The claim that the voting this week was about the introduction of same sex marriage or abortion rights in Northern Ireland was wide of the mark. Everyone was using this Bill for their own purposes including those who wanted to use it to stop a proroguing of Parliament.
In fact, it was not about these activities at all but about trying to use the current absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly to try to tell Northern Ireland what it should do. It cut across devolution and I was not prepared to support the amendments for this reason.
Same sex marriage, for example, in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter which should, in accordance with the Belfast Agreement, be addressed in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Talks are continuing to resurrect the Assembly and I viewed these amendments and new clauses as premature. There was a free vote on the issue.
I support same sex marriage. As an indication of this, I participated in a debate on Homophobia to stress the importance of the human rights involved which you may read at http://www.johnhowellmp.com/parliamentary-appearances/speech-on-homophobia/1612. Marriage aside, I welcome that the Government has committed to furthering the rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people in the UK. In 2017, Turing's law was passed, posthumously pardoning men for now abolished offences. The last General Election saw the highest number of openly gay, lesbian and bisexual MPs voted into Parliament. I know that a lot of hard work is underway to continue to build on this progress and deliver greater equality for all.
The past few weeks have been overwhelming in politics. We have lost a Prime Minister. We have also had European elections which had some of the characteristics of a second referendum. The physical outcome of the election was clear with both Labour and the Conservatives doing badly. But I have been appalled at how the heavy spin that has so characterised the Brexit debate has simply trundled on. I have already had both sides adding up the percentages given to each Party and writing to me to claim that Brexit or Remain won. This is a particularly unhelpful task especially as all too often a result that does not give the answer that is expected will be omitted.
But because of this continuing concentration on Brexit, many may have missed the announcement we made that we are developing a new poverty measure based on the work of the Social Metrics Commission This new measurement is likely to prove very helpful in tackling poverty and it is a shame that it has been largely missed as it will help understand poverty in this constituency. The new measure will be based around a family's total available resources – including income and savings - after any inescapable costs, such as childcare or disability. It also considers the persistence and depth of poverty and the characteristics and factors that impact on a family's experience of poverty, for example having a disabled family member or indeed qualifications. We are assessing whether and how this can be developed and improved further to increase the value of these statistics to the public. This fits with the mandate of the Social Metrics Commission which is an independent commission that was formed with the aim of developing a new approach to poverty measurement. This reflects the nature and experiences of poverty that different families in the UK have and that can be used to build a consensus around poverty measurement and action in the UK.
The assessment we are doing will include the wider measurement framework covering the nature and experience of poverty. I hope that everyone will be supportive in helping us improve the evidence we gather so we can better focus government policies on tackling poverty.
I am writing this response in view of the emails I have received on a number of subjects to do with Brexit from the revocation of article 50 to a People's Vote. There are a number of points I would like to make.
First, I fully understand the frustration and the anger over Brexit. I can understand why people think it has been going on for too long. More people have come up to me and simply asked for it all to end than have supported a particular path for us to follow. I too feel this. The EU Deal I have supported seems to me to marry the result of the Referendum with the clear wish of the 48% who voted to Remain to have a close relationship with the EU. Yet in this topsy turvy world, in voting for the deal I have voted more often to leave than many of the Leavers, whose objection is that it is not the deal they wanted. The inability to compromise is much to be regretted.
Why I have voted for the deal
I have voted for the deal because I think it is important to honour the pledge we gave at the election in 2017 that we would implement the result of the referendum. The Labour party made the same pledge. I also voted for the deal because I feel it will be provide certainty for business especially small and medium sized businesses and generally be supportive of them. This is notwithstanding my original vote to Remain – a vote I lost.
As I said in the House of Commons I am less and less interested in hypothetical solutions to this problem. If the Leavers really wanted to ensure Brexit happened they should, in an act of compromise, accept the Prime Minister's Deal. That would give us two years to argue over what the relationship between us and the EU should contain.
The role of the Conservative Party
Second, I am frustrated with those who blame all this on the Conservative Party's inability to get Brexit through. We do not have a majority in the House of Commons. A Prime Minister does not work on the basis of simply being able to instruct that an outcome should happen. He or she needs to involve Parliament, the more so since Parliament took the power to decide in a Meaningful Vote to ratify the deal. So those who are disappointed that the Prime Minister has not been able to achieve a result are fooling themselves into believing that she has powers she clearly does not.
