb that had fallen not long before. I talked to the one survivor of a family whose house had been hit. I went into its remains and it was as if the world had stopped at a certain moment. Remember those old movies where the clock has stopped at a certain moment? It was exactly like that. The house was covered in dust, there was a bomb crater outside and almost everyone inside the house was dead. That family had done nothing—they were just the victims of yet another random attack by an F-16 jet from a first world power, which had been supplied by another first world power, against people living in desperate poverty and under siege the whole time.

I looked with great interest at the environmental problems faced by Gaza. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) for allowing me to intervene on him about the issue of the environment; I pay tribute to his speech and how he delivered it. The water shortage in Gaza is due, in part, to the fact that it is a dry area; in part to its large population; and in part to the fact that there will always be a problem of water supply in the whole region because of the large population, their needs and so on.

The problem can be dealt with by sharing, co-operation and conservation. Instead, the alluvial rivers that flowed into Gaza no longer do so because Israel stops off the water somewhere else. The aquifer is not being replenished fast enough to deal with the rate of abstraction, so sea water and polluted sewage are seeping into it. In all honesty, the Gaza coastal aquifer should not be used from this moment onwards, because it is too dangerous and too polluted, but what else are the people of Gaza supposed to do? They cannot bring in desalination plants, because they cannot bring in the technology or get the energy to use them. The problem then moves on. How can they possibly sustain any level of agriculture? They cannot, unless there is water.

The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the economic problems of Gaza. He was generous with his words, as there is not really an economy in Gaza. The economy, such as it is, is what the United Nations Relief and Works Agency spends, what the aid community gives and what Qatar spends on capital developments. However, the ability to export food or anything else is so nastily constrained by the Israeli checkpoints that there is just disaster, destruction and waste. It is a humanitarian disaster. It is totally the responsibility of the power that is encircling Gaza and has brought this situation about. It is time that something was done about the situation, and rapidly.

3.34 pm

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hood, for calling me to speak; I will confine my remarks as much as possible.

I will make a couple of points. First, I have been to Gaza on a couple of occasions. I went after Operation Cast Lead, and the situation was dire although we all know that things have got a lot worse since then. More than 2,000 tunnels have been closed. Although that reduced the number of illegal weapons getting into Gaza, it also stopped the people of Gaza from accessing the everyday things they need to survive. It is totally inhumane to close all those tunnels without easing the blockade. My second point is about the women and

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children of Gaza, who have suffered for so many years in a situation of conflict and insecurity. They do not deserve to be denied the most basic human rights just because of where they live or the political party that happens to rule them.

So many people are now saying that the situation in Gaza is bad. The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), the International Development Minister, said:

“Come the autumn, Gaza could be without food, without power and without clean water…an unliveable place”.—[Official Report, 22 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 280.]

That is telling, because it is not exactly diplomatic language or how you would expect a UK Minister to talk. I hope that the Government will take matters further and call on Israel to end the blockade.

I will put specific questions to the Minister who is here today. The answers may help in the immediate situation, pending the end of the blockade. Will the UK Government insist that Kerem Shalom be opened for exports as well as imports? Will they push for Erez to be reopened for imports and exports, and if necessary fund more security scanners if there is a real need for them? Will they push Israel to organise a “land bridge” between Gaza and the west bank, so that exports can reach west bank markets? A lorry convoy system could be instituted immediately for that purpose.

Will the Government push for the activation of the EU border assistance mission, which was agreed in 2005, to oversee the 2005 access and movement agreement and to address Israel’s security concerns independently? The arrangements should be immediately reinstated and a similar mission put in place at Erez and Kerem Shalom. Finally, as other Members have already asked, will the UK Government push for the fishing limit to be extended to 12 or 15 nautical miles?

Those are some of the questions that should also be put to the Israeli Government in the meantime. As the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) said, they have a responsibility under international law for the position of the Gazan people and the misery they face. I hope that the UK Government will act as urgently as possible to deal with the situation.

3.37 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) has done a great service by securing this debate and setting out so clearly the case for humanitarian intervention in Gaza. There have been many good speeches, not least from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), who showed his usual passion on this subject.

I will briefly mention one other supporter of Gaza and its people—my friend, Del Singh. With other hon. Members, I have the sad duty of attending his funeral tomorrow. He was murdered by the Taliban a few weeks ago in Kabul, where he was on a humanitarian mission. I had known him for the past five years as the main organiser of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, a job that he did brilliantly. The fact that he was killed on humanitarian duty sums up the man. He was a true friend to the Palestinian people. He ran the Gaza

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marathon two years ago to raise money, and he visited the area often. Del was of Sikh origin, but we have heard today that Muslims, Christians, Jews and those of no religion at all have all strongly supported the people of Gaza’s right to self-determination and their simple right to lead a decent life.

I first visited Gaza shortly after Operation Cast Lead. It was a totally harrowing experience that is completely fresh in my mind five years on. It was the complete evisceration of a society, with the systematic and organised destruction of industry and villages. It was what can only be called murder, including the murder of whole families. There was shelling of hospitals, which was done knowingly, and white phosphorus was used. These were war crimes, just as the occupation itself is a crime against international law. To say that these are not deliberate and knowing acts by the Israeli Government is naivety or worse. What is so distressing—

Mr Clappison: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Slaughter: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind.

Mr Clappison: I gave way to him.

Mr Slaughter: I would give way, but other hon. Members want to speak. I am sure that it was important.

Mr Clappison: If the hon. Gentleman will give way—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman has got his answer. The hon. Gentleman speaking is not going to give way. I should mention that any intervention will come off other people’s time.

Mr Slaughter: I understand. Quite right, too.

Since that time—I have been back, and I tried to return in January, but it is impossible, now, to get in—the situation has got worse than in the aftermath of a sustained military assault.

I found out this week that 30% to 35% of all the correspondence to the Foreign Office is about Israel-Palestine. Why cannot our Government, whether through their influence on the United States or their role in the EU, or unilaterally, do more to support the people of Gaza? That issue is clearly uppermost in the minds of the people of this country.

