16 NOV 2017

My visit to Nigeria

According to the United Nations, Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26% of the world's refugee population which is estimated at 65.5 million people. My role as the Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to Nigeria is to promote trade and investment with Nigeria, challenge perceptions, which will ultimately lead to prosperity and a country in which people are optimistic about their future.

Firstly one of the key themes in all of my visits is around changing perceptions. Nigeria is often viewed through a single lens from the UK and I am keen to show the opportunities which exist there. It is a country predicted to grow to 400 million people by 2050. We have a $4 billion annual trading relationship with Nigeria and a stock of $1.5 billion of Foreign Direct Investment. I see my job as more important than ever in helping to drive up trade between our nations and I am keen to show the opportunities which exist there.

Yes; it has the world's 10th largest proven oil reserves and the 9th largest natural gas reserves but there are also huge opportunities for UK companies to support the government of Nigeria's diversification agenda. Highlights on my visit included, visiting a smart city 'Eko Atlantic' (billed as the fasted growing city in Nigeria) to explore the exciting opportunities for British infrastructure companies to support these impressive growing cities in Nigeria. Eko Atlantic will be built on land reclaimed from the sea and will become home to at least 250,000 residents, with commuter volumes expected to exceed 150,000 people daily. It is great to see the interest to partner with UK companies following on from a recent infrastructure trade delegation to the UK.

It was fantastic to meet with companies operating in the agricultural sector; only just having welcomed the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture on a visit to London. We discussed how British companies could best help; the UK is of course leading in innovation in agri-tech and education. Following on from this I had a meeting with BAU group (one of the biggest conglomerates in West Africa), to scope opportunities. I was also able to visit new sectors in Nigeria that the UK is excelling in. A data centre in Lagos (state-of-the-art, tier III constructed facility certified data centre) which was straight out of Silicon Valley. Yet its technology and expertise is British!

Following my visit it is now even more evident that there is a strong desire for British products and expertise in the Nigerian market, and there is no excuse for companies to be missing out.

I was also able to visit Unilever which has been operating in Nigeria for almost 100 years and to hear about its firm approach against modern day slavery throughout its supply chain – to great competitive advantage. It was a real pleasure to see some of the vital work UK companies are doing to stem exploitation and support the Prime Minister's anti-modern slavery agenda.

The UK is also supporting Nigeria through a focused aid programme and private sector investment. We have already increased the income of 1.3 million Nigerians since 2015. By 2019 we will have helped 7.8 million people to have better nutrition and 500,000 children to have a decent education. Nigeria has a quarter of Africa's extreme poor, with about 100 million people living on less than £1 a day. However I believe the best long-term, and most far reaching, solution is trade and investment in the country, to create prosperity for all. It is job creation that lifts people out of poverty. It is what Nigeria wants and it is what we are providing with very strong mutual advantage to British companies interested in the market. I was really pleased to see that Nigeria has risen 24 places in the World Bank Ease of doing business report to 145th in the index, a testament to their commitment.

I am not asking for companies to be charitable by investing in Nigeria. Quite the opposite; they can and should be making good profits from the exercise. But I am asking companies to consider a market which is growing and which will provide rich opportunities. I can think of no higher purpose for the Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to Nigeria to aspire to or for the Henley constituency to support than help boosting trade and investment.


06 NOV 2017

Our healthcare

A few facts about Health Care specifically in the Henley constituency:

  • We have 324 more doctors than in 2010 and 632 more nurses
  • There were 42,106 more operations were carried out and 130,132 more diagnostic tests than in 2009/10
  • 89% of General Practices which had been rated by the CQC were rated good or outstanding
  • For the Bucks, Oxon and Berks STP Footprint funding is expected to rise by £448.2 million – a cash increase of 19%
  • 13,117 more people were seen in under 4 hours compared with 2009/10
  • We have a brilliant hospital in Henley that is a model for the country and follows good medical advice


03 NOV 2017

A month in the life of an MP

The media presents a particular image of the work of an MP, most often the exchanges in the Chamber at Prime Minister's Question Time. This is my least favourite session in a week and the heckling is a far cry from the orderly and polite debates at most other times. The range of activities that an MP gets involved in in the line of duty is many and varied and it has recently been suggested by constituents that I write a piece on this. They suggested a format of "A month in the life of an MP." As October gives way to November this is just such an In Touch.