A People's Vote
Thirdly, the idea that there should be a People's Vote was defeated in the House of Commons overwhelmingly. It may be that in the coming days this is an idea that will have its day. But frankly I do not welcome it. Given the arguments that have taken place over the first referendum and with both sides still not being entirely frank about life after the referendum, I cannot see that it will be any less divisive and confrontational or that it will be any more honest. I also cannot see in these circumstances that it will be the final referendum, or, how a Remain result would be compatible with the original result.
The referendum is still being fought
Finally, the referendum has simply never finished. For over two years now we have still been fighting the same referendum campaign. Many people do not accept the result and have done everything they can to try to undo it. A good example of this is all those who asked me not to support the deal because to do so would bring nearer us staying in the EU or those who are calling for a revocation of Article 50. The way in which this campaign has twisted and turned bringing everything within its sights is part of the problem we face. A second referendum is also part of this.
The role of an MP
As Speaker Bercow said in the House of Commons, as MPs we each must do "what he or she thinks is right," confirming that we are Representatives and not delegates. The desperate struggle of those who voted Remain to try to cajole me into voting against the deal on the grounds that it meets how they think the constituency voted ignores the fact that this was a national vote on a national basis and not one based on constituencies. No one knows how this constituency voted; the statistical methodology has flaws, and, few take into account the 6,000 people who live in the constituency in Cherwell which voted to Leave.
Problems with No Deal
I see the problem with the No Deal scenario as not being in terms of whether we accept WTO rules of trade or not but in the enduring uncertainty it would bring to the country and the way in which it would keep us tied up in wrangling with the EU.
We now have one last chance to get the deal through. It is not perfect by any means. But it does allow us to move forward and to begin the task of negotiating the relationship we want with the EU. I shall, if offered the chance, be taking it.
One of the most interesting challenges for an MP is dealing with the bigger picture issues such as the Finance Bill or Brexit (or the international issues which are the staple of an MP's life) while staying focused on the nitty gritty issues that directly affect constituents. Much of this is a question of choice as to who is best placed to deal with the issue. Many of the everyday issues facing constituents are already dealt with by local councils whether at the county, district or parish level even although many people may not be aware of this. The question is therefore about which level to direct people.
A major part of Conservative activity since 2010 has been in ensuring that decisions are located at the appropriate level. This is particularly so with planning where I invented Neighbourhood Planning. Neighbourhood Planning gives to local parishes the right to participate in the planning system by providing their own plan on where the houses should go, what they should look like and which open and green spaces should be preserved. It is not an exercise which the parish undertakes alone. It does so by partnering with the local district council although we have taken steps to ensure that local district councils cannot unduly hold up Neighbourhood Plans. Having gone to this stage in giving local parishes the ability to undertake this work it would be foolish for an MP to tread in this area apart from by giving advice.
Similarly, questions to do with roads fall into two very distinct forms. The first is about the amount of money that is made available by Parliament for example to fix potholes. That is a question for MPs and here in Oxfordshire the Government has made available over £7 million this year alone for this purpose. Contrast this with the work undertaken by the County Council to actually fix the roads and to use that money wisely which is a responsibility of local councillors.
So, a lot of the work of concern to local residents is in reality the function of local councillors. They too are elected and they have an everyday relationship with the Council. MPs do not have this relationship. Of course, it is right for MPs to keep councillors up to the mark but that is a different thing to getting involved with the problem itself.
There are of course issues which affect local constituents and where Central Government has a role. This includes for example making sure that mental health solutions are widely available including in schools. Personally, I think this is an important area of work. Also important is the activity of the NHS in the area. I chair a grouping of Oxfordshire MPs which hold the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) to account CCGs are clinically-led statutory NHS bodies responsible for the planning and commissioning of health care services. Together we have seen the number of people bed blocking in Oxfordshire radically decrease and I think this activity worthwhile. Another area where MPs can play a part is in the transformation of NHS services. One example of that is at the Townlands Memorial Hospital in Henley which we had re-built and re-provisioned the hospital but with beds in the neighbouring care home rather than in the hospital itself. This has changed the way social care and the NHS work together and also changed how clinical staff regard patients and are more likely now to ask for them to be treated at home where most patients want to be.
In all, in the past year in Parliament I have spoken just under 190 times. That is more than twice the average for an MP. Only 4 of those times have been to do with Brexit. What this shows is that despite Brexit there is still important work going on in Parliament and it is crucial that we speak out on it and how it affects our constituents. That has included the use in the UK of Sharia courts for settling cases by means of Alternative Dispute Resolution methods such as arbitration and mediation. These have no legal status and undermine the role of women. It also includes children's life limiting illnesses which is a crucial issue for many families. All of these issues are important and demand our attention.