This week, we had the pleasure of a briefing from Sir Vincent Fean, a distinguished diplomat who was retiring after 40 years, having spent his last three years as consul-general in Jerusalem and therefore being responsible for Gaza. He told us about the incredible suffering—the lack of power, the polluted water, the lack of jobs, the complete blockade—and how intolerable it was.

Unfortunately, as well as killing Palestinian civilians, the Israeli defence force is good at propaganda and saying that the Palestinians have only themselves to blame. The Israelis recently refused the offer of a scanner from the Dutch Government to allow goods to go in and out of Gaza. That sums up the fact that they want the blockade to continue and have no intention of helping the Palestinian people under any conditions. It is only through international pressure, brought by Governments such as our own, that the situation is going to be resolved.

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Several hon. Members rose

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. It is now time for Front-Bench speeches, but the Front-Bench Members have kindly agreed to give up part of their time. The two hon. Members who have not got their name on the speakers’ list, but have been here for the debate, have a minute and a half each or two minutes maximum. That will allow them both to contribute.

3.41 pm

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): You are a good man, Mr Hood.

I have been to the Gaza strip twice: once with Interpal, with the hon. Members for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), and once with Caabu and the all-party group on Palestine, with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden).

My take is that, yes, the humanitarian situation is dire. But there will be no solution to the problem of the Gaza strip unless, first, the security situation is sorted out and, secondly, proper economic links are restored both with the state of Israel and with the state of Egypt.

When the Northamptonshire regiment went into Gaza in the first world war and took part in the three battles of Gaza there was no water, so it built a water pipeline from the River Nile to Gaza. That should be considered today. The problem is the Sinai and the security situation there; Hamas-backed terrorists are just as much of a problem to Egypt as to the state of Israel. If Hamas is taken out of the equation, the security situation begins to be addressed and then the economic links between both sovereign states can be tackled.

All of us want the humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip sorted out, but we simply will not make any progress if all the condemnation is against Israel. Instead, we should be looking at the practical economic realities on the ground, where the Palestinians in the Gaza strip simply want to resume their trading life—as they always did—with both Israelis and Egyptians.

3.43 pm

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) for bringing the debate to this Chamber and to right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to it. It has been worth while, although I recognise the limitations of Back Benchers.

I want to make a few remarks. I first make my declaration in reference to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am concerned, because anyone who speaks up for justice for the Palestinians and speaks out against the abuses of human rights is characterised by the pro-Israeli lobby as anti-Semitic, an apologist for terrorists and a holocaust denier or worse. None of that is true, however, of hon. Members speaking here on humanitarian grounds in favour of a fair deal for the inhabitants of Gaza. I object most strongly to the vilification of hon. Members, including me, when we speak up on these issues.

It is clear that, for 1.7 million people—men, women and children—living on this tiny strip of land, Israel’s military blockade has meant economic collapse, extreme

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poverty and shortages of food and medical supplies. Gaza is indeed suffering. To suggest that this is a natural disaster simply beggars belief. As the occupying power, Israel should be held to account by the international community. It is important that we Back-Bench MPs hold our Ministers to account and that our Ministers hold the Israelis to account for their actions.

The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan), the International Development Minister, cited an International Monetary Fund report in the House of Commons last year, saying that the blockade and other restrictions imposed by the Israelis cost the Palestinians 78% of their GDP. These people deserve a future and the opportunity to prosper.

3.45 pm

Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) on securing this debate, to which many hon. Members from all parties have contributed.

I suppose that at the heart of the debate is the point made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh): we are called to deal with a humanitarian issue on the basis of humanity. In that spirit, I intend to speak primarily about DFID’s work in Gaza. I appreciate that hon. Members had only a short time to speak, so I am willing to take interventions.

The worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza is of enormous concern. December’s flooding has forced 11,000 people from their homes. That, alongside the ongoing blockade and recent closure of the tunnel network, has forced 1.7 million Palestinians into a daily life of extreme poverty. There is a serious danger that supplies of food, water and fuel—already diminished—will run out later this year. The humanitarian situation in Gaza is deeply troubling, as evidenced by hon. Members in this debate. Aid agencies as well as international organisations, such as the World Bank and the United Nations, have expressed particular concern about the serious and immediate lack of adequate water supplies and sanitation in Gaza.

The conflict in Gaza and the continuing blockade have exacerbated the chronic lack of basic infrastructure. We believe that the Israeli authorities must ease restrictions on humanitarian aid to Gaza. We fully support a negotiated two-state solution that establishes a safe and secure Israel, alongside a viable Palestinian state, with both sides enjoying the respect and recognition of their neighbours and the wider international community. I speculate that that view would be uncontroversial in the House. The previous Labour Government worked tirelessly with our international partners to help achieve that situation, but I appreciate and share the frustration that many people feel about the lack of progress on the issue, during that time and in recent years. The UK has a role to play and is playing it through the work of DFID.

I understand and welcome the International Development Committee inquiry into the effectiveness of DFID’s spend in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and look forward to seeing and debating the conclusions of its report. It is considering the effectiveness of DFID’s programme in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; whether DFID is focusing on the right sectors and working with the right organisations; whether DFID’s funding to the

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Palestinian Authority aids the twin goals of state-building and achieving a negotiated peace; and whether DFID should consider funding projects involving Israeli-Palestinian joint working. I hope that that will allow us another opportunity to come back in due course and debate these issues. It is important that we also scrutinise DFID’s work in the region right now.

In 2009, the Labour Government responded to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, giving an additional £15 million at the height of the conflict. While I accept that this Government have increased spend in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since that time, has the Minister considered additional funding to meet the costs of December’s flooding and associated humanitarian issues? Although the immediate need is clear and must be met, Gaza must also be set on the path of sustainability through DFID’s investment. I would welcome a few comments from the Minister about how she is tackling the issue of both the short-term and long-term crisis.

I have two additional thoughts before I allow the Minister to step in and talk about DFID’s work. First, we know that the tunnel clampdown, which began last summer, has had a significant impact on the ability of Palestinians to get the bare necessities of day-to-day living. Food and building resources previously transported through the tunnel system have been stripped back, leaving a growing problem of food insecurity and undeveloped infrastructure. We know that that has had a massive effect on the Palestinian economy, with some £250 million being taken out of key sectors and some 20,000 jobs being lost. The construction industry, previously valued at a quarter of Gaza’s GDP, is among the sectors that have been hit hardest.

