3.2 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend who secured the debate. I spent four years with him on the Select Committee on International Development trying to avoid having to pronounce the name of his constituency. I will not mess that up by making another attempt now.

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I have to say that I was a little confused by my hon. Friend’s contribution, because he started off talking about the need to move forward and not talk the language of boycotts, sanctions and so on, but I was listening carefully to what he said, just as I read carefully the article that he wrote on Left Foot Forward, and it seemed to me that the conclusion he drew was that there was a need for boycotts and sanctions on Hamas. I agree with a number of the things that he said about Hamas. It is a pretty reprehensible organisation in many ways, but the idea of saying that because there is an organisation in control of Gaza not only that we disapprove of but that commits some heinous crimes—it does—that justifies, excuses or places as something to be dealt with at a later date the situation facing the ordinary people of Gaza is one that I just cannot go along with. The reason is a moral one, but there is also a legal one. It is called collective punishment. Collective punishment is illegal under international law, and that is what has been happening to Gaza. It has been happening in a very extreme form since 2007, but it was going on from 2005; actually it was going on before that, before the Israeli withdrawal, as well. Were it not going on before that, why was there ever a need for an agreement on movement and access in 2005?

My hon. Friend says that it is wrong to count the bodies, and that is true. Often, debates just get stuck on that, but when we look at the horror of what is going on in Gaza, some figures do bear repeating. The last big military conflict there, Operation Protective Edge, left 2,205 Gazans dead; 1,483 were civilians and 521 were children. The reason I say that is not just to give the statistics, but to pose the question: what if that happened here? In the UK, it would have meant that 76,800 people were killed; 51,456 would have been civilians and 18,000 would have been children. One quarter of the population of Gaza is still displaced to this day. It would have meant 16 million people in the UK displaced.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I certainly regret the loss of human life in Gaza, but is my hon. Friend aware that the work conducted by the Meir Amit intelligence and terrorism information centre has shown that 52% of those who died were actually terrorists? Forty-eight per cent—a regrettable figure—were civilians, but 52% were terrorists.

Richard Burden: I am not aware of that particular organisation. I am aware that the Israeli Government have queried the figures compiled by a number of respected international organisations. I assume that that is what my hon. Friend is referring to.

Operation Protective Edge and the war last year was an appalling thing, but the real tragedy of Gaza is what goes on. It means that farmers can be shot and are shot just because they approach a border fence. Let us think about what the response would be if Hamas said it was entirely legitimate to shoot people in Sderot because they were getting too close to the border with Gaza. If it works one way, it should work the other. Let us imagine what it is like. My hon. Friend who secured the debate referred to the sea. There is a blockade by sea. Actually, what we have had recently in

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the waters outside Gaza is the interception of fishing boats. That happens regularly. In one case recently, three children on a fishing boat were required by Israeli gunboats to leap into the sea without their clothes on while the fishing boat that they had been occupying was sunk.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Burden: No, there is no time to take any more interventions.

That to me means that we need something a bit more than saying that Hamas must demilitarise if we do not want to allow these things to carry on. If my hon. Friend is right to say that Hamas uses the population of Gaza as pawns, as playthings, what on earth would be the incentive to demilitarise in that situation? What would cause it to do that if, as he is saying, it plays and thrives on the current situation?

To resolve the problem, we need to lift the blockade. Of course, there can be security around that. In fact, there was. There was a major border crossing at Karni, with sophisticated equipment to ensure that the wrong things did not come in. That does not operate now. Why? Because Israel has demolished the Karni crossing. Why is it, when we talk about restrictions in and out of Gaza, that Israel has even put restrictions on the export of strawberries between Gaza and the west bank? How can that be justified on any kind of security grounds? The idea that somehow we can get a solution in Gaza without addressing the issue of the west bank and settlements in the west bank is, frankly, fanciful.

If my hon. Friend thinks that there should be sanctions against Hamas—I think that there are; there is international co-operation on stopping arms getting to Hamas—perhaps he could also consider sanctions against other breaches of international law. How about sanctions against people who aid and abet the illegal construction of settlements in the west bank? How about saying to Israel, “If you expect to receive the privileges under the EU-Israel association agreement, you also have to accept the responsibilities under that”?

How about my hon. Friend joining me and other hon. Members here in telling the Israeli Government and the Israeli embassy to let parliamentarians into Gaza? That could contribute to solving some of these problems, as we could speak with some knowledge about what is going on there. I and other hon. Friends here were the last ones allowed into Gaza to see what was happening, and that was after Operation Cast Lead in 2009.

On several occasions, I have asked the Israeli embassy, “Why do you not let us in?” Each time, it has said, “We are surprised you are not let in.” However, every time we try to get in, the co-operation disappears and the walls go up. As far as I know, my hon. Friend has not been to Gaza, and I imagine he would have the same problems as me in getting in.

Let us, therefore, speak with some knowledge. MPs from this country should be given access to Gaza so that we can see for ourselves whether the international organisations that operate there are right or whether my hon. Friend is right that this is all some kind of Hamas plot.

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3.10 pm

Mr David Ward (Bradford East) (LD): It is customary in these debates to ask the Minister for answers or information, but I want to ask him not to do something: not to tell us how he has urged this or condemned that. I ask him and the Government to be agents of change, because unless we do something differently, no change will be brought about. The UK can be an agent of change.

We all know that the Balfour declaration was conditional: it was clearly anticipated that conflict could arise, and a future home in Israel was conditional on the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities being protected. We all know that, and we also know that there has been a clear breach of that contract.

What has disappeared from our TV screens is the daily reporting of numerous rockets being fired from Gaza. That has disappeared, of course, because it is not happening. That is good news, and we all welcome it. We all condemn the firing of the rockets, and we are pleased that innocent Israelis can go about their lives free from fear. We wish that for everyone.

What has also disappeared from our screens, however, is the daily suppression of the Palestinians in Gaza. It has disappeared not because it is not happening, but because the world has largely moved on to other issues. That suppression is still taking place, and, as I have said many times, the absence of bombing in Gaza is not the only determinant of whether there is peace.

Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Having visited the west bank with the hon. Gentleman a couple of years ago, I agree wholeheartedly with the points he is making. Last week’s UNICEF report showed the systematic and widespread ill treatment of Palestinian children detained on a military basis. That is still going on, but, again, it has been absent from our news reporting.

Mr Ward: That is the very point. I assume other Members will refer to the living conditions in Gaza, so I will leave that to them, but we know the situation that people face. Schools, hospitals, water treatment plants and homes are not being bombed at present by the Israelis, but can we really call the conditions in Gaza peaceful?

The international community would allow no other country to treat anybody the way Israel treats the Palestinians. Such a country would be ostracised and treated as a pariah state; at the very least—as in the case of Myanmar, Russia and South Africa—we would impose sanctions. I have an online petition with more than 80,000 names calling on the Government to be an agent of change and to consider sanctions as part of bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

The truth is that, until we engage in an honest debate about why Israel is given special protected status, we will never resolve the conflict.

Neil Carmichael: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one useful step would be to send a signal that we would recognise a Palestinian state? Does he agree that that would mean safety for Israel and improved governance in Gaza?

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Mr Ward: Of course. The long-term solution is peace for both sides. Although those who support Israel are called friends of Israel, I would argue that they are the enemies of its long-term safety and security because they defend the indefensible actions it takes every day against the Palestinians.

What is apparent to anyone visiting Gaza is the tremendous contribution that countries around the world make to support the Palestinians. However, I have to ask how much of what is contributed is the result of genuine concern for the suffering of the Gazans and how much is donated by nations with a guilty conscience because of their failure to take action against the country that destroyed the very buildings they are helping, yet again, to rebuild. Too often, it is the easy way out for those nations to say they are supporting the Palestinians by helping them to rebuild and to reconstruct, when the damage would not have occurred if those countries had had the courage to take action against Israel.

The debate is not about our contribution to the important life support machine of international aid for a stricken patient, but about our contribution, as an agent of change, to ensuring that the Palestinians and Israelis can live in peace as neighbours. Unless something changes, things will stay the same. The urging and the condemnation do not work; something new needs to happen, and I would argue that that will come through sanctions.

Given its legacy across the region, the UK can and should provide leadership. The same old responses from a UK Minister will not help—they will simply not take us anywhere, and they will not bring about change. We are no longer waiting for banal responses; we need action from the Government to show that they are on the side not only of the Palestinians but, in the long term, of those in Israel who seek to live with the Palestinians in peace, side by side and in a neighbourly way.

3.17 pm

Dame Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann). For the record, I am the parliamentary chair of Labour Friends of Israel.

All of us around the Chamber have really good instincts about what needs to happen. We want peace for the Palestinian people and the Israelis. It is a tragedy and a blight on the international community that, six months after the end of last summer’s Gaza conflict, people in Gaza are still suffering as a result of a humanitarian crisis.

I would not often say this, but I want to recognise the British Government for continuing to support humanitarian efforts. However, I have one or two questions for the Minister. When he replies, will he comment on the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s recent statement that only $135 million in pledges have been received from donor countries, leaving a shortfall of nearly $600 million? That means that assistance programmes have been suspended. All of us want a quick response to the crisis facing the people of Gaza, although hopefully it is only a short-term one.

Efforts to reconstruct Gaza in the longer term throw up greater challenges, some of which have been addressed today. I would like the Minister to comment on the

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remarks made not by the Israeli Government or any other country in the area but the UN Under-Secretary-General, Mr Feltman, who expressed alarm at the reports of Hamas rearming. He said that there were “dangerous developments” in the area. Given the general acceptance that under the Oslo accords there should be a demilitarisation policy, will the Minister comment?

I want the cycle of violence to be broken. I will not be in the next Parliament; but Members cannot return again and again to discuss the aftermath of yet another conflict in Gaza. Given what the UN Under-Secretary-General said, there is potential for that to happen. I hope the Minister—or, indeed, my hon. Friend the shadow Minister, when, as I hope, he assumes a ministerial role—will continue working with the UN to deter the continued arming of the Hamas regime.

Britain has much to do. It is a question of encouraging Israel and President Abbas; looking towards work with Egypt, the Quartet and the Arab League; and coming together to make Hamas face the real choices it has if it wants to open up Gaza in the best interests of its people. Even the Arab League secretary-general, Nabil Elaraby, said on Sunday that the dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority was hindering efforts to reconstruct in Gaza. He told the London-based paper Al-Hayat that the Arab League was holding consultations with donor countries. However, he also said:

“The internal differences and the absence of cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are behind the delay in reconstructing the Gaza Strip”.

This morning I listened to an interview on Radio 4 with two mothers, one Gazan and one Israeli. The astounding thing was that, regardless of their views on the particularities of the current situation and what caused it, they both identified what it was doing to their children—Israeli and Gazan children. They both talked about its traumatic impact, even while there is supposed to be a ceasefire. Peace is not easy. It is really difficult, and we all, as people of good will, must play our part in it. That includes the UK Government.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. To allow all those who want to speak to get in, I must cut down the time limit for speeches to four minutes.

3.22 pm

Mr Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab): I have taken part in probably most of the debates on Israel and Palestine in the past 10 years. Some have been uplifting, such as the one on Palestinian recognition introduced recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris); some have been quite testy, because there are strong views on the subject; and some have been quite constructive, particularly when they were about aid. I have no pleasure in saying that I found today’s debate to be premised on an entirely cynical proposition, and quite disrespectful of the human rights of the Palestinian people. Listening to hon. Members on either side saying that Israel has kept Gaza supplied, I think people must be living in a parallel world.

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington referred to the delegation from the General Union of Palestinian Students, some of whom come originally from Gaza.

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They came here to acknowledge the contribution made by Members of this House to the recognition of a Palestinian state, and told us their personal stories, which included that of a young man who could not see his dying father because, like the 30,000 people trapped and waiting to go in at the moment, he could not get into Gaza. Almost certainly his father died because he could not be given the aid he wanted. That is a common story.

Despite the encouragement of my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann), I am not going to stop talking about the body count. That is not because I do not regret every Israeli death just as much as every Palestinian one; but the fact that 15,049 Palestinian and four Israeli civilians died has significance, because of the disproportionality and because of the weapons used by Israel against Palestinians, consequent on the blockade. The bombing of schools full of refugees, the shelling of hospitals, the contamination of water supplies and the reduction of Gaza, such that according to the UN it will not be habitable by 2020, are factors that have not so far been mentioned in the debate.

Leading NGOs have commented on the situation. The United Nations Relief and Works agency says:

“You can’t punish freezing children because of the actions of armed groups.”

Amnesty International says the blockade

“is unlawful and should be lifted immediately and unconditionally i.e. it should not be contingent on any other possible processes, including demilitarisation.”

Oxfam says:

“Humanitarian assistance and reconstruction must be provided based on need and cannot be contingent upon political developments or demands, including the demilitarization of Palestinian armed groups.”

I ask hon. Members who support that proposition to reflect on what those organisations have said; on the fact that Israel has a responsibility, just as Hamas and other organisations do; on the fact that war crimes are committed by Israel and that collective punishment and the blockade of Gaza are major contributory factors to what we are dealing with; and on the fact that Israeli forces, often unprovoked, fire on people in the Gaza strip.

The blockade should be lifted now, under international law. That could be done, and supplies could go into Gaza with monitoring and verification to make sure that arms do not get in. An entirely false and unworkable premise has been put forward, as I am afraid its sponsors know. Let us have genuine dialogue and reconstruction. Let us prevent arms from going to Gaza; but let us not punish the children and civilians of Gaza for what is happening there.

3.26 pm

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) on securing this important and timely debate. It is true that the rehabilitation and restoration of Gaza following Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians last year has been slow, and it is important that the barriers to that rehabilitation be removed; but what is happening now is far from that, and it is vital to be alert to Hamas’s

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current activities in preparing to launch a new war. It is doing that by reconstructing the terror tunnels; rebuilding its arsenal of rockets and mortars and, indeed, trying to beat Israel’s defence system, the Iron Dome; and recruiting an army which it describes as having been set up for the purpose of “liberating Palestine”.

Robert Halfon: The hon. Lady’s remark about Hamas rearming is important. Does she agree that despite that rearming, and contrary to what the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) said, hundreds of tonnes of aid are going from Israel into Gaza every week?

Mrs Ellman: I agree. Israel was right to defend its citizens from attack in 2014 and if necessary it will defend itself again, but a new round of violence started by Hamas aggression cannot bring a solution to a peace for Palestinians and Israelis any nearer. I call on all those who genuinely care about peace to take whatever action they can to stop a new war. That means recognising the threat posed by Iran, which is already saying how it supports a new war, and threatening, as the Ayatollah Khamenei did in a tweet in November:

“The West Bank will surely be armed just like Gaza”.

We should recognise the problems that Iran poses with respect to the lack of peace in Gaza, and the current nuclear talks with Iran should not stop pressure being applied for it to cease destabilising the region. The United Kingdom should urge the UN Security Council to pass a resolution preventing the rearmament of Hamas and starting a process of demilitarisation. Demilitarisation and the rehabilitation of Gaza are not alternatives to reaching a comprehensive agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, but they are an essential step towards that goal. Hamas aggression started a horrendous war last year with deplorable loss of life.

Several hon. Members rose

Mrs Ellman: I have no time to give way. Hamas has now embarked on a new course, preparing for renewed attacks targeted on Israeli citizens. That will make the prospect of peace even more distant. To all those who seriously want to secure peace, I say this: do all that is possible to stop Hamas rearming, prevent a new war and work for a peace that brings a new and fulfilled life to Israelis and Palestinians, including the long-suffering people of Gaza.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that if they accept interventions, they may cut off somebody who is on the list to speak.

3.30 pm

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): It would be churlish of me not to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) on securing the debate. However, I feel that, in many respects, it is a counsel of despair, because of the propositions that some hon. Members have put forward, and because of the failure to look at the historical facts and properly analyse the way forward.

I will divide my much-curtailed contribution into two parts. Of course, every hon. Member and every person with a conscience wants to avoid a repeat of last summer’s catalogue of horrors. We have heard the figures for the appalling loss of life and the destruction of residential areas and United Nations facilities. Ordinary Palestinians

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in the Gaza strip are being made to pay the price for the conflict. We must look at the root causes of the situation. We are talking about a day-to-day, grinding occupation. The occupying power is Israel, which maintains an illegal and unjust iron grip on the territory and its inhabitants. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who has unfortunately left the Chamber, suggested that Israel has disengaged, but that is a false premise. The international community recognise that the situation in Gaza is an ongoing occupation, because of the restrictions on trade, employment, movement, access to medical supplies and medical treatments, and so on.

I refer Members to article 154 of the fourth Geneva convention, which refers to the responsibilities of the occupying power under belligerent occupation. Of course, the closure of Gaza is part of a long process that predates the rise of Gaza. Members who support the Israeli Government often use that fact as some kind of justification, but it is quite incorrect to do so. The punitive nature of the blockade, although it is denied by those who strongly support the Government of Israel, is acknowledged by those who administer it as an act of collective punishment. If we believe in anything as parliamentarians, we believe in the rule of international law in upholding international conventions, and collective punishment is forbidden under international law.

Mr David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman hold the same view about Egypt?

Grahame M. Morris: There are some really important lessons to be learned internationally, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland and the peace process in South Africa. There are issues that must be addressed with Egypt, and I do not think that its position is awfully helpful. The fundamental point is that all interested parties must come together and actively participate in a meaningful process.

Time is short, so I turn to the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow that Hamas would voluntarily disarm on the basis that Israel would, at that point, end the blockade and its illegal settlement enterprise and allow the establishment of a Palestinian state. The parties in Israel are opposed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, so that premise is deeply flawed. In the west bank, the Palestine Liberation Organisation adopted non-violent resistance to the occupation in 1988. In the years since, what has been its reward? House demolitions, the expansion of illegal settlements, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of illegal settlers, continued oppression, the arrest of children and the subjugation of military occupation. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is not conducive to peace, because it proposes only to remove Hamas’s weapons. It would not address the factors that lead people in the west bank towards violence. Let us learn from the peace process in Northern Ireland. We are treating the symptoms and not the cause. We must address the blockade, and rather than undermining Palestinian political institutions that seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, we should strengthen them.

3.35 pm

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Any proposal for ending conflict between Gaza and Israel that does not prioritise the upholding of international law and a just settlement between Israel and Palestine is bound to

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fail. Indeed, the failure of the international community to halt the colonial theft of Palestinian land and to broker a just peace is the greatest provocation of further unrest.

The Oslo dynamic, which has persisted for more than 20 years, has demonstrably failed. In conflict resolution, victims of conflict sometimes abandon their right to seek justice for past crimes and transgressions in the hope of building trust and strengthening a political process that is designed to resolve the broader conflict. We need only look to Northern Ireland to see how that principle has worked in practice. Importantly, the dynamic assumes that the parties to the conflict are sincerely interested in resolving the situation in a way that is both legal and acceptable to the other party. Sadly, that is not the case in the virtually non-existent middle east peace process. Rather, Palestinians have been asked to sacrifice almost every conceivable right or claim to justice at the altar of negotiation. That has afforded the Government of Israel unparalleled impunity for its many crimes against the Palestinian people. With each unpunished transgression, those on the Israeli right are encouraged to continue to act as they like, however immoral or illegal their actions, safe in the knowledge that there will be no adverse consequences.

Palestinians are told that they must negotiate for their rights, their statehood and their freedom from occupation. Meanwhile, the party with which they must negotiate changes the facts on the ground day by day to make the realisation of those rights an ever more distant prospect. For those who seek to deny the Palestinians their rights, it is worth noting that the Israelis were not expected to negotiate with the Palestinians for the same rights. It is both impractical and wrong to expect a successful peace process to emerge from a dynamic in which there is such a disproportionate imbalance of power and in which the rule of law has been totally abandoned.

Most of the current Israeli Government—those with whom the Palestinians are told they must negotiate to obtain their rights—are on record as saying that they fundamentally oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state. Last summer, Binyamin Netanyahu, who is on the left of his right-wing coalition, spoke his mind:

“I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

For the past two decades, negotiations have served as little more than a fig leaf to cover Israel’s expansionist aims so that it can consolidate what it has already taken by force of arms.

If the situation is to end and space is to be created for a meaningful peace process, the UK must push to make Israel accountable for its breaches of international law. That means that we should be prepared to pull whatever levers exist, whether economic or diplomatic, to ensure that the Israeli Government understand that continuing to annex Palestinian land, collectively punishing 1.7 million people with an illegal blockade and systematically denying a people their fundamental rights will not be tolerated by the international community. We should also do what we can to strengthen the voices of moderation inside Palestine and to demonstrate that it is the path of

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politics and peace, not the path of violence, that leads somewhere. Our Government should respect the will of Parliament and immediately recognise Palestine as a state. We must also do all we can to support the unity Government, in which Hamas is to take a back seat. In fact, the announcement of the unity Government that preceded this summer’s assault on Gaza was widely seen—

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does my hon. Friend recognise the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) that Hamas would disarm in return for economic development? That would make a hostage of all those peace-loving people in the Palestinian population who neither hold arms nor hold any brief for those who hold arms.

Andy McDonald: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it involves doing all we can to support the unity Government in which Hamas is to take a back seat. The unity Government was welcomed by everyone, save only for Israel.

Critically, we should understand that the realisation of Palestinian rights and the success and security of Israel are intertwined. There will never be justice for Palestinians while the occupation continues and their rights are denied. Peace and security will be unobtainable for Israel so long as Palestinians live with such injustice.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): The two Front-Bench Members have each given Fabian Hamilton a minute.

3.40 pm

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Hood. I appreciate that. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann)—I hope I pronounced his constituency correctly.

My last visit to Gaza was in March 2009 as part of a Foreign Affairs Committee delegation. The visit included opportunities to see the post-war situation in both Israel and Gaza following Operation Cast Lead, but owing to security considerations only four members of the Committee were allowed to cross the border. In Gaza, the delegation witnessed at first hand the destruction caused by Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli military operation waged to stop Hamas’s indiscriminate launching of missiles from Gaza against Israeli towns and cities. In Israel, we visited towns, including Sderot, that had been most greatly affected by the Hamas terror rockets. Those rockets were constructed from the metal pipe work that was sent by Israel to reconstruct the sewage treatment works in Gaza but was instead cut up into rocket-sized tubes, packed with explosives and rocket fuel and sent back across the border to Sderot in order to inflict as much civilian damage as possible. In fact, the police station in Sderot had piles of spent missiles with Hebrew writing still stamped on the cut-up lengths of metal pipe. Sadly, it feels as if little has changed since my last visit to Gaza in 2009.

In the time I have left, I will briefly mention what life under Hamas means for the people of Gaza. One of the things we hear most about are the summary executions with no hint of due process. Hamas publicly executed 25 people in just over 48 hours last August, allegedly for

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collaborating with Israel. Those executions cannot be explained away as the excesses of war. Among those executed by Hamas in 2013 was a juvenile offender, despite what Amnesty International termed

“serious concerns about the fairness of his trial, including allegations he was tortured to ‘confess’.”

Hamas regularly uses torture. According to the recently published annual report of Human Rights Watch, not a body that anyone could describe as a stooge of the state of Israel:

“The Internal Security Agency and Hamas police in Gaza tortured or ill-treated”—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I call Gareth Thomas.

3.43 pm

Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) on securing the debate. As others have said, more than 2,000 people were killed in the conflict last summer, many of them civilians, including more than 500 children. Many more were injured, including more than 3,000 children. As a result of their injuries, more than 1,000 of those children are likely to have physical disabilities for the rest of their lives.

Last summer’s conflict was, of course, the third since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, and the cycle of violence was grimly reminiscent of the events that led to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012. On all three occasions, it was obvious that a sustainable solution will not be found through violence and that a political solution is necessary. The human cost of the failure to negotiate a lasting and sustainable settlement to the middle east conflict is all too apparent in the continued trauma, devastation and insecurity not only in Gaza but in the west bank and Israel. My hon. Friend is right to warn that the international community must now do all it can to avoid further conflict in Gaza, and that a complex mix of pressures in Gaza, Israel and the wider middle east must be thought through and understood to avoid further bloodshed, and over the medium term, to move towards a more comprehensive negotiated settlement that secures the two-state solution that I suspect everyone in the House wants.

An immediate priority must be to address urgently the severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Almost 20,000 homes have been completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, and many others have been damaged, and more than 100,000 Palestinians are still displaced. Some 19,000 displaced people are still living in United Nations Relief and Works Agency shelters, such as school buildings. Those whose homes remain habitable struggle to cope with the scheduled power cuts of up to 18 hours a day, and basic services such as access to water and sanitation can best be described as dysfunctional. That already grim situation has been exacerbated by recent winter storms, which resulted in further deaths and affected those in emergency shelters or damaged homes.

In that context, the $5.4 billion pledged by the international community at the Cairo conference last October is welcome, but it is deeply worrying that UNRWA had to halt a $720 million project that aimed

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to give rental subsidies to people whose homes have been damaged and are inhospitable, and cash to people to repair and rebuild their properties. UNRWA has stated that it has been left with a shortfall of almost $600 million, as the money pledged by international donors has yet to be translated into actual disbursements.

It was recently reported that just $300 million of aid pledges have so far been transferred. The UK pledged some £20 million at the Cairo conference to support the reconstruction effort in Gaza, and the Department for International Development announced the disbursement of $4.7 million just before Christmas, bringing the total amount it has disbursed to some £7.8 million. Will the Minister update the House on when the next disbursement is planned? How much will be disbursed, and for what services will that aid be delivered? Why has progress on disbursing our aid appeared to be so slow?

What discussions have the Government had with other international donors to ensure that they fulfil their pledges? The Minister will know better than the rest of the House which donors have not so far met or begun to come close to meeting their expectations on delivering aid. Does he believe that a further international effort is needed to facilitate progress? What role, for example, might the EU’s new High Representative, the Quartet or the Gulf Co-operation Council play in helping to facilitate progress on reconstruction?

As has been mentioned in the debate, donors appear to have become concerned about the failure of the technocratic unity Government, agreed by Hamas and Fatah in April 2014, to take control of Gaza, where Hamas remains the de facto Government. What is the Minister’s assessment of the scale of difficulty faced by that technocratic unity Government? What progress are the Arab League and the UN making on their consultations to put in place a Palestinian authority to govern Gaza? My hon. Friends are right that the blockade of Gaza must end.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Thomas: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way because of the time.

The blockade of Gaza must end with the co-operation of Israel. What recent action has the Minister taken to press the Government of Israel on that critical issue? No one wants to see a repeat of last summer, and clearly a crucial element of preventing another conflict must be for the international community to stop Hamas rebuilding its arsenal and tunnels so that it cannot again fire thousands of rockets into Israel. There can be absolutely no justification for the conduct of Hamas and other organisations that fired rockets into Israel and sought to infiltrate civilian areas. We are unyielding in our condemnation of Hamas both for the indiscriminate killing of Israeli civilians and for the disruptive role it has played when others have tried to secure the two-state solution that we all want.

Ultimately, we have to help the Palestinians and the Israelis to get back to the negotiating table. It is surely the responsibility of all of us in the international community—certainly the UK, but also countries across the international community—to use the leverage that we have to encourage again the conditions so that negotiations can begin on a peaceful, lasting solution.

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Such a solution needs to involve the peoples of the occupied territories and of Israel, as well as their leaders. Progress on violence, on respecting human rights and on illegal settlements will be critical to building the conditions for such negotiations to take place.

I come back finally to the urgency of the situation in Gaza. The humanitarian crisis there demands that the international community steps up its efforts to get the construction of homes and access to basic services going again. I look forward to hearing what further role the Minister thinks the UK can play in helping to achieve that.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I am expecting a Division at 4 o’clock.

3.50 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Tobias Ellwood): I shall begin, as others have done, by congratulating the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) on securing this important debate. I thank hon. Members for the tone and the manner in which we have discussed this very important issue. I share with hon. Members and hon. Friends my frustration in having only nine minutes or so before the Division bell rings to answer all the points. I have written pages of notes in order to respond in detail, and I feel frustrated because of the limitations of the debate. May I ask the powers that be, if they happen to be listening, that we have a longer debate on a more regular basis, such is the importance of the issue? I will do my best to get through the points. If I do not, please forgive me. I will do my best to write to hon. Members and respond to their points.

We have played a key role in support of Gazans. During the summer, the UK was one of the biggest donors to Gaza, providing more than £17 million in emergency assistance to deliver life-saving food, clean water, shelter and medical assistance to tens of thousands of people affected by the fighting. We have also played a vital role in supporting Gaza’s reconstruction. The UK pledged more than £20 million at the Gaza reconstruction conference, which I attended in October, to help kick-start the recovery and get the people of Gaza back on their feet. A quarter of our pledge has already been distributed, and we urge other donors to disburse theirs. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) was right to say that there have been problems, and we need to make sure that the bottlenecks are sorted out.

DFID’s long-term programme of support in Gaza is focused on relieving the humanitarian impacts of the occupation, supporting the provision of basic services, including health and education, and helping local businesses to grow and provide jobs.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Ellwood: I cannot give way because I need time to answer the questions. Let us have the debate in the Chamber, give me half an hour to reply, and I will be happy to give way.

We are still deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation, which has continued to deteriorate, as hon. Members have implied. Thousands of families still do

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not have homes to return to. The UK is working closely with international partners to support the work of the Gaza reconstruction mechanism, which was created to facilitate the importation of vital construction materials, and is providing £500,000 in support.

We continue to stress to the Israeli authorities the damage that their restrictions are doing to ordinary Palestinians in Gaza. We are clear that supporting legal trade for Gazans is firmly in Israel’s long-term interests. We are concerned about the closure of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Indeed, let us open the other crossing. The Rafah crossing is a pedestrian crossing that needs to be converted into a wider one for vehicles. The Kerem Shalom crossing could be expanded, and Erez is another one that needs to be widened. We continue to raise those important points not only with the Israelis, but with the Egyptian Government, who are central in bringing together the parties to get the negotiations restarted.

We firmly believe that ending the cycle of violence in Gaza is in the interests of all parties. Last summer, Israelis lived in fear of indiscriminate rocket strikes and terror attacks. That is clearly not acceptable and we deplore the terrorist tactics of Hamas. The people of Israel have the right to live without constant fear for their security, just as the people of Gaza have the right to live safely in peace. We are deeply concerned by reports that militant groups within Gaza are re-arming and re-digging tunnels. That will not deliver peace to the people of Gaza. Only a durable ceasefire can offer that. The UK will do all that it can to support efforts towards that goal.

Last year, we worked hard with international partners to bring a ceasefire about, and we came close before things unravelled in April. We urge the parties to resume negotiations to reach a comprehensive agreement that tackles the underlying causes of the conflict. Such an agreement should ensure that Hamas and other militant groups permanently end rocket fire and other attacks against Israel, and that the Palestinian Authority—not just a technocratic Government—resume control of Gaza and restore effective and accountable governance. An agreement should also ensure that Israel lifts its restrictions in order to ease the suffering of ordinary Palestinians, and allow the Gazan economy to grow.

In response to some of the comments that have been made today, we are lobbying Israel on the transfer of goods from Gaza to the west bank. We want an increase in the fisheries zone from six miles to the 20 miles that was in the Oslo peace accords. We want further movement of people out of Gaza at some of the crossing points that I mentioned. We also want Israel involved in longer-term strategic measures such as power, water and exports.

I have personally lobbied Federica Mogherini. She and others in the European Union could promote the idea of getting the marina working. Let us have an umbilical cord going from Gaza to the EU via Cyprus, which is secure, with the agreement of the Israelis. Such an EU contribution would be very helpful indeed. Unfreezing the tax revenues, which are causing such problems with funding at the moment, would also help.

We are lobbying the Palestinians. We are certainly disappointed about the political stalemate between Fatah and Hamas, and we would encourage the Palestinian Authority to increase their footprint in Gaza. It does require their being able to get there, so we call on

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Israelis to allow the movement of people, particularly the politicians, to be able to exert their leverage. We are also emphasising the need to resume talks on a long-term ceasefire to achieve stabilisation.

Egypt plays a crucial role. We want to facilitate the contacts towards reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. We want Egypt to resume its important role in hosting the talks that began in Cairo.

Jim Shannon rose—

Mr Ellwood: I am afraid I will not give way. I hope the hon. Gentleman understands why.

In the short time that I have left, I will try to respond to some of the points that were made. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) took a step back and talked about the general plight of what is going on in Gaza. What we see is a tragedy in one of the most populated areas of the world, with 57% of the population suffering food insecurity and 80% reliant on aid. Such numbers suggest that that is exactly where terrorism can be incubated, when so many people are so poor. It must be in everybody’s interest to make sure that we tackle that.

The hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) talked about events that are no longer on our television screens. He is right to say that. They are not on TV at the moment, but we do not want to go around this buoy again. We do not want to see another Operation Cast Lead or another Operation Protective Edge. We do not want to see such conflicts again. Yet, what we are not seeing on our TV screens—this has been illustrated today—is the tunnels being built, the salaries not being paid and the taxes not being collected. It also seems that settlements are still being built. We have seen on previous occasions that those ingredients could be leading us into a very dangerous place. We need to recognise that and work together to prevent repeating history.

The right hon. Member for Stirling (Dame Anne McGuire) talked about funding, which I have touched on. It is important to get the funding streams working. The UN representative talked about the re-arming and dangerous developments that are taking place. I met Nabil Elaraby, Secretary-General of the Arab League, last week in Washington.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I will give the Minister two seconds to finish, or we can come back after the Division.

Mr Ellwood: I would like to say so much, but I am being denied. I hope we can continue this debate. I thank hon. Members for their contributions.

3.58 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

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Transport Infrastructure (West and South Cumbria)

4.13 pm

Mr Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am reassured that this Minister is responding to the debate and feel completely assured of a sympathetic hearing. I know he understands the issues at hand and I look forward to his response.

The issues that I wish to raise are incredibly and genuinely important. Plenty of my constituents will currently be sitting in their cars on congested roads not fit for purpose or be crammed into trains that are full to bursting. This is a daily occurrence for many in west and south Cumbria who are simply trying to get to and from work.

West Cumbria and the whole Cumbrian industrial economic crescent, which stretches north to south, has the potential to be an engine for substantial economic growth for the region and for the country as a whole, but the current infrastructure is already creaking under the strain. Nowhere is this issue more visible than on the A595 from Barrow to Carlisle. This key artery for the economy of the north-west is simply not fit for purpose in its current state. I shall set out the irrefutable case for significant Government investment in the A595 to ensure that Cumbria’s economic potential can be realised.

Earlier this month, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport outlining these issues, and I want to expand on them. I should be grateful if the Minister outlined the Government’s position on investment in this critical piece of road infrastructure.

The A595 is an 85-mile carriageway extending from the Dalton-in-Furness bypass in the south to Carlisle in the north. The vast majority of the road is single carriageway, with only a few examples of dual carriageway along the route. The road around Whitehaven, which is also served by the A595, was designated a trunk road in 1946, but was de-trunked in 1998, apart from an 18-mile section between Clifton and Calderbridge, and from Sellafield to the A66. The road carries over 10,000 vehicles each day, including those on a large number of inevitable, unavoidable work-based trips. It is the main route for people travelling to and from Sellafield, a site of incredible national importance. At shift change, twice a day, it is not unusual to see around 10 miles of tailbacks, with people sitting in their cars for hours. The chaos this causes to emergency services, schools, and more, is palpable and clearly understandable to all hon. Members here.

The road simply cannot cope with the volume of traffic it currently carries, and this situation will only get worse as our local economic plans accelerate. One section of the road to the south of Whitehaven is ranked as the 10th least reliable road within the north Pennines route, and according to the Highways Agency three sections of the A595 rank in the 100 least reliable roads in the whole country. There is also a large number of collisions on the A595. The route is in the top fifth of routes with the highest rates of injury from collisions.

Given the rurality of the region, with pockets of urban populations linked by the A595, many people

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rely on the road, but it just is not fit for purpose. On 14 April 2014, the then Minister of State for Disabled People, the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), following a visit to Sellafield, wrote to the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), decrying the state of the A595, saying:

“This congestion causes significant issues for the site, its employees and the local community alike and will only get worse.”

He concluded:

“I would encourage the Department for Transport to facilitate action in this area.”

That Minister’s letter represented an unusual, unexpected, but welcome intervention and he has my full support on this issue. I have not seen the Government’s reply to the Minister, but I should be grateful if the Minister undertook to furnish me with a copy of that response.

In his letter, the Minister stated:

“We have seen the potential of major transport infrastructure projects to promote economic regeneration in east London following the 2012 Olympics.”

The incoming investment to west and south-west Cumbria is on an Olympic scale—potentially greater—and it demands Olympic ambition for the infrastructure that will serve it. As I have set out, the current infrastructure is woefully inadequate.

A technical annex to a Highways Agency report estimates that by 2031 there will be substantial growth in the area. In Allerdale, Barrow-in-Furness and Copeland combined, 14,000 new jobs will be created, with an additional 12,000 new homes created as a result. Local economic development agencies, such as Britain’s Energy Coast, estimate that many more thousands of jobs will be created, in excess of the 14,000. In any event, there will be an influx of tens of thousands of new workers, with the associated increase in vehicle trips and strain upon the road network. The increased industrial activity will see more freight on the roads. Without improvements, the network will grind to a halt.

The Highways Agency’s “North Pennines Route Strategy Evidence Report” states:

“Certain specific developments provide specific operational challenges, for example on the A595 in Copeland”—

my constituency—

“traffic associated with operations at Sellafield, which directly employs around 10,000 people, causes significant congestion outside the normal morning and evening peak periods. The lack of alternative routes and viable alternative travel options, such as local bus and rail services, combine to result in rapid build-up of congestions when incidents occur.”

It also states:

“The A595 and A590 in Cumbria are likely to be the major focus for economic development on the route with the expansion of activities related to energy generation along the ‘Energy Coast’ including the construction of a new nuclear power station at Moorside.”

I expect that my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness will talk about stress on the roads in relation to the huge development that he has helped to secure in his constituency, too.

John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. Cumbria desperately needs some real infrastructure spending internally, although

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we have good communications going out. Does he agree that the A595 going up to Carlisle is equally important for the development of Carlisle? If there were better connectivity between the east and the west, that would be good not just for economic development but for the health economy.

Mr Reed: It is absolutely in the best interests of Carlisle to develop the A595. Considering that we have all worked on a cross-party basis for many years to try to get the airport developed there, it needs to be served by good road infrastructure, otherwise the benefits from it will be not what they should. I will come on to the health service in due course.

In reality, more than 10,000 people work on the Sellafield site, and it will soon be one of the biggest construction sites in Europe as decommissioning progresses, whether or not new missions are secured. The report goes on to state:

“Without any interventions, planned development is likely to result in further deterioration in network performance.”

The case for investment to upgrade the A595 is overwhelming. It is undeniably in the national interest, and the Government should recognise that fact and act accordingly. In less than a fortnight, a petition arranged by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness has gathered well over 1,000 signatures. It calls for investment, and more people add their support daily. A few testimonies from the many people who have signed the petition show just how much of an impact the A595 has on their daily lives. One person said:

“I am the manager of a health centre and cannot get to work by any other road. When it blocks, we cannot get essential staff to work. When this happens, our patients are affected.”

Another said:

“Every day my travel to work of 17 miles exceeds one hour, ten minutes.”

I would like to see people in London put up with that kind of delay. Another simply added:

“Something needs to be done.”

My constituents rightly demand that the Government take a lead on this matter. As I have repeatedly said, this infrastructure is of national importance and the economic case is indisputable. West Cumbria can be a world leader when it comes to the creation of skilled jobs, and we are already hugely significant in that regard. Imminent inward investment from around the world means that our position as a global centre of excellence will be not only maintained but enhanced. Our vision is to become a global centre of nuclear excellence and through that to diversify and grow the economy through spin-outs, but the only way we can realise that potential is to have the infrastructure in place to support the growth and make it stick. It is a clear example of where a return on investment would greatly outweigh any initial costs and would improve the lives of many thousands of people.

So far I have spoken mainly about the economic benefits of new investment in the A595 and the economic cost of inaction, but a failure to invest would have wider ramifications, not least for health care, as the hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) pointed out. There is great strain on ambulance services in the region, but North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust envisages more patient transfers in the coming years. The journey time between West Cumberland hospital in

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Whitehaven and the Cumberland infirmary is already upwards of two hours bed to bed. As congestion worsens, that travel time is set to deteriorate further. Without investment in the A595, there will be serious ramifications for the health of my constituents, and that is unacceptable. It is also a key reason why patient services should not be further stripped from the West Cumberland hospital. This is not the place to air those issues, but let me be absolutely clear: there must be no further erosion of services at the West Cumberland hospital and no more unjustifiable transfers of services from Whitehaven to Carlisle. Not even the best road in the world would be capable of shortening the 42 miles between the two hospitals. No road upgrade could ever justify further service erosion.

In west Cumbria, we are building a 21st-century economy on 19th-century infrastructure. By failing to act, any Government would be knowingly acting against the economic interests of the region and the country as a whole. Cumbria simply cannot reach its full potential if we do not have the roads to enable us to achieve our ambitions and to make the unprecedented investments coming our way stick. The ambition of west Cumbria is there. It is manifest in our community spirit, our ambition and our determination, all of which bind our local economic ambitions—north, east, west and south.

Will the Minister make a commitment to undertake a feasibility study of what improvements will be necessary to cope with future economic developments in the area and future demands on the road network? The scope of that work need cover not simply road improvements but how more Sellafield workers, for instance, could be located away from the Sellafield site in Whitehaven town centre and right across Copeland in new office buildings, thereby achieving town centre regeneration and reducing site risk and road congestion. Will he also give a commitment to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness to discuss the issues in more detail? The Minister is usually amenable, and I know that he is a committed and passionate public servant when it comes to dealing with requests from all parts of the House.

In west and south-west Cumbria, we are about to receive the single largest private sector investment we have ever seen. It has been hard won over many years, and it has not happened by accident. These are once-in-a-generation investments, and every opportunity must be seized. West Cumbria’s best days are ahead of us, but we can only reach our true potential if significant improvements are made to the A595. These are not tiresome partisan issues, but issues of national strategic importance. Will the Minister back our drive for growth?

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): If the hon. Gentleman has permission, he can make a speech.

Mr Jamie Reed: The fault is mine, Mr Hood. I gave my permission a long time ago.

Mr Jim Hood (in the Chair): That has just been brought to my attention. I call John Woodcock.

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4.25 pm

John Woodcock: Thank you for your forbearance, Mr Hood. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I know that you must particularly look forward to these debates on A roads. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing this debate and on leading the campaign on the A595 with such energy. It is an urgent issue. My hon. Friend put the case so well, but for a couple of minutes I will add a few brief points.

Nearly 400 people travel from my constituency to Sellafield every day. As the area realises its ambition to become a global centre of nuclear excellence alongside the building of a new nuclear submarine fleet in Barrow-in-Furness, it will become an extraordinary powerhouse of nuclear expertise. As the travel-to-work area spans that geographic footprint, there will be much greater use of the A road in both directions, yet parts of it are barely worth calling a road. There is an infamous bit in my constituency that is literally a farmyard. If the Minister has time, I urge him to watch the videos that intrepid safety campaigners in the Kirkby area have made. For drivers on this stretch of road, it is an almost daily occurrence to see huge juggernauts coming towards them with, at points, no way around.

We have seen 18 deaths and 550 injuries on the road in the past five years, but there has been no upgrade in spending, which is vitally needed. We need better public transport and transport infrastructure investment that matches both the scale and ambition of the growth and the amount of value that will be added to the UK economy—not just the economy of our area. I want much better engagement from the train companies and the Government for park and ride schemes in Askam or Broughton going up to Sellafield and the new Moorside sites, but that cannot come at the expense of the investment that is so clearly needed. We are not asking for all the money up front, right now. All we have asked for in writing is for the Government to pay for the feasibility study. Will the Minister confirm that they will do that? If his view is that there should be a bridge across the Duddon, say that now. We need an option, and it needs to be properly looked at. We need the money for the study.

4.28 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr John Hayes): It is a great pleasure to be able to respond to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) on securing it. I worked with him when I was an energy Minister, particularly on nuclear issues, given his commitment to and expertise in that area. That is not irrelevant to this debate, as he made clear in his contribution. The growth in demand from the investment in Sellafield will undoubtedly have an effect on the volume and character of traffic. It is important that the infrastructural investment in nuclear power be matched by infrastructural investment of other kinds to make that economic regeneration as meaningful as it can be. I welcome the contributions of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), who have highlighted the wider effect that such investment might have on their localities.

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Given that we are discussing a part of the country that boasts our splendid Lake district, some may have expected me to quote one of the Lake poets, but I am not a predictable Minister. The only thing predictable about me is that I will quote a poet, but it is not going to be a Lake poet; it is going to be W. B. Yeats. When I think of the Lake district, I think of Yeats and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”:

“I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

As the hon. Member for Copeland spoke, I thought of that glorious part of the country. Because it is glorious, it attracts a considerable volume of traffic, not only from the locality and not only for the economic reasons he described, but because many people choose to go there for all kinds of other reasons. I have been there to enjoy the scenic beauty of that part of the country.

With its industrial heritage, the glorious landscape is also a vibrant and dynamic place, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. I mentioned Sellafield, which is a modern powerhouse and deserves to be treated as such. As the hon. Gentleman indicated, we are planning to build three new nuclear reactors at Moorside, near Sellafield, which will create very many jobs—more than 20,000. That will have a big effect, particularly when one adds in the 10,000 jobs at the reprocessing site. In the early part of this Parliament, before I was an energy Minister, I was the Minister responsible for apprenticeships, so I am delighted to be able to celebrate the fact that there are going to be 121 apprenticeships as well.

There has been a lot of interest from companies that want to mine the extensive coal deposits that still lie under the Irish sea. Such developments are welcome. The road investment strategy we have set out is the most ambitious road-building programme since the 1970s and the first time a Government have committed long-term funding to such a strategy, and it is important for Cumbria. We will invest £15.2 billion in more than 100 major schemes to enhance, renew and transform the network between now and 2020. That will take 69 new road schemes into construction over the next six years, as well as completing existing projects and delivering on our previous commitments.

All the infrastructure I have described will support economic growth of the kind I have briefly amplified, and to which all the hon. Gentlemen who spoke drew the House’s attention. It is really important that the work we are doing, the investment we are making and the plans we are devising and delivering in those principal arterial routes are supported, as the hon. Member for Copeland said, by route strategies. I will share a secret with all those present, although it is not a secret to you, Mr Hood, as you so ably chaired the Infrastructure Bill Committee. I insisted that that Bill be amended to take account, on its face, of the significance of route strategies. As I considered the matter and discussed it with shadow Ministers, it seemed to me that unless we got the strategy right for the roads that feed the main arterial routes, we would not succeed in providing the extra capacity required

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to benefit areas such as the hon. Gentleman’s and, by the way, my own, as well as those of many other Members.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that, working with all agencies, which of course includes Cumbria county council, the local highways authority, we must now ensure that the decisions made are consistent and coherent between all authorities. I was in a meeting yesterday with council leaders from the south-west, and we were discussing the A303, another of those key arterial routes, on exactly that basis. I intend to encourage and, indeed, to ensure further consultation with local authorities, local communities, stakeholders, businesses and others to make sure that the route strategies actually match the same kind of ambitious thinking, are built on the same sort of empiricism, and commit the funds required to deliver the infrastructure outcomes that service the economic demand described by the hon. Gentleman. That goes for the areas immediately adjacent to the main arterial routes, but also for the areas adjacent to those areas—a point made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle.

The hon. Member for Copeland will know that the document to which he referred, the north Pennines route strategy, helped to inform our road investment strategy—our macro document, one might say—which underpins the plans that I have outlined. I will ensure that the north Pennines route strategy will be used as a basis for future investment decisions. The second part of the route strategy, which details the proposed solution, has not yet been published but will be. It will be published on the basis of that kind of stakeholder engagement—that consultative approach—informed by the hon. Gentleman and other local representatives, along with the other interested parties, which will of course include major local employers.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I would make available the response that originated from the visit of a previous Minister to his neck of the woods. We will look to see whether a response was made. If it is on record, I will happily make it available to him and, if it would be helpful, to other contributors to this debate, so that they can be as informed as possible.

At this point, it seems that I should return to the script that has been prepared for me. I do not like to do that with too much regularity, because it makes one’s contributions to debates such as this altogether less interesting and less of a response to what has been said before one rises. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman can look forward to a concentration of resource and expertise from central Government, working with the relevant partners to try to bring about some of the things he set out.

The hon. Gentleman will know that Cumbria county council has received £13.7 million for integrated transport improvements over the past four years, and £109 million for highways maintenance. Picking up the point made by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness, I accept that maintenance is not the principal concern in respect of the road of which he was speaking, but clearly it is a concern. Until we reach the point where we can make major new investment, it is important that we make good the highways that people use day to day. We certainly would not want to delay the necessary maintenance and repair work just because we intend to do more.

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Over the next six years Cumbria county council is set to receive more than £13 million for integrated transport improvements and more than £141 million for highways maintenance. That money is not ring-fenced and the council is free to spend it as it wishes. Having said that, the more co-ordinated we can be and the more that the joint working I have identified can take effect, the more success we are likely to have in ensuring that the money is allocated properly.

Finally, I could speak about the need to integrate with rail as well, because that is a pressing concern in the locality we are discussing. I know that it was not the basis of the speech by the hon. Member for Copeland, but he has raised the matter previously. I pay tribute to him and, in order to conclude, I will commit to writing to all hon. Members present with any further information that is useful. Once again, I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has paid us a service in drawing these matters to our attention.

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Bullying on School Buses

4.38 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate as I wish to raise the issue of bullying on school buses once more before I retire from the House. I have raised the case of Ben Vodden in the House on a number of occasions, most recently on 5 November 2013, when I led an Adjournment debate on bullying on school transport. I shared the story of 11-year-old Ben, a young student who, in 2006, after being bullied persistently on a dedicated school bus in Sussex, took his own life. As I said at the time, the incidents of bullying that led to his tragic death were reported on a number of occasions, yet, for whatever reason, they were ignored.

The heartbreaking case of Ben Vodden shone a light on the role of dedicated school bus drivers. The driver of Ben’s bus not only failed to intervene, but was complicit in the persistent bullying that took place on the bus. In the view of Ben’s parents, that took the situation to a whole new level. Bullying by peers is, as we know, incredibly difficult to deal with, but adding to that bullying by the person seen by a child as a responsible adult is difficult even to comprehend. Since the tragic death of Ben in 2006, his father, Paul Vodden, has dedicated a great amount of time to tackling the issue. He has campaigned tirelessly for greater protection for children from bullying, worked closely with United Kingdom charities and met me and various Ministers from both the main parties to draw attention to the problem.

Back in August 2010, a year after the Government released their guidance on tackling bullying on school journeys, a survey conducted by 4Children and me showed that most local authorities did not have any kind of safer travel policy in place. From the survey we discovered that of the 67 local authorities spoken to, 60% did not have a safer travel policy; of the 40% that did, only half said that the policy covered all forms of bullying and 38% said that all forms of journey were covered.

As I outlined in my previous speech, the situation on dedicated school buses is naturally unique and consequently problematic. Where else would we suggest that an untrained and unqualified person be solely in charge of dozens of children while undertaking another task at the same time? The facts of the matter are that when children are put on a school bus there is no formal supervision as in a school playground, there is no way to avoid conflict situations and, often, the children have absolutely no choice as to the composition of the group by whom they are surrounded.

In August 2013 Mr Vodden carried out his own online survey to assess more closely the issue of bullying on dedicated school buses. He wanted to discover the extent to which bullying on buses was a universal problem and to understand what role, if any, the driver had. The report made it clear that many of the problems persisted and that the issue needed urgent attention. I shared the methodology of Mr Vodden’s study with the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), then the Under-Secretary of State for Education and the responsible Minister.

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Mr Vodden and I have both now carried out further surveys. In his latest study, Mr Vodden focused on school bus drivers. He has not finalised his report, but is permitting me to quote some of the preliminary results today. I shall refer to his first study as Vodden report No. 1 and the latest study as Vodden report No. 2. As a former teacher, I realise that this will require concentration as I proceed with my speech. I will not spend too much time talking about Vodden report No. 1 today, as I shall focus more closely on my second survey, which I carried out last year. Some key conclusions from Vodden report No. 1, however, provide a good context in which to assess whether progress has been made.

Vodden report No. 1 found bullying on school buses to be a significant problem. Thirty of the survey’s respondents reported self-harming, 24 had considered suicide and 97 simply wanted to hide away. The research indicated that bullying on school buses starts in year 7, highlighting the difficulties of making the step up to a large secondary school, perhaps from a small village primary school. In fact, in response to my previous speech, the Minister at the time acknowledged that that was concerning and needed exploring. Will the Minister today update me on what steps have been taken?

Vodden report No. 1 also revealed that only six of the respondents knew about the safer travel policy that all local authorities are required to have. To hear that 69 respondents were aware that their school had an anti-bullying policy was promising, but, equally, it was worrying to find out that the same number were not so aware. Many of the respondents did not know whom to turn to in the event of bullying or whether their school actually had a system in place to deal with it. Concerns were expressed about the role of the driver and the need, in four instances, for a driver to intervene to prevent bullying. By stark contrast, in 41 incidents the driver failed to act, while in an alarming 17 cases the driver joined in.

As I have mentioned, last year I carried out a second survey to discover whether any progress had been made on the implementation of safer travel policies by local authorities. Given the findings in Vodden report No. 1, I felt that it was necessary to discover the extent to which local authorities had introduced such measures and whether perhaps any innovative and successful anti-bullying systems had been introduced. The survey was sent out to 152 local authorities in England, and 109 responded in time to be included in the report.

I think it is fair to say that the responses to last year’s survey have been varied. A number of the local authorities made great strides in tackling bullying on dedicated school buses. Some authorities have displayed fantastic examples of best practice in dealing with the problem, but others have failed to act, with some local authorities convinced that no action needs to be taken because they are sure that bullying is not an issue in their area. I shall talk through a few of the key findings of the survey, celebrating the progress that has been made, but also outlining areas that still require much improvement if we are to tackle bullying on school buses and to learn lessons from the sad events of 2006.

To discover that 64 local authorities had a clear safer travel policy in place was refreshing; a further 24 had policies specific to the safe transportation of children

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on school journeys. Unfortunately, and in spite of the 2009 publication of the Government guidelines, 18 councils still reported not having a safer travel policy, nor any policy resembling one. Given the unique circumstances of the dedicated school bus journey environment, does the Minister agree that at the very least it is important for all local authorities to have such a policy in place?

When the authorities were asked if there were contractual requirements on bus companies to ensure the safety of their passengers—in this case, the children on the buses—108 out of 109 answered yes. I acknowledge the point made by the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk in the previous ministerial response on the issue that local authorities have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children under the Children Act 2004. For that reason, however, I find worrying my survey’s finding that still only 40 of the responding local authorities require contractors to follow an anti-bullying policy. That is in spite of all the findings of previous studies, the Government’s published guidelines and the previous Minister urging such a policy on the contractors in the 2013 debate.

Potentially, the aspect of my survey to display the most worrying lack of progress or success was the finding concerning the provision of training for drivers on how to deal with bullying. Only 16 of the 109 local authorities responding answered yes when asked if that was included as a contractual requirement. Given the clear message from the Vodden report No. 1 about a risk of school bus drivers acting inappropriately towards young people in their charge, as well as my emphasis on that in my previous speech on the subject, I am disheartened. Again, I make a plea for a requirement for at least some training to equip drivers with the necessary skills to deal with the array of inevitably childish incidents that occur on dedicated school buses.

Corroboration is also provided in the preliminary results from Vodden report No. 2. Only 25% of the responding school bus drivers said that they had received training on working with children, while 78% had not been given any advice on how to handle bullying or behavioural issues. In a follow-up meeting with the then Minister, we talked about the necessary cultural change, but we also stressed the point that when contracts were let there should be a requirement for training for drivers.

In my recent survey, only one local authority said that displaying prominent anti-bullying messages such as posters was a requirement inside school buses. However, promisingly, a few councils currently in the process of updating their anti-bullying policies mentioned that they had not thought of that as an option before and that as a result of the survey’s drawing their attention to it they were going to review the idea with the intention of including it in future plans. That highlights the importance of sharing best practice among local authorities: if one council has seen success with a particular anti-bullying scheme or policy, it should be made readily available to other councils, enabling a more coherent nationwide approach to tackling bullying.

Nine local authorities reported over 21 cases of bullying in the 12 months prior to the survey, with 62 reporting between nought to five cases in the same period. One could be forgiven for assuming that the nine areas with the highest reports of bullying would be where we would find the worst anti-bullying policies; on the contrary, those local authorities often had the most detailed and

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wide-reaching policies in place. That is a really positive discovery: facing up to the fact that a problem exists and tackling it means that local authorities will find out more about it. Further research in this area will be really helpful.

I suspect that the actual process of reporting is confused, to put it mildly. Some reporting will be to schools and some will be directly to local authorities, and it is not clear whether all the data ever get collected together. If we bring academies into the equation, it will probably get even more complicated. Then, of course, there is the definition of bullying. I accept that it is really difficult for anybody to distinguish between high spirits and bullying, but that is something that we have to work through.

It is clear that over the past eight years important steps have been taken to get a better grasp on the issue of bullying on dedicated school buses. From the research I carried out in 2010 with 4Children, from findings of the Vodden reports and from my recent survey of 109 local authorities it is clear that much more needs to be done to ensure further progress.

There must be accredited and appropriate training in how to behave when dealing with children, how to respond in the event of bullying and how to avoid becoming involved in the bullying itself, and it should be a requirement for all contractors of school transport to give such training to their school bus drivers. In addition, all school bus drivers should have an assessment to see whether they are suitable and safe to transport children. Clear reporting procedures need to be set up and followed. In Vodden report No. 2, only 33% of respondents said that the bus company had a clear procedure in place for reporting incidents.

Ideally, properly trained adult chaperones should be provided for all dedicated school buses, particularly on longer journeys, so that the driver does not have to compromise the safety of the children in order to resolve disputes on the bus. Another possibility is having dedicated school bus monitors—older students who step up to the role of monitoring the bus and reporting any incidents to the school; one local authority reported great success with that method. A further possibility could be to install CCTV. More protection and support need to be given to students in year 7, the group that Vodden report No. 1 identified as the most susceptible to bullying. The psychological effects of bullying in that age group are particularly significant.

There should be a comprehensive transport management approach by local authorities. It should be made clear to all students which agencies and individuals are directly responsible for resolving incidents on the school bus, and those people must be properly trained. That would ensure that children suffering from bullying, and their parents, knew exactly where to go to access help. The responses to my survey indicated a lack of joined-up thinking between the relevant agencies when dealing with bullying. Even when systems are in place to deal with bullying, they can be ineffective: I know from personal experience that local transport departments can be quite separate from local education departments, and I have intervened on occasion to make sure that departments talk to each other.

I very much welcome the progress that has been made on the issue over the course of this Parliament. My survey alone has shown some excellent illustrations of

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good practice across the country. Schemes such as Suss the Bus and Buswise, and the creation of safer travel teams, are excellent, innovative steps towards tackling the problem. However, we must pay attention to what the survey suggests are areas for further improvement. If we do so and continue to take action to create an environment where students feel safe and comfortable talking about bullying, to promote more holistic bullying policies that are acknowledged and understood and to improve communication between all the parties involved, we really will reduce bullying on school buses.

We can always do more to tackle bullying in all contexts. The limited time available today has meant I have focused on one particular area where we can and should make further efforts to protect our children. I hope that the Minister has been convinced by the research that Mr Vodden and I have carried out, quite separately, that his Department should look at the issue in more depth, with, perhaps, a more rigorous research base. It is a moving picture, with improvements already in place, but I am convinced that more needs to be done.

4.55 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Mr Nick Gibb): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) on securing this debate. I know that bullying on school transport has been a key concern of hers for many years and that she has raised the issue before, both in the House and at meetings with Ministers, including my predecessor in this role, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Bullying in any form or for any reason is totally unacceptable and should never be tolerated. No child should have to suffer the stress and indignity of being bullied at school or on the way to school. It is tragic beyond belief when bullying results in a child taking his or her own life. I have had the pleasure of meeting Mr Vodden in the past and admire the fact that he has devoted so much time and energy to looking into these matters, with a view to ensuring that no other child or family should have to go through what he and his family have had to suffer.

The response of schools to bullying should not start at the point at which a child is being bullied. Schools that excel at tackling bullying have created an ethos of good behaviour, in which pupils treat one another and school staff with respect because they know that that is the right way to behave. Respect for staff and other pupils, an understanding of the value of education and a clear understanding of how our own actions affect others should permeate the whole ethos of schools and should be reinforced by staff and all pupils.

To ensure that teachers have the powers that they need to maintain discipline and enforce school rules, we introduced a number of reforms in 2011-12. Tackling bullying and ensuring good behaviour in our schools is right at the heart of our education reforms, which are designed to raise academic standards in our schools.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I apologise for not being here in time for the start of the debate; there are many demands on our time. This is an important issue,

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including in my constituency, and I am sorry that I did not hear the contribution by the right hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. In Northern Ireland, including in my constituency, we have addressed the issue by working with the police, schools and transport companies, as well as with individual parents. In that way, it has been possible to address bullying on buses going to and from schools. The issues that had to be addressed were clear, but it took a combination of all those bodies to make that happen.

Mr Gibb: I am grateful for that intervention. I could not agree more with that approach. The agencies—schools, local authorities and bus companies—have to work together to tackle the problem. We revised the home-to-school travel and transport guidance last July; I will come back to that.

To tackle the specific issue of bullying on school buses, we have to track back and raise standards of behaviour in the whole school system. That has been a key focus of this Government’s approach to education policy. We have given teachers stronger powers to search pupils, removed the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice of after-school detentions and clarified teachers’ powers to use reasonable force. We revised and updated advice to schools on promoting good behaviour and maintaining discipline—that advice includes the Charlie Taylor checklist on the basics of classroom management—and simplified advice on how to prevent and tackle bullying. We introduced anonymity for teachers accused by pupils of criminal offences until such time as they are actually charged with an offence. We changed the system of independent review panels to ensure that a school’s decision to exclude an unruly pupil is not undermined by an appeal process that can force the reinstatement of a permanently excluded pupil against the best interests of the school and its pupils.

In the light of evidence that showed that one in three secondary schools were still not confident in using their powers to discipline pupils, we updated our advice in February last year to make it clear that tough but proportionate sanctions for misbehaviour are permissible. Such sanctions range from verbal reprimands to loss of privileges, writing lines or essays or providing a school-based community service such as picking up litter or weeding the school grounds.

We expect each school to promote appropriate standards of behaviour by pupils on their journey to and from school by rewarding positive behaviour and using sanctions to address poor behaviour, and we have clarified our advice to make it clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for misbehaviour outside the school premises to such an extent as is reasonable. That can relate to any bullying incidents that occur anywhere off the school premises, such as on a school bus or public transport, outside the local shops or in a town or village centre.

When bullying outside school is reported to school staff, that should be investigated and acted on. The head teacher should also consider whether it is appropriate in extreme circumstances to notify the police or the antisocial behaviour co-ordinator of their local authority. In all cases of misbehaviour or bullying, the teacher can

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discipline the pupil on school premises or elsewhere only when that pupil is under the lawful control of the staff member.

We have strengthened Ofsted’s power. We reduced the number of criteria for inspections from 27 to four, and one of those four is behaviour and safety of pupils in the school.

I understand that my right hon. Friend’s constituent, Mr Vodden, has been impressed by the work undertaken by the anti-bullying organisations the Diana Award and Kidscape. They do excellent work to tackle bullying, which is why we are providing funding to them. I have been involved with the awards ceremony of the Diana Award, where I have met many inspiring young people genuinely tackling bullying in our schools up and down the country. We are providing £4 million of funding to several organisations to tackle bullying, and we are considering bids for further projects. Many parents are concerned about cyber-bullying, so we have issued guidance to parents and to teachers on how to identify and tackle it.

Local authorities can play a part. My right hon. Friend touched on this: when they contract to provide school transport, they can instruct companies to include anti-bullying procedures as part of their tenders. The statutory guidance I referred to earlier on home-to-school transport, which was revised in July 2014, requires local authorities to ensure the safety of pupils on school buses. Paragraph 44 talks quite explicitly about the training of bus drivers, which she referred to. It says:

“All local authorities should ensure that all drivers and escorts taking pupils to and from school and related services have undertaken appropriate training, and that this is kept up to date.”

Paragraph 47 says:

“The Department expects each school to promote appropriate standards of behaviour by pupils on their journey to and from school through rewarding positive behaviour and using sanctions to address poor behaviour.”

It cites the Education and Inspections Act 2006, which, it says,

“empowers head teachers to take action to address unacceptable behaviour even when this takes place outside the school premises”.

That guidance, which is extensive, needs to be adhered to, because local authorities have a statutory duty to make suitable travel arrangements for eligible children in their area and to promote safe and sustainable travel to school.

Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for his general points on bullying and for focusing on what happens inside the bus. I accept that there are clearly lots of guidelines, but I am concerned that they are not being implemented by all local authorities. Absolutely, there is good practice, but what checks will he carry out among just a sample of them to ensure that the guidance is being implemented?

Mr Gibb: I will reflect on my right hon. Friend’s point. A number of local authorities have adopted a policy of withdrawing transport either temporarily or permanently in more serious repeated cases of misbehaviour. There are examples of good practice up and down the country, but I will reflect on her comments and this debate to see whether we can do more to ensure specifically that bullying on buses is being tackled by local authorities.

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I should make the point that bullying on school transport is a symptom of a deeper malaise in schools where poor behaviour exists. I could cite the survey from schoolteachers today that says that three quarters of teachers report better behaviour now than they did in 2010, and when schools have exemplary behaviour policies and behaviour is right in the school, that extends beyond the school to the pupils’ school bus environment and to town centres. We are trying to have that in all our schools up and down the country, because as a Government we place a high priority on improving standards of behaviour in our schools.

I conclude by reiterating my opening point and that of my right hon. Friend: what Ben Vodden suffered on that school bus should never have happened. It should not have happened to him and it should never happen to any child going to or from school. Tackling bullying

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outside schools is more challenging than tackling bullying in schools, but we have been clear on teachers’ powers to discipline pupils for poor behaviour, including bullying outside the school gates. However, if a school’s approach to behaviour is as good as in the best schools in the country, that good behaviour will extend to the behaviour of pupils on school transport as much as in the schools. As I said, teachers are now reporting much better behaviour in our schools than in 2010, but until we have exemplary behaviour in all our schools and every pupil can feel safe and secure from bullying, work on that challenge will continue.

Question put and agreed to.

5.7 pm

Sitting adjourned.