While we wait to see how the vote or votes on the relationship with Europe will be tabled in January, I wanted to comment on a number of points made in emails to me. There is nothing more likely to be a major turnoff to the British public than an attempt to humiliate the British Prime Minister or the British people. Yet this is what the EU has done in dealing with Mrs May. It follows the same treatment of David Cameron when he tried to get a comprehensive deal that would have prevented the current Brexit problem in the first place. It follows the treatment of one of my Parliamentary colleagues – a Remain voting MP – in trying to get a simple answer from Mr Junker when he visited the Council of Europe about how he controlled the Commission budget which Mr Junker tried to say was none of our business. As I was present when this exchange was heard, I was not impressed.
The issue we face comes down to making sure that we are not trapped in what has been called the Irish Backstop forever and have our own ability to come out of it. Since the EU does not want us to have a Backstop and, we believe it will never be used, I cannot see why they are being so obdurate over it. The Prime Minister has therefore sought time to see what movement there might be on the issue – a discussion which is still going on - before the Deal as a whole is brought back to the House of Commons.
I do not believe that anyone, except a small group, wants a no deal exit from the EU. This is not about whether we can survive on WTO terms of trade. It is about bringing to a successful conclusion all the issues which will have no solution if we leave without a deal such as law cases, and being pursued through the courts for money that we owe the EU. The £39 billion set out in the Agreement that we will pay the EU is not a sum plucked from the air but has been calculated carefully to reflect the balance of what we are likely to owe. So, no! I will not agree to fetter Mrs May's discretion in dealing with Europe. She must have the right to threaten a no-deal outcome even although no one – on either side – is looking forward to a no deal outcome.
Secondly, some people are suggesting that I have changed my view and am now a Leaver. Let me be clear; it would still be my preference to remain in the EU. However, in a national referendum, the Remain argument lost the vote and it does none of us any good to continually go back over this and use opinion polls to suggest that the situation has changed.
I am also asked to be more visible in supporting a Peoples' Vote campaign and staying in the EU. For every email I get asking me to support another referendum I get an email reminding me that 'leave means leave. We have already had a 'people's vote' and Leave won. I do not believe that another referendum would help cure the divisions we currently face in our country. Furthermore those seeking a second referendum seem to believe that it would be decisively 'remain'. This may not be so.
Under Article 50 the time limit for the initial period for making arrangements for our departure from the EU was 2 years. It was always going to take this long and the period has not been wasted or prolonged. We have a deal on the table, which with one exception (the Backstop), I can support. Those who see it in terms of betraying the Referendum result or our relationship with Europe have missed the point that much of it relates to the transition or implementation period of a further two years. It does not define our relationship with the EU for the future.
And lastly, I am told that it is the biggest crisis faced by this country since the end of the second world war. I disagree profoundly with this. It is not a crisis at all – just something that has to be worked through.
The Withdrawal Agreement will ensure that, pace the transition period, the UK takes back control of its laws, borders and money, an end to free movement, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice coming to a close and after the £39 billion has been paid vast budget payments to the EU ending once and for all. We will also be out of the Common Agriculture Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. EU and UK citizens will have their rights protected, including for healthcare and pensions. They will be able to continue to live their lives broadly as they do now.
At the same time, the UK will be able to negotiate its own international trade deals from the start of the transition or implementation period. This will allow us to take advantage of the estimated 90 per cent of world growth that will come from outside the EU in the future.
SENT AS AN ELECTRONIC NEWSLETTER
Ahead of the five day debate on the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated I wanted to set out my thinking thus far.
Let me start by saying that, despite what the papers may say, I have not decided how I am going to vote in the 'Meaningful Vote' that will come at the end of the debate. To do so would rather destroy the purpose of the five days of debate in the House of Commons. One long standing MP rather cynically put it to me that the purpose of debate was not to change anyone's mind but simply to make position statements. That may be true of some but I find that one of the most depressing aspects of this whole business. Thankfully it is not true of all MPs.
What I want to do in this briefing is to set out how I see the Agreement as it stands. I do so having read the whole of the draft agreement published on 14th November and having had discussions with Ministers on some of the details. I have also heard differing views already expressed by colleagues, read some of the analysis in the media and the views sent to me by constituents. I will admit that I have been frustrated by those who have written with their views but who openly admit that they have not actually read the Agreement. If this is such an important issue then surely it is not too much to read the source document rather than rely on the interpretation of others. The document although long is not dense.