Secondly, there are serious, immediate concerns about health. A recent World Health Organisation report concluded that a third of medicines and half of medical disposables are simply out of stock. There are no cancer drugs. At a time when hospitals are trying to deal with the fallout of the floods, hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage-filled water are washing out entire districts and pressure is being added to areas where disease is already rife. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we can respond to the immediate needs of the situation, which has been exacerbated in recent months?

DFID has committed £94 million of bilateral aid to the Occupied Palestinian Territories over the past financial year. Will the Minister lay out how that spending is split between the territories? Will any spending be shifted in response to the humanitarian situation in Gaza? There is clearly much more work to be done, and Gaza requires immediate assistance, as well as long-term strategy and investment in basic infrastructure, to meet development needs. It is right that the UK Government, alongside other partner nations, should play their part in helping to give the people of the region a chance to build an equitable future free from poverty and disease and truly secure.

3.51 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Lynne Featherstone): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I

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congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) on securing this debate and on his incredibly powerful speech. Indeed, I congratulate all Members who have contributed today. Passions clearly run high, but I doubt whether there is anyone in this Chamber who does not want peace and security for Gaza, the west bank and Israel.

The situation in Gaza is untenable. Indeed, the UN has predicted that by 2020, unless we see major changes Gaza will have become unliveable. Obviously, the UK Government are concerned about the crisis, so I welcome today’s debate. A great many points and questions have been raised, and I am undecided as to whether to tell Members what I was going to tell them or to try to answer their questions. I will try to address some of the points first, which may mean that I do not address all the issues that one might expect.

On the points that have been raised, we welcome the modest extension of the opening hours at Kerem Shalom during recent storms. We continue to push for exports, and there is no security argument against exports that we can understand. The Dutch recently funded a scanner at Kerem Shalom that remains unused, so there is currently no case for the UK to provide another scanner, although we understand the frustration. Only the easing of Israeli restrictions will relieve the situation. Conversations are currently ongoing with EU partners on possible border assistance. Exports to the west bank via a land bridge—something that was raised by the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne)—would only be possible with peace and better movement and access. Those points are all symptoms of the same problem.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the Foreign Secretary, who has been most clear that there is “no more urgent” priority than the middle east peace process. He continues to support US-led efforts. There is huge frustration with the lack of progress, but at least talks are taking place.

The hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) mentioned drinking water, desalination and the environment. Restrictions on construction materials mean that it is not possible to build the necessary infrastructure. The EU is doing important work on water and sanitation in the area. Water scarcity is a serious problem across the region. There has been a lack of rain and, as well as the political situation, a series of things have led to a water shortage. A division of the water supply is crucial for both countries in any two-state solution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) mentioned burns acquired from trying to access the power supply, thereby highlighting the need for a long-term power solution. The present situation is unsustainable and extremely dangerous. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) mentioned sewage, the lack of medical care and the lack of power. The serious sewage spills in December 2013 were due to the severe weather, but the underlying problem is actually the lack of power for sewage pumps. DFID supports the UN access co-ordination unit’s work with the World Health Organisation, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and aid agencies to transfer medical supplies, but obviously restrictions mean that patients cannot always access specialist treatment.

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The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), who chairs the Conservative Friends of Israel, raised the role of Hamas, which has been condemned by both sides of the House as an awful organisation. As hon. and right hon. Members know, Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation, and it has to renounce violence, recognise Israel, prove that it has changed and be willing to make peace, without which it is very difficult to move forward.

Mr Slaughter: Will the Minister give way?

Lynne Featherstone: No, I will not.

The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) mentioned that a high proportion of correspondence to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The UK public are hugely interested in the peace process, which must make progress. DFID receives similarly high levels of parliamentary and public interest in that subject.

I hope I have answered some of the points that have been raised. As we have heard today, this is a dark time for the people of Gaza, and I do not exaggerate when I say that they are struggling to survive. The UN has assessed the situation as close to breaking point, and a return to violence is increasingly likely. As hon. Members know, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is not a new problem. Poverty, unemployment and shortages of food, water, fuel and medical supplies have made life a daily struggle for too long.

Things that we take for granted, such as clean water and jobs, are not a norm for people living in Gaza, and we are concerned about that. Gaza has a chronic and devastating power shortage, and the latest crisis caused by the storms has all too clearly revealed the fundamental weakness of relying on imported fuel, as well as the dangers of using interim measures such as cooking oil. The root of those problems is Israeli movement and access restrictions. We understand Israel’s legitimate security concerns, and we have recently seen increases in the number of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. We condemn such actions wholeheartedly, but they are the

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actions of a few and should not automatically mean increased suffering for the many. We continue to push Israel to ease those restrictions.

Several hon. Members rose

Lynne Featherstone: Forgive me if I do not give way, as I have only two minutes left to conclude my remarks.

A stifled Palestinian economy is not in Israel’s security interests. Poverty and hopelessness drive radicalisation. The restrictions on legitimate trade drove transactions through the tunnels, which benefited Hamas to the tune of some £90 million a year in taxation. The Israeli restrictions on fuel and construction material imports are the root of many problems in the area. Actions by Egypt to close the illegal smuggling tunnels have undoubtedly made the situation worse, but ultimately the responsibility lies with Israel, as the occupying power, to ease the restrictions that make life for Gazans so difficult. We make that point to Israel strongly and regularly.

This is a humanitarian debate, for which DFID is responsible. The UK takes the problem extremely seriously. DFID provides substantial support to Gaza: by supporting UNRWA’s job creation scheme, which provides 52,000 jobs; by contributing to the World Food Programme, which provides food vouchers to 285,000 people; by supporting UNRWA to build 22 schools; and by helping to develop the private sector by supporting more than 340 small companies in Gaza.

To sum up, the humanitarian situation in Gaza is increasingly precarious. Our partners tell us that the situation is close to breaking point, and we need to see peace negotiations and a two-state solution that includes Gaza. We need to see Israel—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order.

It looks as though there is not going to be a Division at 4 o’clock, but I suspect that as soon as I call the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), there will be one.