October started with the Party Conference. On Sunday 1st I travelled to Manchester and attended three short sessions that evening; each of these aimed at briefing people on a different topic. The next two days were full with fringe meetings and meetings with individual organisations that had asked to meet with me. I was a panel speaker at four of these fringe meetings and chairman on another. There were also roundtable discussions, thankfully a couple over dinner! I had to leave Conference before 6 am on the Wednesday to make a call to Nigeria and for meetings in London. It is always difficult to get the diary right but the job as the PM's Trade Envoy to Nigeria is important particularly as it is a country that is on course to be the third most populous country in the world by the middle of the century.

On 5th October I was back in the constituency and headed to Goring for a discussion with members of the Goring U3A. I think that U3A is an excellent organisation. What was particularly good was to have a wide-ranging conversation without any of the rancour and anger which characterise the way politics is too often conducted. Of course, we did not agree on everything; I recall we had various opinions on international matters. But it was a civilised conversation. The next day also saw another civilised conversation when the author, academic and barrister Philippe Sands and I were in conversation at the Henley Literary Festival about his new book "East West Street". We may not have the same political views but in a polite and engaging conversation there was much we could agree on and much depth to his book and his observations. It was a good conversation which I thoroughly enjoyed and I take much away with me from reading the book. That same day I also attended the Chinnor Rugby Club business lunch. Chinnor Rugby Club is an organisation of which I am Patron. As MP I am Patron of 8 organisations within the constituency. It is an honour to be asked to be Patron to an organisation and in accepting I do what I can to help. Finally, for this week, on Saturday 7th October I went to Thame and joined in a councillor surgery with Thame Town Councillor Linda Emery. I also visited the Friends of the Earth Green Faye where I was very interested in what they were doing to promote awareness of the need for clean air. Finally, I couldn't resist a visit to the Fayre at St Mary's Church in Thame where I was filmed at the "soup kitchen".

Between 8th October and 13th October I was in Strasbourg to fulfil my duties as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This is a non-EU organisation set up in 1949 There are 47 member states of the Council and 327 parliamentary members who are all MPs in their own countries. We stay as members despite Brexit. It actually becomes more important as a means of participating in Europe as Brexit proceeds. It also gives us the moral high ground on human rights and the rule of law. Just before this October session the President of the Assembly fortunately jumped before he was pushed and resigned after a disastrous visit by him, by Russian military plane, to meet and greet President Assad in Syria without telling anyone. During the week I spoke on corruption, on Catalonia, on crimes of genocide by Daesh, on Jordan, on Ukraine, and, on the activities of the OECD and how they could have been more helpful in allowing more aid to the Caribbean to be part of our 0.7%. I also spoke on genetic technologies and helping intersex people. Finally, I asked the President of the Czech Republic what we should do to bring peace in the Middle East. It is vitally important that we are part of this organisation if we are to stay part of the international community.

On Monday 16th October I was back in the House of Commons where I participated in debates on housing, on Iran, and on Culham and Euratom. I also spoke in debates about young people with learning difficulties and health in Oxfordshire. Around these events I entertained the Nigerian Agriculture Minister to dinner with a number of State Governors and gave a keynote speech to a conference on doing business in agriculture in Nigeria. I was also invited to contribute to the development of a new trade policy Bill. Finally, I attended the annual defence training industry dinner. During this time we also had several meetings of the Justice Select Committee of which I am a member. In the first session we were questioning Nick Hardwick of the Parole Board and Justice Minister, Sam Gyimah. In the second, we quizzed the Lord Chancellor. Through Select Committees we can really hold the Government to account and in this case get to grips with future Government policy.

During this week I spoke to a high-ranking delegation of Chinese officials about Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) - arbitration and mediation - where I am chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on ADR. It took a while to explain to them that an APPG does not have powers to order people to take up ADR but is a cross-party forum for informing. Speaking to visiting groups of foreign delegates is an important part of ensuring Parliament's continued role in the world. In this week I also set up a new All Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Fusion of which I am the chairman.

During a week when Parliament is sitting all these activities take place around the debates going on in the Chamber. This is why the Chamber can at times seem empty. It is not that MPs are not bothering but rather that there are many other meetings and committees taking place in parallel. Around my other commitments I also managed to get in at PMQ this week to ask a question to the Prime Minister on the activities of RAF Benson in the Caribbean during the recent hurricanes and how the Puma 2 helicopter had performed so well. The latter was a theme I took up with the Leader of the House the following day.

By Thursday evening I was back in the constituency and chaired the Rail Action Group in Goring and South Stoke in their meetings with Network Rail (NR). Over the next few days, I continued my revisits to some of the 53 state schools in the constituency. I visited Langtree in Woodcote and Dr South's School in Islip. At Langtree we had a very good discussion about the capital needs of the school and the future of the school. It was very good to have this conversation in a calm environment where real issues could be discussed. On Saturday evening I continued the theme of refugees and joined a panel of speakers in Thame for a seminar organised by Bread and Roses Thame on the refugee situation across the world. It is sobering to remember that the situation in Syria is not the only refugee crisis and that the number of refugees in the world comes to 65.5 million.

Sunday is often the quietest day and recently I have been out and about delivering an 'In Touch'. Sunday is a good day for this as there are lots of people about and so the opportunity for casual conversation with constituents. On Sunday evening I frequently go into Oxford to attend Evensong at the Cathedral.

On Monday 23rd October it was back to Westminster for another round of debates, meetings and committees. This week I chaired a parliamentary meeting with Marcus Sheff of Impact-SE to discuss the bias in school text books in Palestine. IMPACT is a research, policy and advocacy organization that monitors and analyzes education. It aims to prevent radicalization of children and youth as the most vulnerable members of society.

This year is the 100th Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and this week I spoke in a debate on this in Westminster Hall. In this week's round of meetings was one with a group of MPs lobbying the Department of Transport for safety improvements to the A34, the CLA on rural housing and further meetings on my role in Nigeria. The committee work with the Justice Committee continued and I also had a meeting of the Industry and Parliament Trust of which I am on the Board of Trustees and Deputy Chairman. The IPT is an independent, non-lobbying, non-partisan charity that provides a trusted platform of engagement between Parliament and UK business.

Once again back in the constituency on Friday I started the day chairing the regular meeting of Oxfordshire MPs and the Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group. There was good news this time in that the number of Delayed Discharges of Care had beaten its Government target. I then went to Culham to talk to residents over their concerns on the District Council emerging Local Plan and the inclusion of building in the green belt. The day ended with an MPs surgery in Thame which involves a series of short meetings with constituents on a range of issues that they want to bring to me.

In addition, to all this there is still the work to be done for individual constituents and the answering of emails which often take the form of organised campaigns. Unlike some MPs I do not at this stage just post a response on my web site but try to answer them all individually. I am of course, ably supported by a small team of staff who work in the background to support me.

I hope this has given you a good feel of what an average month in the life of an MP feels like. I hope it also explains why it is impossible to have meetings in the constituency between Sunday night and Thursday afternoon. Those of you with a keen eye will realise that I have not once mentioned Brexit. Brexit is of great interest to the press but for those of us in Parliament there are other important ongoing issues to consider.


01 NOV 2017

Schools Funding - a note

My commitment to ensuring that our schools are better funded is a matter of public record (local press passim) and I have welcomed recent announcements of additional funding for our schools. Frustrated by some of the media coverage and correspondence from schools over this I decided to ask the House of Commons Library to review what has been sent to me and what has been in the local media. The House of Commons Library is non-partisan and has subject experts, including statisticians, in a wide range of areas. I have also received information from the Department of Education. In this briefing I set out the situation and the response to some of the challenges in terms of both income and costs.

In recent years I have supported our schools over funding in many ways - arranging meetings with the Prime Minister and other Ministers, supporting the f40 group who have campaigned for better funding over a number of years or indeed of submitting petitions in the House of Commons. I have also lobbied Ministers on behalf of our schools and children on the matter. It is wrong to say that there have been cuts to education as campaign groups suggest. This is misleading. The new formula used to disperse the money to schools provides cash gains in respect of every school and the independent Institute of Fiscal studies (IFS) is clear that, with our new investment of £1.3 billion, the schools budget will now be maintained in real terms per pupil from this year to 2019-20 when the current funding round ends.

The additional £1.3 billion we have announced for schools means that core funding for schools and high needs will rise from almost £41bn in 2017-18 to £42.4bn in 2018-19, and £43.5bn in 2019-20. This means that overall across the country funding will be maintained, in real terms per pupil, over the next two years. These figures represent an increase of over 3.4% in 2018-19 and 6.1% in 2019-2020 based on 2017-18 figures.

Issues around school funding are complex and the formula used historically to distribute funding to schools has been unfair and opaque and based on data which is now well out of date. I am therefore pleased that the Department of Education has listened to many concerns on this. Earlier in the year there was a consultation on the National Funding Formula to which the Secretary of State has responded with the announcement made in July that we are investing an additional £1.3 billion across 2018-19 and 2019-20, over and above existing spending plans.

I have responded positively to this but the figures have been challenged by those who feel that the £1.3 billion is insufficient and that there have been 'cuts'. I have not claimed that this new funding formula or the additional £1.3 billion will address all these concerns but they are certainly a step in the right direction. The campaigning we have done for a fairer funding formula has been recognised.

INCOME
What the increase in funding for the schools budget means in terms of funding per pupil is that schools with low pupil-led funding will have their funding topped up to reach the minimum per pupil funding levels, which are £4,600 in 2018-19 and £4,800 in 2019-20 for secondary schools, and £3,300 in 2018-19 and £3,500 in 2019-20 for primary schools. These figures are 'floors' and not 'ceilings' and I will continue to make the case for schools in this constituency. These are figures which some head teachers told the Minister for Education are acceptable to run schools.

The new national funding formula (NFF)
The NFF is the system for distributing core funding to schools. The new NFF will mean that, for the first time, school funding will be distributed based on the individual needs and characteristics of every school in the country. This will direct resources where they are needed most, and provide transparency and predictability for schools.

Within the NFF, about 90% of funding is based on the pupils in the school (known as 'pupil-led funding'). This provides:

  • a basic amount for each pupil, which increases as they progress through the key stages;
  • funding for those with additional needs who are more likely to be behind their peers
  • the minimum per pupil funding level to which I have already referred.

About 10% of the funding is based on the characteristics of the school itself, ('school-led funding') including a £110,000 lump sum for every school and extra funding for small schools in sparse rural locations, and those experiencing high levels of pupil growth.

The formula also includes a funding floor that means every school will be allocated at least a 1% increase by 2019-20, with at least 0.5% in 2018-19, compared to baselines.

The main changes to the formula
The additional £1.3 billion investment allows an increase in the funding that all pupils attract through the formula, compared to what we originally proposed. We are doing this in three ways:

  • The basic amounts for pupils at each key stage have all increased;
  • There will be a minimum per pupil funding level for primary and secondary schools (as above);
  • In 2018-19 the formula will provide, as a minimum, a 0.5% per pupil increase for every school, and in 2019-20, an increase of 1%, compared to baselines. That replaces the previous suggestion of a floor of minus 3% per pupil: now, every school will attract a cash increase.

Secondary schools in this constituency have received increases of between 1% and 3.4%. Yet some have still been telling parents that the per pupil amount will drop to £4,100 per pupil when it will rise to £4,800 and that they must make up the difference. This is disingenuous.

COSTS
The Institute of Fiscal Studies has confirmed that overall funding per pupil across the country will now be maintained in real terms over the next two years. In reviewing the announcement and looking at original proposals prior to consultation they said 'First, there is more money. The average cash-terms increase in funding [per] pupil between 2017-18 and 2019-20 is... . equivalent to a real- terms freeze". This brings us on to the question of costs. Just like many others organizations, schools of course face cost pressures. Alongside getting the income figure right, the government has been looking at how it can help schools manage these costs.

The Department of Education understands that schools have faced cost pressures to date, and in addition to a significant package of advice and support available to schools, the Department will be providing targeted efficiency advice and support to schools that are in financial difficulty this year. High level analysis indicates that if the 25% of schools spending the highest amounts on non-staff expenditure were instead spending at the level of the rest, a saving of over £1bn could be achieved.

Some of the calculations being used to try to show cuts are based on a flawed calculation that starts from the position of school budgets in 2015-16, and then calculates the cost pressures on school budgets over 4 years. This baseline is never mentioned. Nor is the fact that most of these past pressures have already been absorbed by schools whilst at the same time as standards continue to rise.

Funding children with special educational needs (SEN) and disabilities.
The government is concerned to ensure support for children who face the greatest barriers to their education and thus is also reforming the funding for children with high needs. A 'high needs NFF' will mean that, for the first time, this funding will be distributed fairly and consistently across the country. Through additional investment every local authority will see a minimum increase in high needs funding of 0.5% in 2018-19, and 1% in 2019-20.

In summary
In summarizing what the new plans will achieve the IFS says 'Given the current state of the school funding system, the latest proposals imply school funding reform is moving in the right direction'

The Question remains is the additional £1.3 Billion enough. This is, of course, a political point and I am sure that every sector would say they want more. However, we have to understand that we can only provide more if our economy does well which is what we have been trying to do. Although schools may want more, and although costs have risen, an increase in cash cannot be called a cut. Some data being quoted is prior to the recent government announcement and so no assessment of the new funding has been included.

Other data is using the Consumer Price Index to look at inflation. On questioning the House of Commons library on this I was advised that the CPI is not the best measure of the costs faced by a school. This is why so much attention is paid to the IFS on cost pressures. The national increases announced by the Government are slightly above the forecast levels of the GDP deflator (2018-19 and 2019-20) which is a measure of the economy-wide inflation. While it is not an education-specific measure is does at least cover future year.

Also overlooked is the fact that pupil numbers are set to rise in coming years. As a majority of the school funding is based on a per pupil basis, more pupils means more money. This is why schools are so keen to fill their places to ensure economies of scale.

I hope that those schools that are still campaigning against the cuts will join me in welcoming this progress in school funding and the fact that rather than cuts additional funding has been put into this important budget.

End note:
The Department for Education has published details of funding to very school which you can access at this link. The Institute of Fiscal Studies has published an assessment of these figures.


22 OCT 2017

Refugees

Last night (21 October) I spoke at an event organised by Bread and Roses in Thame.  Bread and Roses is a group of Thame residents who want to bring together individuals to tackle the problems faced by refugees.  The essence of my speech is set out below. There are now over 65 million displaced people in the world.

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The pictures of refugees on television bring home the human side of the refugee crisis. They present a very moving picture of what refugees have to endure. But television usually only presents one crisis at a time and the current situation with the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and Bangladesh has added yet another region and made the global situation worse. Take the Annual Report on Global Trends produced by the UN Refugee Agency, for example. Its most recent report was only published in June this year. In it they estimated that 65.5 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide – that is more than the population of the British Isles. This excludes economic migrants who have chosen to displace themselves. .

For a Government there are several underlying and cross cutting issues they need to consider and understand. These include:

  • How to bring an end to the causes of the displacement
  • How to assess the impact that displacement has on neighbouring countries e.g. Jordan where one refugee camp is already Jordan's fourth largest city.
  • How to ensure refugees are safe and are not subject to forms of modern day slavery or exploitation
  • How to take into account the long term picture for refugees given that most want to return to their own country of origin.

Whilst relief and humanitarian aid are important, what can be done for say 100,000 refugees is very different to what can be done for 65.5 million refugees and the concentration needs to be put on the root causes of creating refugees such as war and conflict.

The conflict in Syria is now in its 7th year and has already led to the world's largest number of refugees. However in 2016 the biggest new factor was South Sudan, where the disastrous break-off of peace efforts in July of that year contributed to an exodus of approaching 1 million. That number has continued to rise during the first half of 2017.

The figures show the scale and global spread of the problem. Colombians (7.7 million) and Afghans (4.7 million) remain the second- and third-largest displaced populations, followed by Iraqis (4.2 million). In total, about 3.3 million South Sudanese had fled their homes by the end of last year, in what has become the fastest-growing displacement of people in the world. Particularly heart-breaking is the plight of children, who make up half the world's refugees, and continue to bear a disproportionate burden of the suffering, mainly because of their heightened vulnerability.

So what role is the UK playing in this global problem?

Speaking at President Obama's Refugee Summit in New York, the Prime Minister demonstrated how the UK is leading the international response to mass migration crises around the world by making a series of new commitments including:

  • increasing UK humanitarian financing by more than £660 million in 2016/17 to over £1.5 billion
  • £2.5 million seed funding for a new global fund to resettle refugees
  • UK support for a jobs compact with Ethiopia to create 100,000 new jobs for Ethiopians and refugees

The provision of over £1.5 billion in humanitarian finance marks more than a 10% increase on last year's commitment and secures the UK's place as the second largest bilateral humanitarian donor in the world. The UK's investments will help to protect the world's most vulnerable people, including those persecuted by Daesh brutality in the Middle East. It includes new funding to support refugees in Uganda, Kenya, in the Sahel and Mediterranean regions, and additional support for refugees and displaced persons in Afghanistan. The support also maintains the UK as one of the biggest humanitarian donors to the Syria crisis. To date British support has delivered life-saving support of almost 22 million food rations, over 4.4 million medical consultations; and shelter for over 476,000 people.

The new Emerging Countries Joint Support Resettlement Fund which is being led by the International Organisation for Migration in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is facilitating the transfer of thousands of vulnerable refugees from places where their needs cannot be properly met to new resettlement countries, including places in Europe and Latin America. It will ensure that refugees are identified and resettled in a safe, dignified and orderly manner, reducing the need for dangerous onward journeys.

The UK is also providing new support for a jobs compact with Ethiopia – the largest refugee hosting nation in Africa. The compact, agreed with the Government of Ethiopia, the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the EU, will receive £80 million of UK support and support industrialisation in Ethiopia creating 100,000 new jobs for Ethiopians and refugees. This builds on the success of the innovative approach pioneered by the UK at the London Syria conference, which saw a deal agreed with Jordan to create jobs for refugees and Jordanians.

There are those who say that with economic difficulties at home we should cut back on the 0.7% of GNI spent on International Aid. With the scale of the global problem and the enormous problems that people face I do not support this view. It is both in the humanitarian interests of displaced people and indeed in our own interests for global stability and security to play our part in tackling these issues.

The Government's policy has been to be generous with humanitarian aid to Syria's neighbours. In early 2014 it established the Syrian Vulnerable Person Resettlement Programme (VPRP) in order to provide a route for selected Syrians to come to the UK. The VPRP first prioritised the elderly, the disabled and victims of sexual violence and torture. It also plans to resettle up to 20,000 people from the Syrian region over the next five years. The Government is working with local authorities and the voluntary sector to implement the programme. To assist Syrians' integration into UK society a 'community sponsorship' scheme was launched in July 2016.

In addition to the VPRP, the Government committed itself to providing resettlement for up to 3,000 vulnerable children (and family members) from conflict situations in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The Government continues to commit a significant amount of international aid to assistance programmes in the regions neighbouring Syria. It takes the view that this is preferable to encouraging Syrian refugees to make dangerous journeys to Europe. The UK has committed over £2.46 billion to helping refugees in Syria and the region, making it the second largest donor to the Syrian refugee crisis since the start of the crisis in 2012.

As well as tackling the symptoms of the current migration crisis the UK is focused on tackling the causes and trying to end conflicts that cause refugees. In this Parliament we are delivering an even more ambitious approach which is substantially increasing our investment in fragile states and regions. We will help to address the causes of conflict and instability through increased support for tackling corruption, promoting good governance, developing security and justice, and creating jobs and economic opportunity.

Tackling conflict and improving stability and economic opportunity overseas is part of our long-term, comprehensive approach to migration. We will ensure that our investment in countries of origin helps to reduce forced displacement and migration over the long term. We will do much more to help refugees closer to their homes. We will deliver humanitarian aid to those who are forcibly displaced, and provide education and livelihood opportunities. We will build the capacity of source and transit countries to manage their borders more effectively, and to tackle organised immigration crime. The UK is the second largest aid donor in the world in cash terms, and one of the few that already meets the target of spending at least 0.7% of GDP on International Aid.

In Somalia, South Sudan, north-eastern Nigeria and Yemen, conflict and drought have pushed families to the brink of starvation. Between 2000 and 2016 there was only one certified famine. In 2017, famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan and there is a credible risk of famine in the other 3 countries. This too needs to be tackled.

Finally, let me turn to people smuggling. As has already been pointed out people smuggling begins onshore. Once the boats have set sail, it is too late. I agree that what we need to do is to disrupt the business model of people smuggling. However much we have had a humanitarian success it needs to focus on tackling people smuggling and supporting sustainable economic development and good governance in these countries


04 OCT 2017

Zero hours contracts

A flexible labour market is important for business and works for many in giving greater opportunity to live their lives as they choose. However, it is clear that new business models are pushing the bounds of union acceptance. The TUC has rather mistakenly said that "zero-hours contracts allow bosses to treat workers like disposable labour." But as I found out, zero hours contracts give the employee control over their working.

The growth of the so-called 'gig economy', and the rise in non-standard working practices has raised challenges. I believe that these zero hours contracts have a part to play in a modern, flexible labour market and it is important to make sure that those benefitting from the flexibility of these contracts are not exploited by unscrupulous employers.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) produces figures on zero hour contracts. This is part of the Labour Force Survey and it gathers data from workers, rather than employers. The latest figures available are for the period April – June 2017. This data set indicated that 2.8% of all people in employment are on zero hours contracts. It is worth just repeating that: only 2.8% of all people in employment are on zero hours contracts. They are not distorting the unemployment figures. There is no understated figure of unemployment. It is worth noting that the framework used by the ONS has wide international acceptance, including by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Such flexibility is often desired by the employees. The problem in the past has been where people taking zero hours contracts have also had to enter exclusivity clauses with employers. I am pleased that action has already been taken and that in 2015 the Government legislated to ban exploitative zero hours contracts meaning it is now illegal for employers to include exclusivity clauses in zero-hour contracts. This gives people the freedom to look for and take other work opportunities and have more control over their work hours and income.

However, concerned at what had been reported in the media of late, I decided to find out more for myself. I recently visited my local branch of McDonald's to meet with managers and staff to discuss the issue.

The first thing I discovered is that McDonald's do not employ people on zero hours contracts. Whilst this may have been the case in the past, employees are now offered a contract for a minimum 4 hours a week, 16 hours a week or 30 hours a week. Employees previously on an hourly paid flexible zero hours contract have been offered the opportunity to change to one of these contracts. The terms and conditions for the guaranteed hours contracts are the same pro rata. In the franchise that I visited which has 10 restaurants, they gave all employees the option to move to a guaranteed hours contract. Out of 780 employees on hourly paid contracts only 29 chose to move to a guaranteed hours contract. The remainder preferred to stay on a flexible hours contract.

I talked to some of the staff at the branch about their hours. I spoke with a team leader who was on a salaried contract which means a full time job but flexible hours with other team leaders. She was content with the hours and enjoyed variety. One young man was on a 4 hour per week contract and did not want to increase this minimum although he actually worked more most weeks. He said that as a young person he was able to work to earn enough money to live his life and liked the flexibility so that he could do things socially. Another young man was at college. He liked the 4 hour a week contract as it gave him flexibility to do more hours in the vacations and fewer hours at exam time.

I also talked with Area Managers and the Operations Manager as well as the Franchisee. With a 24 hour operation and different peaks in demand depending on the day of the week, school holiday periods, Bank Holidays and other such occasions the need for flexibility is critical to the operation.

In October 2016 the Government commissioned a review to look at whether employment rules have kept pace with changes in the economy, especially for those who do not have traditional employment relationships. Zero hours contracts were included in this. The report of the review was published in July and the Government is now looking at the report which will inform future strategy.


26 SEP 2017

The end of the SHMA

One of the biggest pieces of good news for Oxfordshire runs the risk of being overlooked. It is that we have started a consultation on a new national formula which will have a big impact in reducing the number of houses required in an area such as this. That consultation will play a crucial role in planning for the right number of homes in the right places.

All of this comes out of the work I did on the Local Plan Expert Group set up when Greg Clark MP was the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. In the report published by us we pointed out that in order to plan effectively, local planning authorities need to have a clear and realistic understanding of how many homes they need to build in their area. The existing system for doing this is based on highly complex 'Strategic Housing Market Assessments' commissioned by individual authorities and carried out by consultants. However, different consultants use different methods to determine future need. The whole process is expensive and time-consuming. It can cost local planning authorities millions a year and can add months to the plan preparation process.

Our new proposed approach uses Office for National Statistic household growth projections, adjusted to reflect local affordability, with a cap on any increases. The result for South Oxfordshire is that the housing need figure is likely to be up to about 200 dwellings per year smaller than currently. That is a big drop and it is one which would give SODC back its five year housing land supply - measure which enables it to have greater control over development. Further, Local Authorities should not be forced to take unmet need from neighbouring authorities, in our case Oxford City, and some districts may be unable to meet their figures because of other restrictions, for example of Green Belt.

Most people appreciate the need for more housing and are willing to accept new homes if they are well-designed, built in the right places, and are planned in consultation the local community. People recognise that their children and grandchildren desperately need affordable homes now and in the future.


10 SEP 2017

The Seaside and other things

In September I shared, via social media, news of a £40m investment in our coastal communities. It will help create jobs and increase visitors, so our coastal towns and villages thrive. I was surprised to receive comment back suggesting that, given that Oxfordshire is land locked and about as far from the coast as you can get in England, it was irrelevant to the constituency. I was surprised, yes – and also saddened. Are we really only interested in our own back yard? Can we not appreciate the benefit to others, and also especially to ourselves as visitors to our coastal towns? Did they not see the BBC's own report this morning saying that healthy coastlines are good for all our mental health? Do they not know where the Thames ends up? Thankfully I know from other communications that many people do look and think more widely, but this made me think about how we can so easily become focused on the things that affect us that it can be difficult to see things from an alternative perspective.

I regularly receive communications from people who feel strongly about an issue lobbying me to act or vote in a certain way. On most issues I receive communications on both sides of the argument with people feeling equally strongly both for and against something and each side urging me to support their view. Of course, it is impossible for me to support both so I have to do my research and come to my own conclusion. When I come to a particular view I try to set out my rationale so that even where people do not agree with me they can see where I have come from. I have had some very interesting and informative exchanges with people. It is good to learn and understand, even when we do not agree. However at times there is less graciousness in disagreement.

In Parliament, the weekly Prime Minister's Question time can be confrontational. It is one of my least favourite sessions of the week and certainly does not represent the way in which Parliament usually works. In other debates members are respectful of one another in sharing opposing views. In our changing and complex world understanding and mutual respect are important. Where this fails we too often see abuse, unrest, and violence or terrorism.

I welcome communications from constituents sharing views and ideas. We may not always agree but it is good to have the debate and learn from one another. I also produce a periodic electronic newsletter and briefings on specific issues which can spark debate. If you would like to subscribe to these please email me at john.howell@oxfordshireconservatives.com You can also follow me on Facebook www.facebook.com/JohnHowellOxfordshire or on twitter @JHowellUK


01 SEP 2017

Working households

Figures released by the Office of National Statistics reveal there are nearly a million more working households under this Conservative government.

With record levels of employment, more people across the country now have the ability to support themselves and their families. That means more children growing up with a working adult and more children who can see first-hand the benefits of being in employment.


01 SEP 2017

Executive pay

The subject of pay seems to come up in the media on a regular basis, either because we think people aren't getting enough or because we think they are getting too much. This time around it's about executive pay. The issue is not so much about the actual pay but about the differential between the pay of bosses and workers.

Last year the Prime Minister made clear that the behaviour of a small number of companies had damaged the public's trust in big business. She set out propos...als to improve transparency and accountability and give employees a voice in the boardroom. The Business Secretary, Greg Clark, has now set out the government's corporate governance reforms to enhance the transparency of big business to shareholders, employees and the public. New laws will be introduced which will force all listed companies to reveal the pay ration between bosses and workers. Companies that meet with significant shareholder opposition to executive pay packages will be published in a new public register. This will be the worlds' first such register and will be overseen by the Investment Association, a trade body that represents UK investment managers. New measures will also seek to ensure that the voice of employees is heard in the boardroom. Reforms have just been announced and will follow a thorough consultation process.

A simple principle runs throughout our proposals: workers and shareholders should have a bigger say and a louder voice in the running of the companies in which they invest their labour and capital. I fully support the Business Secretary when he says that one of Britain's biggest assets in competing in the global economy is our deserved reputation for being a dependable and confident place in which to do business. Our legal system, our framework of company law and our standards of corporate governance have long been admired around the world. We must ensure that this reputation is maintained.


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