Just before I set out the detail, I would like to point out that it would be wrong for people to believe that I have had nothing but requests to vote against the Agreement and the deal that has been done. I have also had a large number of emails and letters in support of the deal. In fact I have had emails telling me that I should take a whole number of competing actions on this with most seeming to assume that there are no alternative views. There are those who voted to leave the EU who are urging me to push for us leaving with no deal; there are those who voted to leave reminding me that we should honour the outcome of the Referendum; there are those who voted to remain in the EU who want the Government to ignore the outcome of the Referendum and ask again; there are those who are urging me to support the current deal due to concerns at leaving with no deal – and so it goes on.
The Agreement contains good measures as well as those about which I have concerns. With an Agreement of this size that is inevitable. The Agreement is effectively divided into two key sections – the transition period and post-transition. This is based on a date of leaving the EU of 29 March 2019 at 11.00am. The transition period will last until 31 December 2020 and one of its purposes is principally to make sure that business, Government departments and individuals have a clear understanding of where they stand at that date. In the meantime, during the transition phase, businesses will be able to trade as now.
The transition period contains the following. First, the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. After that date, the temporary arrangement whereby the UK continues to count as if it were a member of the EU ends for good.
In the meantime, the Agreement commits us to work towards putting in place co-operation on issues of foreign affairs, security and defence but we would not be obliged to join an EU army if the rest of the EU developed this proposal.
During the transition phase it is not true that the UK will be excluded from all EU institutions and that we will effectively be what has been called a vassal state. We will continue to participate on a case-by-case basis with EU bodies particularly where what is being discussed affects the UK. During this period, we will be able to sign and ratify new bilateral trade deals between the UK and other countries.
In relation to fisheries our quota cannot be reduced. From the last year of transition we will be negotiating on a case by case basis with the aim of putting in place a new agreement shortly thereafter.
More generally, the UK ceases to be part of the EU Budget in December 2020 and negotiates its contribution based on what activities it participates in. Its capital in the European Investment Bank and the European Central Bank are repaid. A large element of the payment the UK will make relates to pensions for which we would otherwise be pursued through the courts.
The chapters on goods and customs contain some sensible provisions on the handling of matters related to what any charging authority would want to see as transition arrangements. Some of these inevitably last more than two years.
On Citizen's Rights the Agreement provides certainty over rights and applies both to EU citizens and their families living or working in the UK and to UK citizens and their families living or working in mainland Europe. This includes mutual recognition of each other's professional qualifications. UK courts will decide issues arising but will be able to seek the advice of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a period that has been seen to cover 8 years.
On the question of Northern Ireland I remain curious as to why this has taken on so much importance. Of course, I do not want to see the Good Friday Agreement compromised. But I think that too much emphasis has been placed on what should be an administrative problem. The Agreement creates a single customs territory of the UK so Northern Ireland will not be part of a separate customs territory. It also commits us to agreeing a better arrangement before the agreement or Protocol on Northern Ireland comes into effect. If this is not possible it gives the UK the right to two courses of actions – (1) either an extension to the transition period or (2) a backstop which maintains that the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK is maintained and to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will remain open as it is today.
Under the backstop there will be no tariffs on trade in goods between the UK and the EU and most trade restrictions will be removed. Northern Ireland will be the sole part of the UK which will be aligned to extra rules of the EU's single market meaning some checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Although it is not intended for the backstop or the extension of the transition arrangements to come into force, this does give rise to concerns about how we will exit the backstop if we wish to without the agreement of the EU. I believe that this would fall to the international arbitration committee, which will handle disputes, to decide on but am waiting for clarification of this point from the Attorney General.
There is also a legal commitment to use best endeavours to avoid the backstop ever coming into force and there is scope in the framework about exploring alternative options. However, the reality is that the EU have every incentive to avoid the backstop coming into force as it would create a major back door risk for their single market and customs union and effectively give us access to the single market for goods without either money or free movement
This issue comes down to one single matter – trust. Do we trust that we will be released from the backstop? I know that the EU has not given us just cause for too much trust – or is that the spin put on by the press? But I am not going to believe that in the full international light of day either the EU or the 26 member countries will chose to stand in our way.
I am not going to pretend that the Agreement or deal answers all my questions or yours. But it is a million miles from the attacks on the EU I have been expressed. There are differing views on the extent to which the EU can be trusted with these negotiations but I do not believe that it is right to go into these negotiations not trusting them at all either to deliver on this Agreement or to do what they have committed to do.