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Community Infrastructure Levy (West Berkshire)

4 pm

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a great delight to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hood. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), will be replying to the debate. [Interruption.]

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. As I suspected, there is a Division.

4.1 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

4.24 pm

On resuming

Richard Benyon: To carry on where we left off, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House a matter of concern to my local authority. I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth, the Minister with responsibility for local government, to his place, and recognise that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is responsible for planning and who was due to respond to the debate, is otherwise engaged on the Committee Corridor. I know that the local government Minister will convey to him the essence of the debate.

In his response, I hope that the local government Minister will be able to address my concerns. The Planning Minister is familiar with my constituency, because he and I were educated at the same primary school. He knows the pressures of development in West Berkshire and probably thinks of an area like it when he articulates his concerns about not only protecting the countryside and green spaces but addressing the needs of development, to allow the right sort of development to happen in the right place.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise an issue that is of great concern to my local council. As the Planning Minister will know, and as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for local government will have been briefed, in September 2004 West Berkshire council adopted its then groundbreaking new policy for securing contributions from developers to improve and enhance council services and infrastructure.

I sat on the Bill Committee that considered what is now the Planning Act 2004 and was closely involved in the previous Government’s attempts to produce a meaningful system for developer contributions. I therefore appreciate the current challenges faced by the Department. That said, it is a shame to constrain local authorities to follow a one-size-fits-all system like the community infrastructure levy, which will not achieve the level of simplicity of West Berkshire’s existing scheme or raise the sums that it does. Today I am asking the Minister to allow a degree of flexibility for well run councils like West Berkshire to continue with their tried and tested scheme.

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Since 2004, West Berkshire council has sought contributions from residential developments as small as one house and from commercial developments where the number of staff generated is greater than 10. This formulaic approach has meant that even the smallest residential development contributes towards improvements and to the expansion of council services, be that education, highways, libraries, waste disposal, adult social care, open spaces or health care. Other services require contributions, or mitigation measures for larger developments, and the council’s affordable housing policy was recently updated so that developments of more than five dwellings provide much needed affordable housing on a proportional basis.

West Berkshire council’s current system is clear, simple and effective. The Minister will agree that planning is always going to prove contentious, and he will be aware of that in his constituency as much as elsewhere, but I know he will be impressed that the system delivered in West Berkshire for more than a decade has been achieved with relatively few complaints.

Over the past 10 years, West Berkshire council has banked an average of £4.3 million per annum, all secured to improve council services and to mitigate the impact of development. In addition, a reasonable administration fee is paid for running the system, which means that there is no cost to the taxpayer. Rough calculations provided to me by council officials, however, show that if the community infrastructure levy had been in place over that period, the council would have received only about 75% of the amount that it has raised, with about 15% to 20% of that going to parishes.

Under the West Berkshire council scheme, all the contributions directly benefit the communities affected by development. There is no top-slicing for administration and no shortfall in funding. The planning policy and the formulaic approach are easy to understand and they have been regularly updated and improved to ensure that the policy remains relevant and continues to mitigate the impact of development. The council has had challenges from developers through both the courts and planning appeals, but the policy withstood such challenges well.

Where issues have been raised, or shortcomings identified, West Berkshire council has adapted and updated its policy. Indeed, the policy has been praised by the Audit Commission as an example for other authorities to use as best practice. The council has been visited by the Treasury, as well as other councils, all of which wished to learn from its experiences.

West Berkshire council was involved with the previous Government’s proposals for the planning gain supplement and with the early development of its replacement, the community infrastructure levy. The Minister will note that West Berkshire council has consistently sent robust responses to consultations on the issue. The council has experienced no detrimental effects as a result of its developer contributions policy, and its housing build numbers are close to target, with an average of 515 from an annual target of 525. It maintains a housing supply—based on existing planning permissions—for in excess of five years. It cannot therefore be argued that the policy has held back development.

Council members are really frustrated that a highly successful policy is to be replaced by a scheme that will raise less money and is more complicated. As the Minister will note, CIL takes nearly two years to adopt, given the

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lengthy and onerous adoption processes prescribed by the regulations. It costs somewhere near £50,000, which, replicated across the country, is a substantial sum. By contrast, West Berkshire council’s policy would cost far less to set up and administer.

Regulations for the CIL were initially launched in 2010. Since then there have been amendment regulations in 2011, 2012, 2013 and now this year. Each new set of regulations has served to add intricacies, correct mistakes or provide further benefits to the development industry—for instance, the recent relaxation to exempt self-build housing from paying CIL has been added to other exemptions for affordable housing, for charities, and for large extensions to homes. In addition, CIL would not be payable in converting offices to dwellings. Such developments could be substantial, with resulting impacts on council services; but with no net increase in square metreage, no CIL is payable, and therefore the existing council taxpayers pick up the burden.

West Berkshire council members feel that they have been forced to replace a perfectly acceptable and efficient system with a substandard set of complicated regulations—regulations not of this Government’s making, but of the previous Government’s. As I have myself been where the Minister is sitting, on these occasions I like the Member leading the debate to bring a solution, so that the Minister can then pop a rabbit out of a hat and reassure the constituents of that Member that a solution can be found.

By way of assisting the Minister, therefore, I suggest that he remove the cut-off date of 6 April 2015 from the regulations. That is all that is forcing West Berkshire council to adopt the CIL: it is the date from which the council is prevented from using a formulaic approach to secure contributions. My proposal would not even require an amendment to legislation, something I know that the Department would welcome. I present that as a suggestion to the problem. It works in West Berkshire, and I hope that in his response the Minister will address the council’s concerns.

4.33 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) on securing this debate on West Berkshire council’s community infrastructure levy. I know he campaigns hard on issues that affect West Berkshire—not least among that work is his success in securing significant funding for rural broadband, which will be a big opportunity for people in that community.

I shall start by going through some of the issues about the levy in general, before turning specifically not just to West Berkshire but to the helpful suggestion made by my hon. Friend for a solution to the problem. I would argue that the basic principles behind the levy are right. The levy introduces a set tariff on new development, contributing to the provision of essential supporting infrastructure based on viability and evidence. In that sense, the levy is the best framework not only to provide essential local infrastructure but to unlock land for growth. The levy is fair, fast and more certain and transparent than the system that was there before of individually negotiated section 106 planning agreements.

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The whole process of developing the levy is subject to public consultation, the development of a robust evidence base and independent examination.

With the levy, developers know up front what they will be charged and when payment will be required. Section 106 agreements, on the other hand, do not offer the kind of transparency that the levy provides, as contributions are determined through often lengthy negotiations between developers and local authorities. The levy enables local authorities to prioritise spending on infrastructure across their area to facilitate local growth and development. Authorities are also able to use levy funds to deliver infrastructure outside their area, by working with other local authorities, so long as it supports development in their area.

Section 106 agreements are site-specific and cannot be used to mitigate wider impacts of development. Individual section 106 agreements may be subject to viability testing, which can cause delays. That is not an issue for the levy, as local economic viability will have been tested at examination prior to adoption of the charging schedule. The levy does not replace section 106 planning obligations, but restricts their use in areas that have adopted the levy to ensure there is no double charging of developers. From April 2015, that restriction will apply everywhere else—I will come on to the specific issue of the cut-off date.

The majority of the levy funds are kept by the authority to contribute not only to the provision of infrastructure for their communities, such as schools and roads, but to its improvement, replacement, operation and maintenance, ensuring that the infrastructure is there for years to come.

We feel strongly that local people should be given a real say over infrastructure priorities in their area. One of the amendments to the regulations required local authorities to pass on 15% of levy receipts from development in local areas to parish or community councils, a figure that increases to 25% where there is an adopted neighbourhood plan. That is good news for local people and ensures that they share in the benefits of development.

Good progress is being made. We now have 30 charging schedules in place. A further 48 are with the Planning Inspectorate for examination, and 12 have been approved. We forecast that levy adoption rates will increase steadily, which will in turn increase the overall levy revenues over the next 10 years. The most recent estimate suggests that average annual levy revenues could be in excess of £300 million.

Authorities are starting to work together locally to develop proposals for implementation of the levy. Some are considering the potential of pooling levy funds to unlock growth and development as part of a strategic investment fund. The Government will seek to encourage and support such developments.

It is still early days, however, as the first set of regulations only came into effect in 2010. We have had to make some changes along the way, and that has so far led to five definite amendments. Those changes have been made to make sure that the system is fair, flexible and clear to local authorities and to developers. To be able to do that we have listened to people who deal with the levy on a daily basis.

Draft amendments to the levy regulations are currently before the House and are due to be debated in Committee on 10 February. The amendments are designed to make

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the levy fairer, more flexible and transparent. I will outline briefly the five key aspects of those amendments. They are: exempting from the levy those building their own homes, or extending existing ones, to help reduce the disproportionate burden placed on that sector of society; allowing levy rates to be set by scale of development; allowing offsetting of levy liabilities when development is altered prior to completion; lessening levy liabilities for buildings brought back into use; and moving the date from which pooling restrictions on section 106 agreements apply to April 2015, giving authorities enough time to reflect changes to the operation of the levy.

My hon. Friend will be aware of many of those issues, so I shall now turn specifically to West Berkshire council. We welcome the efforts the council has put into developing its charging schedule, which we understand will come into effect in April this year. The draft charging schedule was examined by an independent planning inspector on 23 October last year. A report was issued in early November recommending that the charging schedule be approved. Given that the levy is a charge on local development, it is right that charging schedules are subject to local community engagement and public examination.

Local authorities must provide robust evidence, based on local viability considerations, to justify the rates being set in their draft charging schedules. That includes a requirement to have regard to all responses received as part of the public consultation on the draft charging schedule. Inspectors, in their turn, must take into account all the evidence submitted by local authorities, and that includes any representations from interested parties. I understand that the inspector was satisfied that the draft charging schedule was supported by detailed evidence of levy needs, and that the evidence was robust, proportionate, appropriate and in line with expectations set out in levy guidance.

The inspector raised the issue of funding required for infrastructure throughout West Berkshire and cited £257 million. It was estimated that the levy could contribute around £42 million, making a contribution to the area’s

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funding gap of some £163 million. It was concluded that the figures provided by the authority clearly demonstrated a need to introduce the levy.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that the levy will bring in only 75% of the amount currently raised by section 106 agreements. Section 106 contributions will, of course, still be collected, albeit in a more limited form. I hope that his authority has considered the total take from both sources. My officials would be happy to meet representatives from the authority to discuss the figures it has calculated, and any other points about the levy, as well as the solution he suggested.

Local authorities are generally making good progress in bringing forward the levy, which we believe is the best way of delivering infrastructure to meet the needs of local areas. We are always willing to listen to and learn from those bringing forward and working with the levy, such as the local authority. We have seen that in the latest set of regulatory amendments that are before the House.

Richard Benyon: Does my hon. Friend accept that the issue is about localism? The Government believe in localism, but are requiring a dirigiste, top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, and it could be argued that we are going against what we say about localism. This is an opportunity to trust a local authority that is doing something and getting it right, as opposed to having a one-size-fits-all approach.

Brandon Lewis: In the sense of getting the charge and the levy right, the levy is there to meet local infrastructure need—the limited section 106 agreements will still be negotiated locally—and gives clear, up-front, transparent information about dealing locally. However, we have made amendments following the experience so far, and I encourage local authorities to meet my officials to go through any specific concerns they have and to feed in any suggested solutions to improve matters. The Department would be interested in looking at those. We are always willing to listen and learn, and we will be happy to continue to do so. I encourage my hon. Friend’s local authority to make that appointment and we will facilitate it at the earliest opportunity.

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Children’s Toys (Gender–specific Marketing)

4.50 pm

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship on such an important topic, Mr Hood. I can think of few questions that occupy parents of young children more than how their children can reach their full potential, and there are few long-term challenges that are more important than having a balanced, sustainable economy with science, engineering and manufacturing at its heart. That is what this debate is really about—or, to quote the name of one of the foremost campaigning groups on the subject, it is about why we need to let toys be toys.

Before entering Parliament, I spent two decades as a professional engineer, working across three continents. Regardless of where I was or the size of the company, it was always a predominantly male, or indeed all-male, environment, but it is only when I walk into a toy shop that I feel I am really experiencing gender segregation. At some point over the past three decades, the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to figure out what to buy without colour-coded gender labelling—that means Science museum toys being labelled “for boys”, whereas miniature dustpans and brushes are “Girl Stuff”, according to SportsDirect.

I say over the past three decades, because there was a time when toys were toys and blue and pink were just colours. An Argos catalogue page from 1976 shows toy houses, prams and so on all in different colours. Now they only sell them in pink. Recently, a Lego advert from 1981 went viral on the internet because it showed a girl proudly clasping her latest Lego creation. None of the text was gender-specific and the girl was actually wearing blue.

What happened? Did someone dye the Y chromosome blue in the ’80s or force the X chromosome to secrete only pink hormones? No. This aggressive gender segregation is a consequence of big-company marketing tactics. Every successful marketeer knows that differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives a bigger overall market, so with three-year-old girls only being able to “choose” pink tricycles, the manufacturer can charge more for that special girly shade of pink and the premium princess saddle. Of course, that trike cannot be handed over to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars. It has got to the point where it is difficult to buy toys for girls that are not pink, princess-primed and/or fairy-infused.

I go to craft markets, including the excellent ones at Grainger market, the Quayside in Newcastle, and Tynemouth station. At least there people can still find a range of colours for boys and girls, but what may be driving big-company profit margins is limiting our children’s choices and experiences. It is ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential, as well as helping to maintain the gender pay gap.

The lack of women in science and engineering has long been a matter of real concern to me. As a child, I suffered from what I now call Marie Curie syndrome—the inability to name more than one woman scientist. During my career in engineering, I realised that many contributory factors were keeping women out, from old-fashioned sexism to parental preference for what were considered

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cleaner professions. As an MP, I became aware of organisations such as Pinkstinks, which was founded in 2008 to celebrate the fact that, as it put it,

“there’s more than one way to be a girl”.

In 2011, after a campaign by Laura Nelson, Hamleys on Regent street abandoned its pink girls’ floor and blue boys’ floor. That same year, Peggy Orenstein’s book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”, explored princess culture and how it is marketed to young girls. The recent complaints about Disney’s attempts to make over Merida, their one feisty, adventurous princess, into yet another pink replicant highlighted the dearth of non-aristocratic role-playing opportunities for girls.

What really made me focus on this issue was a letter that I received from a constituent about Boots in Eldon Square, Newcastle, where I often shop. She said:

“The children’s toys section…displays signs saying ‘girls’ toys’ and ‘boys’ toys’ above the shelves…This perpetuates gender stereotypes...discourages boys from playing with dolls, and girls from playing with Lego.”

At the same time, the group Let Toys Be Toys published a survey that found that half of stores used explicit “boys” and “girls” signs above shelves. It did a lot of work to highlight the impact of such signs on beliefs, attitudes and career choices, as well as the backlash from children and parents, unhappy that their children’s choices were being constrained. Let me quote a recent example from seven-year-old Charlotte, who wrote to Lego about their girls’ Lego range, Lego Friends:

“All the girls did was sit at home, go to the beach, and shop, and they had no jobs but the boys went on adventures, worked, saved people, and had jobs, even swam with sharks. I want you to make more lego girl people and let them go on adventures and have fun ok!?!”

Yes to that, Charlotte.

Sir Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): I rise to apologise to the hon. Lady and to congratulate her. I apologise because I cannot stay for this debate, because of its new timing; I have a meeting to discuss precisely this issue with someone else in another place. I congratulate her on securing the debate, because this is an immensely important subject. I urge her to resist the criticism that I am sure she is receiving from reactionary voices, who say to her, “This is irrelevant. It is political correctness gone mad.” It is not. Such issues shape girls’ attitudes, particularly to science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM, subjects, and we must address that if we are to address the serious gender gap in engineering and science subjects. I congratulate her unreservedly on securing the debate.

Chi Onwurah: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I appreciate his words of support as well as the campaign that he is leading to encourage girls into engineering. It is true that there has been some suggestion that this is not an important debate for today. I know that the economy is the prime concern of my constituents right now, but this is about our long-term economy, our future society and our ability to compete in decades to come.

The issue is of interest to my constituents; another constituent wrote to complain that in the Gateshead Toys R Us, the Lego police helicopter has a sign in front of it telling people that the girls’ Lego range is round the corner in the girls’ aisle—so police helicopters are

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not part of the girls’ range. The campaigning group, ScienceGrrl, sent me this post from one of its members:

“Recently I bought my daughter new pyjamas, they were from the ‘boys’ section in M&S. They had robots on. My daughter spent about an hour before bed time pretending to be a robot and we talked about electronics and space”.

As that comment and the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) suggested, there is a link between children’s play, how their imagination is inspired and the careers they choose. Research from many sources, including Argos, interestingly, demonstrates that. Analysis from the Association of Colleges shows markedly different career preferences between girls and boys as young as seven, and that is also one of the reasons for the gender pay gap.

I regret that one of the Government’s first actions on coming to power was to end the funding for the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, which sought to provide a coherent strategy to promote gender balance in STEM. I got the impression that the Government saw their role as being to step back and let the market deliver, in what might be described as a “rising tide raises all boats” approach. However, when I started my engineering degree, 12% of my peers were women, and 30 years later, I am afraid to say that the proportion of female engineering students has not increased at all, so the market has not delivered. At 6%, the UK has the lowest proportion of female professional engineers in Europe. India, a country that has a significant gender literacy gap, manages to attract more women into STEM than we do.

That imbalance is a question not only of social justice but of UK competitiveness, and it is a key factor in the gender pay gap. Traditionally male jobs traditionally pay more than traditionally female ones. Key political and social questions about climate change, genetically modified food, healthy ageing and an expanding population have science and engineering at their heart, and I do not believe that it is acceptable to lock out 50% of our population from making their contribution on those important questions.

As the Government struggle to rebalance the economy towards engineering and manufacturing and away from short-term, housing-fuelled growth, I believe that there is support for a more proactive view. I welcome the recent strong support from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills for encouraging girls into STEM, and the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire’s vigorous campaign for more female engineers. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), also recently acknowledged the role of toys in putting girls off maths. With such cross-party consensus, and with active campaigning organisations such as Let Toys Be Toys, Pinkstinks, ScienceGrrl and the Everyday Sexism Project, I hope we will see real change.

The latest survey carried out by Let Toys Be Toys in November gave some grounds for optimism. It found that only a fifth, rather than half, of stores still used explicit gender labels, but 72% use gender cues such as colour coding. The best-performing toy stores were Hobbycraft, Toymaster and Fenwick—from Newcastle, although I am sure that that is coincidental—and the worst-performing store was Morrisons. I should say,

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however, that when it heard of my debate, Morrisons wrote to me to say that it plans to arrange products based on their cost, and to end the use of pink and blue. Tesco had the most gendered catalogue and Debenhams the most gendered website. Newcastle Boots has taken my constituents’ criticisms on board and no longer uses “girls” and “boys” signs to demark toys.

I hope that the debate helps industry to understand the importance that Parliament places on the matter, and the likely consequences of continued gender stereotyping. I would appreciate it if the Minister could clarify the Government’s position on the gender stereotyping of children’s toys and the impact that it has. What is the Minister doing to encourage more balanced marketing to children? What does she have to say to public sector organisations that may encourage stereotypical views of girls’ play? I am not calling for legislation. However, others have observed that it is illegal to advertise a job as being for men only, but apparently fine to advertise a toy as being for boys only.

Why should girls be brought up in an all-pink environment? That does not reflect the real world. Had anyone attempted to give me a pink soldering iron when I was designing circuit boards, they would have found my use of it not at all in accordance with their health and safety. Just as importantly, why can future fathers not play with dolls?

Yesterday, I became a proud aunt to twins, a girl and a boy. As one might imagine, I did not welcome them into the world with gender-specific or colour-coded toys. I hope that as they grow through childhood, they have the chance to play with toys that are toys, and not colour-coded constraints on their choices.

5.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Jenny Willott): I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing a debate on this major issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) said earlier, the matter is important and of fundamental significance to our future economy; it is not just a side issue, which is how it can sometimes be portrayed.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central said, those of us with young children cannot help but be aware of how highly gendered children’s toys are. I should declare an interest in that I have two small boys, so my house is full of blue things—very little pink comes through my front door.

One can see at a glance when entering a shop what is intended for girls and what is intended for boys. As the hon. Lady said, that may be blatant—the shelf may say “girls” or “boys” on it—or otherwise girls’ and boys’ toys may be colour-coded or displayed in separate aisles. What message does that send out? What are we telling our children? We are telling them that girls and boys are different, that they like different things and that they have different interests and skills. We are telling them that their gender defines their roles in society and their dreams about the future.

“Pink is for girls and blue is for boys”—such associations are often discussed as though they were fixed, natural and unchanging. As the hon. Lady said, however, it is a recent phenomenon. A couple of years ago, I read an

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article that referred to advice for new parents from the beginning of the last century—some 100 years ago—that urged parents to dress their boys in pink, because it was such a definite colour, and to leave wishy-washy blue for little girls. That shows quite how much such things can change over time.

The hon. Lady mentioned that if we google images of children’s toys from the 1970s, we find images of a totally different array of toys from those of today. Some toys were certainly intended for girls and some for boys, but plenty were intended for both. We see far less pink and blue and far more bright primary colours, such as orange, yellow, green and red—I appreciate that those are not all technically primary colours—as opposed to pale, pastel colours.

I have with me some images of toys from the ’70s, including an orange toolbox, a blue kitchen and a blue and grey ice cream parlour with girls and boys playing in it. They are from only a couple of decades ago—during my own childhood—but they show a very different image of childhood. If the space hopper were invented today, it would not be iconic orange; there would be a pink version that looked like a cupcake and another version in camouflage khaki. That shows how much things have changed over the years.

Why does the gendering of toys matter? The subject can appear to be something of a fringe interest, but it matters to individuals because it is not fair. Children are actively learning all the time how they are supposed to feel and behave and what will make them acceptable to their social group, family and so on. It is not fair to make little girls feel that they should not be kicking footballs or building with Lego, and it is equally unfair to make little boys feel ashamed of playing netball or of pushing a doll along in a pushchair.

Children should not be made to feel guilty or ashamed about experimenting with different toys and different kinds of play, but that is what we are effectively doing by implicitly labelling toys “not for you”. That process starts at a young age. Children learn through play, and if we want them to explore their skills and interests and to develop to the limits of their potential, we must not restrict that at the age of two, five or 10 by restricting their choices of play.

A boy who has never had a sewing kit may never discover his talent for design. A girl who has never had a Meccano set may never discover that she has real potential as an engineer. Clearly, not every girl who plays with Lego is going to be an architect. I was excellent at designing Lego houses, but my future was obviously not in architecture. Nevertheless, why should we limit girls’ aspirations at so early an age by making things so rigidly defined?

As the hon. Lady said, the issue also matters to society and our economy more broadly. Today, women make an enormous contribution to the UK and there are more women in work than ever before, but they still do not have an equal chance to succeed. Women continue to earn less than men. We are under-represented in senior roles and over-represented in low-paying sectors. More women than men work part time or not at all. Some of that is down to the practical barriers that women face that can stop them getting on in work, and the Government are working with business to remove those barriers wherever we can find them, but some of

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it comes down to the simple fact that we do not encourage girls to believe in their own potential and explore the full range of their skills.

The way we play as children informs the skills we develop and how we perceive ourselves. Girls and boys take into the classroom assumptions that they develop as part of playing. That has a significant impact on how they then develop, and on their future career aspirations. It is therefore unsurprising that boys who have routinely experienced the sense of accomplishment associated with designing and building something, which can often can come from playing with what would be seen as a boy’s toy, feel more at home with subjects such as maths and science, which utilise such skills more.

If they do not have such experiences when they are younger, girls feel less confident, and it is just a small leap from that to assuming that they are not good at those subjects. That really affects how they progress at school. Assumptions and stereotypes about girls’ abilities and interests—the perception that certain subjects, just like certain toys, just “aren’t for you”—go on to shape the choices girls make at school. Those choices have significant implications.

By the time they get to university level, boys and girls are strongly segregated in some areas with, on the whole, boys dominating in the subjects that can lead to the most financially lucrative careers. In 2013, only 6,600 girls took A-level physics, compared with just over 25,000 boys. That is a massive difference—girls made up just over 20% of the cohort. Of the 13,000 students who took further maths at A-level, only 3,700 were girls. That shows a clear differentiation. Of university places accepted, only 13% of engineering places, 18% of technology places and 22% of mathematics and computer science places are taken by women. Fewer than 9% of engineers in the UK are women, compared with around 20% in Italy and 26% in Sweden. There is no intrinsic reason why we should not be able to make a significant difference to that in the UK.

On the other hand, women made up 89% of students studying nursing and 85% studying education—areas of work that are often poorer paid than those that follow from a science degree. That not only results in women being poorer than men—as the hon. Lady said, 22% of the gender pay gap can be explained by the industries and occupations in which women work—but it also costs our economy significant amounts. There are skills shortages across the science, technology, engineering and maths sector, but as long as girls continue to feel that that world is not for them, our businesses will continue to miss out on vital talent that they need for future development. Put simply, we cannot afford not to allow girls the opportunity to enjoy and pursue the whole range of subjects, starting right at the beginning with their learning through play.

The hon. Lady asked what the Government were doing. They are playing their part. Public pressure on companies helps a lot on this issue, and a number of the organisations she mentioned have been extremely effective. The Government support the Women’s Business Council, which has done excellent work to raise girls’ aspirations. Alongside the council, we are taking action in schools on career advice, apprenticeships, technical colleges, STEM careers, enterprise, child care, equal pay and flexible working, all of which will help girls to reach their full potential in the workplace. In response to the

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WBC’s recommendation, we are currently developing an online resource for parents of teenage girls that will help them to guide their daughters to make confident and informed career choices independent of gender stereotypes and representations. Hopefully, that will lead girls to make different decisions in future.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) held two round-table discussions towards the end of last year to look specifically at raising girls’ aspirations. Officials have met retailers, manufacturers and others to discuss the issues we are talking about today.

Chi Onwurah: I was not aware that the Government had been meeting retailers and others. Can the Minister share some of their responses?

Jenny Willott: I can get back to the hon. Lady with more information on that. There has clearly been some progress on the issue—she cited some examples of the moves made by retailers in response to the pressure on them. Some of them are beginning to recognise that there are wider implications to gender-specific marketing. The issue is not just about selling twice as many bikes because pink and blue cannot be used interchangeably; there are broader implications for the economy as well.

There have been some really positive moves from retailers, some of which the hon. Lady talked about. For example, she mentioned Boots, but Debenhams and The Entertainer have also stopped gender-specific labelling of toys, and M&S has committed to making its own-brand toys gender neutral. I find it enormously encouraging that there is starting to be a recognition that things have gone too far and something must be done. I hope that those companies lead the way so that we see such changes emulated more widely.

I recognise that there are some arguments in favour of the gender marketing of toys. For example, science and engineering kits are aimed at girls by using pink and purple to attract them to play with them more, and there are also pink Lego sets, pink globes and so on. It is argued that such products sell well and show girls that science and other potential careers are for them. That might be true, but it raises the issue of whether, in the longer term, that just reinforces the notion that if it is not pink and pretty, it is not for girls. That concerns me. As someone who never wears pink, I feel that we should be able to broaden out. Girls should have wider aspirations, rather than just assuming that they have to play with it if it is pink.

It is often suggested that those of us who oppose gender-specific toys are somehow going against nature and attempting social engineering against children’s perfectly natural and hard-wired preferences, but nothing could be further from the truth. I am not trying to stop boys from playing football or girls from playing with dolls. Nature undoubtedly has a role in how children play and interact with toys. My three-year-old son is completely obsessed with cars, trains and diggers, and he always has been, but he also makes a mean cup of

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pretend tea and is very good at making pretend cakes. Nature has a role to play, but it is not the be-all and end-all.

Chi Onwurah: The Minister is making an excellent point. Does she agree that the issue is not about saying that boys should be playing with cookery sets or that girls should or must be playing with engineering sets, but about letting them and their parents have the choice, free from external pressures?

Jenny Willott: I could not agree more. There will be boys who grow up to be fantastic chefs and designers, and there will be girls who will be professional footballers or engineers or scientists. The issue is about ensuring that children have the choice and are able to play with a wide range of toys to develop their skills across the board and decide what is best for them and where their interests and skills lie. That will be different for every child.

The issue is also about ensuring that parents are able to help their children have that choice without feeling completely bound by the marketing that suggests they are supposed to buy only certain types of toys for their child because of the child’s gender. We should free people to make choices based on the interests, skills and desires of the children, rather than on the associated marketing. Surely it makes sense that when children first start to explore the world and discover their interests and skills, they should be completely free to let their imaginations roam and to identify what they want to do with their lives.

I sense that most reasonable people would agree that it is wrong to limit our children’s horizons, particularly at such an early age; wrong to restrict their creative play and, as a result, their occupational opportunities; and wrong to shame them for wanting to explore a wide range of toys. Perhaps where people differ is on how important they think the issue is and how much impact it has. We could do with some rigorous, high-quality research to help guide parents, teachers, manufacturers, retailers and advertisers on the right and responsible way forward. I have looked, and there seems to be little, if any, research in that area. It would be good to see some research on what impact the issue has; that might persuade people to change how they retail or advertise toys and help parents shape the choices that they make on behalf of their children.

Toys are a hugely important part of our children’s learning and development. It is of course for children and their parents to choose the toys they play with, as we were just discussing. They should be able to make those choices freely from a full range of toys. How our children play helps to shape their aspirations for the future, and I want those aspirations to be based on their abilities and interests, not on stereotypes. I value the right of every single child to be treated as a unique individual and to be given the opportunity to explore their own interests and develop their own potential and talents, wherever they may lie. That is important not only for children now playing, but for the future of the economy.

Question put and agreed to.

5.20 pm

Sitting adjourned.