I have written before on School Funding but I make no apology for coming back to the subject now. It is an important one. Different aspects of funding for education have been hotly debated for some time and still are. I have raised many questions and had meetings with Ministers and schools in the constituency over time to do what I can to support our schools and sixth forms. I have been involved with a group called the f40 group which challenges the formula used for government funding. This formula has been weighted to areas of under privilege. Whilst this is understandable in some ways it has probably gone too far and has left Oxfordshire, an area of very high cost, as one of the 40 lowest funded education authorities. I remain committed to work to support our educational establishments.
As I said in the House of Commons last week, there are various figures being quoted by different campaign groups lobbying on different aspects of school funding and quoting a range of sources. It is not easy to get to what is really going on when each group, including the Department for Education, publishes only headline figures. The f40 group in fact published considerable detail. In order to help me get some dispassionate facts on the reality of the situation, I have turned to the non-partisan experts in the House of Commons Library to look into this for me. Once I have their research I will be able to make my own assessment and determine what action to take going forward.
However, I want to raise another point. First, I do not believe that any group – either a campaign group or those in the Department for Education – is lying over the figures and I find completely disingenuous the suggestion being made that the Department is showing deceit and dishonesty in this. Such accusations are neither constructive nor helpful in working together for the benefit of our young people. I am urging that going forward this confrontational approach can be changed into a more collaborative one so that we can properly understand the issues and work to make appropriate changes within budget constraints.
As it is, earlier this year, we announced the biggest increase to teachers' pay since 2010: a 3.5% increase to the main pay range, 2% to the upper pay range and 1.5% for school leaders. We will be funding this with £508 million over two years, over and above the core funding allocations schools have received, to cover the difference between the 1% that schools would previously have been budgeting for, and the pay award. The £187 million for this year's pay award is going out to local authorities and academies now. We also intend to fully fund schools and academies for the increased costs of teachers' pensions, planned for September next year.
The vote to leave the EU was a national vote as is the way of all referenda. Votes are cast in the usual counting areas and then pooled for an overall result. Neither the voting nor the counting areas were parliamentary constituencies. They were based on local government areas which in our case was the area covered by South Oxfordshire District Council. In the shockwaves that have been felt among those who voted to remain in the EU, some have tried to get breakdowns of the vote in a range of different ways. I cannot see the merit of this as it does nothing to change the outcome of the vote or add anything constructive to negotiations. The important thing to me is to recognise that a large number of people, like me, voted to remain but that we must now do all we can to get a good and fair deal.
However, mindful that some people are quoting various statistical analyses to try to get to a result constituency by constituency, I have looked at the analysis conducted.
Up until recently, the only source of information on constituency votes was a statistical analysis undertaken through the University of East Anglia. The BBC has tried to obtain data based on individual wards and was successful only in about a quarter of constituencies. The Henley constituency was not one of them. Electoral returning officers are not covered by Freedom of Information legislation and many councils mixed all ballot boxes before counting. The only ward disclosed by SODC was one which showed a large percentage of people who wanted to Leave. The BBC figure for South Oxfordshire as a whole was 54.9% Remain.
We are, therefore, forced back to the University of East Anglia data which suggests that the Remain percentage in the Henley constituency was 56.9%. However, as the House of Commons Library have made clear these figures are only "an indirect way of estimating what the results by constituency may have been. The actual results at constituency level may have been different."
That difference comes about from the fact that the "model was built by first examining the relationship between the demographic characteristics of local authorities and their referendum results, and then estimating what the results may have been within each constituency given its demographic characteristics."
Analysis of the known data compared with the work done in East Anglia has led to questions over the reliability of the university data. In Birmingham, for example, it over-estimated the Leave percentage by close to 10% and 24 constituencies had a difference of 3% or more. Six constituencies had their result outcome under this model swapped. Four constituencies had been estimated to have voted remain when they voted leave while 2 constituencies had been estimated to have voted leave when they voted to remain.
This assessment suggests that such manipulation of the referendum data is not reliable and I have to wonder why such effort is put in to it. We had a national vote and the result is an overall result. No amount of playing with the data can change that.
New figures show that youth unemployment has halved since 2010, whilst the unemployment rate remains at its lowest since 1975, and real wages grew for the seventh consecutive month, helping families have more money in their pockets.
Since 2010 the number of young people out of work has more than halved, and the unemployment rate is at a 43-year low – meaning more people have the security of a job and are able to provide for their families. The number of claimants in Henley constituency is 25 lower than August 2018.
Other useful statistics: