I had a message from a constituent that they were going to 'punish' the Government for its actions over 'now supporting Brexit' by voting for another political party at the next election – in 2020 long after we have left the EU! The idea of using one's vote to punish a Government seems to me to be one of the most undemocratic things a voter could do.
Surely choosing our next Government should be a positive choice of which manifesto is better suited to the UK, of which is likely to move the UK on successfully; of which leader is best for the country; and of which Party is likely to deliver on their promises? But, if a democratic vote is sadly used to seek to punish this Government, the question then is punish them for what? Punish them for not kicking democracy in the teeth and accepting that on June 23rd a democratic decision was made? What this voter seems to have ignored is that it was the Liberal-Democrats who had the biggest proportional rebellion over this issue in the House of Commons when two of their 9 members refused to vote with their leader to oppose the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. A rebellion small in numbers perhaps but significant in terms of the PR they are trying to generate from it.
You can only argue about the decision which was reached in the Referendum by re-running the arguments used in it. But I cannot see the point of that. To argue on the basis of somewhat bogus statistics that this was not a proper decision is reminiscent of some of the false promises used in the Referendum. Rather, what this voter should be doing is helping to shape the legislation which is now coming forward. He should be working to move us on rather than trying to change the past.
Or take the constituent who argues that I do not understand my duty as an MP because I could have honourably resisted the vote in the House of Commons. Honourably resisted what? – the democratic will expressed in the Referendum? And why is it 'honourable' to do this?
Take too the notion that I should have voted against the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill because the constituency voted Remain. The suggestion this makes that the Referendum was not a national referendum but one based on a unit which wasn't even used for counting the votes – namely the constituency – is not that different to the dubious statistics that characterised the Referendum itself. This was a national Referendum and the counting areas were district council areas. It is also irrelevant. The referendum was run, the vote cast and we Remainers lost. Again, we need to move on.
Second, just when did the people of this constituency vote on the idea that the Prime Minister should be deprived of the right to be able to trigger Article 50 at a time of her own choosing? That is all the Bill did. It put the clock back to a time before the Supreme Court judgement. And all this, of course, ignores all the arguments about whether MPs are delegates or representatives.
A decision was made on June 23rd. We now just need to get on with delivering it. This is not a time for re-running the Referendum and it is not a time for wasting a vote on a futile exercise in punishment.
Nigeria, the largest economy, biggest oil producer and most populous country in Africa, is a market with huge potential for UK businesses. The economy has been adversely affected by external shocks, in particular a fall in the global price of crude oil. Growth slowed sharply from 6.2% in 2014 to an estimated 3.0% in 2015. The Nigerian Government is looking at measures to lay a foundation for renewed growth.
Unfortunately the UK has dropped from being the number 1 non-oil goods exporter to Nigeria in 2000 to 5th now, but UK businesses are considered to be major players in Nigeria with firms such as Guinness/DIAGEO, Virgin, BA, Shell and Standard Chartered. I know that the Nigerian Government is committed to diversification of the economy, away from the traditional oil and gas into new and exciting sectors such as infrastructure and agriculture. In addition, PWC is predicting an increase to £7 billion by 2030 of non-oil and gas exports in a report I was able to launch while in Nigeria. On my last visit in Lagos, as well as visiting the Dangote refinery I was fascinated to visit sites such as Eko Atlantic City in Lagos, dubbed the future 'Manhattan of Africa'. The sheer size and ambition of this project, which has used technology to reclaim the land that has been lost due to coastal erosion, is fantastic. I also visited Cummins operations in Lagos. They design and manufacture natural gas fired generator sets. They are investing around £150 million in power related investments in the country over a period of five years through Joint Ventures operations, to provide captive power to industries to design, construct, operate as well as maintain gas-fuelled power plants in the country. This will greatly assist in developing the Nigerian infrastructure to enable factories and other facilities to operate more efficiently.
Of course after meeting the business community it was clear there are many challenges to doing business in Nigeria, for example Infrastructure, the cost of doing business, the need for skilled, trained workers along with access to finance. However these challenges also provide great opportunities going forward and I am convinced that UK companies, with our historic links to Nigeria, are well placed to capitalise on them. I am also very much looking forward to visiting Abuja at the end of February to take forward business discussions.
Brexit continued No 4
The Government has set out its 12 negotiating objectives for Brexit. It has stressed that while this is part of the plan to leave the EU, it is not part of a plan to leave Europe. On the basis of the feedback it has so far had from European colleagues, the Government does not believe that we can be part in, part out. It is therefore seeking a new and equal partnership with our friends and allies in the EU. In order to help constituents understand the 12 objectives the Government has set, I repeat them below without a commentary from the press.
I am about to hold a number of discussion forums around the constituency on the subject of Brexit. I want to hear what it is that are people's concerns and what they want me to look out for in negotiation. It is a listening exercise that I would like people with all views to attend.
Let me address a number of other points that have been made.
Status of the Referendum
I disagree with those who tell me that the referendum was 'only' advisory. In our manifesto which was supported by over 11 million people (and very clearly before that), we said explicitly that we would accept the result of the referendum whatever it was. The Referendum effectively ceased being advisory at that point.
How voting now against giving the Prime Minister permission to start Article 50 negotiations would comply with that has not been made clear or how we would ever be trusted in taking democratic decisions again if we voted against. Those, like me, who voted to Remain need to accept that we lost the argument and that we lost the vote. I am not throwing in the towel and admitting defeat but I am recognising that a decision was made. As I have already said, my responsibility now is ensuring that the best deal can be reached for the country that is consistent with the recognition of that democratic decision.
The use of statistics
I understand the feeling of desperation that many feel at this decision but I find the use of statistics to justify why this was not a democratic decision as particularly bogus – almost as much as some of the claims used by both sides in the Referendum campaign itself. It was a simple referendum. The issue of a supermajority, whereby more than 60% would have been required to trigger leaving the EU, have been discussed in Parliament. But at the time of the Bill there was no overwhelming call for this, least of all from the Liberal-Democrats. Similarly there were no calls for a second referendum at the time the Bill was going through the House. Voting again and again until the 'right' answer is produced is precisely what the EU has been most criticised for.
Debate in Parliament is some 60 hours
I am working in my own fields to explore what aspects of our current membership of the EU are essential for us to take forward. There will be debate over this both inside and outside parliament. Inside parliament we have already had some 60 hours of debate on Brexit and different aspects of the UK economy and society. Very few of these debates have been reported in the press but they remain an important source of information to Government and Parliament alike. They should also be of interest to all with a concern in the decision.
The Prime Minister has promised a vote to Parliament at the end of the process once an agreement has been reached and we are voting on a simple and straight forward Bill to give the Prime Minister discretion to begin the Article 50 process this coming week.
Some of the debates we have had in the House of Commons since the beginning of November 2016 include:
Parliament is therefore fully engaged with Brexit
The nature of representative democracy
For over 300 years we have had a clear picture of MPs as representatives rather than delegates where they have to use their own judgment. In reaching a decision they have to take into account information such as the enormous number of debates in both Houses which have not been reported by the press. This is not a question of party loyalty as some have tried to suggest. It is a question of taking a balanced view of these factors. However, if the referendum really was advisory, it is difficult to see why those who want to remain are using it to try to tie my hands now in how I may vote.
Like many in South Oxfordshire I voted to Remain and still believe that that would have been the better option. But I am not going to defy the democratic vote of the country as a whole either directly or indirectly, not through party loyalty but because I do not believe that would be a credible action to take. I am not in denial that a decision was made and I do not believe that the promises made by either campaign during the referendum campaign had the sort of influence that people now say they did. We have set out a plan for getting the best for the country out of Brexit.
Improving air quality is a major issue for Government both central and local. We currently are meeting the limits of most air pollutants. The one we are struggling to meet is the target for nitrogen dioxide. Anyone who thinks that this is a solely British problem needs to look at 16 other countries in the European Union where this is also a problem.
This is the case, for example, in Henley and Watlington where nitrogen dioxide exceeds recommended levels. In both places, and elsewhere, the principle cause of nitrogen dioxide emissions is transport. Across the country this accounts for 80% of emissions. That is why we are spending over £2 billion on green transport initiatives. This includes supporting the early market for ultra-low emission vehicles in the period to 2020. This government has been at the forefront of action in the European Union to secure more accurate, real-world emissions testing for diesel cars. EU standards for diesel vehicles have not delivered the necessary reductions in nitrogen dioxide.
To help resolve the problem central Government set up a local authority grant fund. The purpose of the grant is to provide support to local authorities in England to develop and implement measures to improve local air quality. The grant awards at least £3 million of funding to English local authorities.
We have also launched a consultation on limiting emissions from diesel generators which finishes on 8 February. A major £35 million package to boost the uptake of ultra-low emission cars and scooters was unveiled by Transport Minister John Hayes in October. This alone will see thousands more electric vehicle charge points installed on streets and at workplaces across the UK. It is worth bearing in mind that the number of new ultra-low emission vehicles registered rose by 250% in just 2 years.
In South Oxfordshire, the District Council commissioned consultants to look at how vehicle emissions could be reduced. It has also produced an Air Quality Action Plan to bring about air quality improvements. Ultimately the aim must be to ensure that the district is founded on sustainable development which balances social, economic and environmental considerations and includes transport.
In Henley, input is required locally to ascertain what practically can be done and I look forward to supporting actions proposed. This is not an easy problem to resolve and we must avoid simplistic solutions or ones which too adversely affect the area. Similarly in Watlington the efforts we are making to limit access to the B4009 for heavy vehicles from the M40 will have an effect.
Dealing with air quality is a devolved matter both nationally and at the level of local district councils. Government is there to set the overall policy but it is for local councils to implement measures. This is of course something in which I keep a close interest and we are all committed to tackling this issue. Central Government is doing its bit to encourage low-emission vehicles, for example. But this is a problem in which we all must share.
I promised to write periodically on the issue of Brexit. This is my third briefing on the subject since the June referendum. I am regularly contacted on the subject by people who are content with the outcome of the Referendum and those who still challenge it. I have already said that like the Government I respect the outcome of the vote.
The position I take was succinctly put in debate on the subject in the House of Commons by my colleague Dominic Grieve, MP for Beaconsfield. His constituency voted narrowly to remain in the EU and he said that since the result he has felt that his task was to help to achieve Brexit in a manner that is satisfactory and will lead to the best possible outcome for everyone in the country. I completely agree.
Some suggest that Parliament has had no say in discussion. This is far from the truth. So far, Parliament has spent over 110 hours debating Brexit and its effect on various aspects of the country. To put that into context, the amount of time given to debate the main reading of a Bill would be some 6 ½ hours. The House of Commons has spent over 53 hours and the House of Lords over 57 hours in debate. The subjects have ranged from the EU and workers' rights through aviation and transport to EU nationals. This total excludes the time we have all spent in discussions with Ministers lobbying for a particular outcome.
In a debate in the House in early December MPs across Parties agreed the following motion:
That this House recognises that leaving the EU is the defining issue facing the UK; notes the resolution on parliamentary scrutiny of the UK leaving the EU agreed by the House on 12 October 2016; recognises that it is Parliament's responsibility to properly scrutinise the Government while respecting the decision of the British people to leave the European Union; confirms that there should be no disclosure of material that could be reasonably judged to damage the UK in any negotiations to depart from the European Union after Article 50 has been triggered; and calls on the Prime Minister to commit to publishing the Government's plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked, consistently with the principles agreed without division by this House on 12 October; recognises that this House should respect the wishes of the United Kingdom as expressed in the referendum on 23 June; and further calls on the Government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017.
The media sought to make much divisive comment on this but in essence it was straight forward. The motion does no more than (i) state the result of the referendum, (ii) restates the agreed position on parliamentary scrutiny of the Government (iii) accepts that there is a need for confidentiality over our negotiating position, (iv) agrees to publish a plan, and, (v) confirms that Article 50 will be invoked by 31 March 2017, as the Prime Minister has always said.
All but one Conservative MP supported this motion. Overall there was very good Parliamentary support for this which was approved by 451 to 89 votes. However, the vote split the Labour Party where 23 members failed to vote for it. And, of the Liberal-Democrats, only 6 were around to vote.
As Conservatives, we agreed to uphold the outcome of the referendum whatever that was. It was a referendum held on a country basis not on a constituency basis. It would be a real kick in the teeth for democracy to go back on that decision now.
Supreme Court Case
At the same time as this vote was being held, the Supreme Court was deciding whether Parliament needed to approve the triggering of Article 50 or whether the Government could. It is worth remembering that the court case arose because of two High Court judgements which contradicted each other – one in the High Court in Northern Ireland and the other in England. The arguments were narrowly based on legal points as to whether the UK government has the power to serve notice of its intention to quit the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty or whether it must seek Parliament's authorisation. From a political point of view, it is difficult to see what impact the case will have. The Government is ready to introduce a one-line Bill if required and personally I doubt whether the House of Lords will frustrate an overwhelming Commons vote in favour.
The real business now is deciding what a 'Brexit that will bring the best possible outcome for everyone' will look like. There are many diverse issues and aspects involved and often those who contact me have a particular concern relating to their own circumstances. This is both understandable and helpful as specific insights can be shared and I can feed these into public debate and private meetings as appropriate. To my mind this is a key part that MPs can play in the process – ensuring that the many diverse concerns are heard by those involved in the negotiations. There are those who become antagonistic if their view is not agreed with but it is impossible to agree with everyone!
I have been pleased to engage in discussion with constituents and learn about some of the details that affect particular situations. I recently met with a group of people who support the campaigning group 38 Degrees to discuss the whole Brexit issue. Their members come from both sides of the argument and have had discussions amongst themselves on a range of individual issues. I welcome their input and indeed would be happy to meet with other small groups to hear different inputs if people would like to arrange such meetings.
We can use terms such as 'hard Brexit' or a 'soft Brexit' and in the end I doubt that it will be either. For now our discussions both within Parliament and with others are important in teasing out the key issues and the implications of different scenarios.
I continue to welcome constructive discussion on the subject.
My Christmas Message for us all in the constituency
Henley and Harpsden joint neighbourhood plan is an excellent piece of work of which people should be justly proud. I am therefore puzzled why Henley's experience of the Plan should be so radically different from many of the over 2000 similar plans which have been produced around the country. The experience of Woodcote, for example, is completely different. They tell me that, as a result of their Plan, the Parish Council now has a real say as equals in discussions with both developers and the District Council. The fact is that if Henley didn't have a Neighbourhood Plan, local people would have precious little ability to have any input into local planning. They now have this and as the decision over the development at Thames Farm shows the Plan was upheld.
The idea that Neighbourhood Plans are worthless simply because the district council cannot show a five year land supply is incorrect. This can be demonstrated by the official Guidance that has been prepared and by the specific rejection of this idea by the High Court. Planning Inspectors and the Secretary of State support this view and are finding in favour of Neighbourhood Plans.
A Neighbourhood Plan has legal status. It has the same legal status as the District's Local Plan and therefore carries weight. At Woodcote their Plan has enabled refusal of applications not in line with it. Geoff Botting from Woodcote Parish Council said that Woodcote has also found the AONB around the village protected from speculative applications.
Legal status does not give it the rights of Statute. Once adopted it becomes part of a suite of planning policy documents including national and district planning policy against which applications are judged. It is highly unlikely that an application will tick all the boxes in relation to every planning policy. This all has to be weighed up.
Each case is unique and you cannot move from the specific to the general. In Henley itself recent Care Homes applications were not so far removed from the Neighbourhood Plan to lead to refusal. So there's a need for a pragmatic approach to Neighbourhood Plans. In the case of one current application, the Neighbourhood Plan Steering Group (NPSG) is considering a mixed development on a site that had been designated for industrial or commercial use in the Plan. Both the Chairman of the NPSG and the Mayor of Henley support this idea. It is a good example of pragmatism to take a longer view of things in order to get the affordable housing we need. In another case – Thames Farm – I know of at least one local Henley politician initially determined to support the planning application – thus undermining the Plan completely.
The Neighbourhood Planning Bill currently going through Parliament seeks to address some of these points and to strengthen the voice of communities. I welcome this and am happy to talk to people further if they would like to discuss it.
It is now 18 months since the last General Election. I wanted to take this opportunity to look back at what I promised in my manifesto in 2015 and what I have so far been able to deliver. There were a number of points I said I would pursue which I have listed below followed by a brief assessment of what I have achieved. There are many more things I have done over this period including work on buses, on changes to the planning system, on Heathrow, on prison reform and on international problems such as Ukraine, the Middle East and Nigeria. All of these I have reported on my web-site. This report just addresses the promises made in my manifesto.
Business rate reform
This is an issue that I have worked on for some time meeting with local businesses to listen to their concerns and lobby the Chancellor for help. I was therefore pleased to see a package of business rates reform brought forward in the House of Commons. It is good news that local councils will be able to keep all the business rates they raise by 2020.
The uniform business rate, the national tax rate that central government currently imposes on every council, will be scrapped. This means that any local area will be able to cut business rates as much as they like. This will help them to win new jobs and generate wealth for their area. The 100% retention of business rates by local government is a reform that councils have long campaigned for and to which we are committed. This move towards self-sufficiency and away from dependence on central government is something that will shape the role and purpose of local government for decades to come. It is a huge opportunity for local authorities of all kinds to take control as never before
In my manifesto I said that I would continue to push for help to extend broadband coverage where it remained poor. I was very pleased to join the celebration of the first community broadband cabinet in the village of Cuxham. It was a good illustration of alternative ways to meet the need and how important broadband is to local communities. I recognise that a large number of communities have struggled in this constituency to get connected and are having to do something about this themselves. That is why I raised the issue of the poverty of coverage in the constituency with the Minister in the House of Commons and have kept constituents involved through regular briefings on my web-site.
Working to ensure that appropriate infrastructure is delivered alongside housing
One of the biggest criticisms of new housing developments is when the necessary infrastructure to support it lags behind the house building. I said that I would push for timely infrastructure delivery in line with housing development. The proposed development of Chalgrove Airfield is the largest we have seen with a proposal for 3,500 houses to be built there by 2030. There are many questions being asked about this and a key one to inform the decision makings is about infrastructure. In my letter to the local District Council (http://www.johnhowellmp.com/john's-blog/response-to-sodc-preferred-options-consultation/875), I raised a number of concerns on infrastructure such as medical facilities, schools and public transport. I also asked for details of the road schemes which will accompany the development. I made clear that his information must be part of the planning and if it cannot be provided the proposed development must either be scaled back or abandoned.
It is important to see this as breaking the mould in development. A fresh way forward which plans properly for the future including infrastructure development is essential for looking at the development as other than just houses and seeing the impact it would have all round.
Looking after local healthcare
The NHS is important to all of us and I said that I would work to ensure that we have the best local NHS provision. One of the largest projects I have been involved with is the re-provision of Townlands Hospital in Henley which is a hospital providing for a large part of South Oxfordshire. I have taken a keen interest in new thinking on the best healthcare and have questioned the Secretary of State in the House on it. The Secretary of State confirmed that initiatives such as treating more patients in their homes are important ones brought forward by clinicians and the Royal Colleges. They are not simply cost-cutting exercises. I also pursued with the Health Secretary the concerns of GPs and the changes that were being introduced to help them deliver their workloads. It is good to see that at Townlands we are getting a healthcare provision which embraces the latest professional thinking for our well-being. We need to keep people out of hospital as much as possible but I am glad I was able to help negotiate the additional beds in the care home at the side of the hospital. As research has shown for someone over the age of 80, 10 days in hospital equates to 10 years of muscle wasting and leads to other health problems such as incontinence. None the less it is good to see that there are beds for when they are needed situated in the adjacent Care Home where there can be the appropriate level of care. This sort of approach is helping to reduce bed-blocking at the John Radcliffe hospital as I have found out at my regular meetings with health chiefs.
Keeping up pressure on traffic enforcement
Traffic concerns have been a problem in the constituency for many years especially with HGVs on the road network where they ignore designated routes and usage often disregarding weight limits. That is why after much lobbying, I have been able to help get some progress on the call for better signage to deter HGVs using the B4009 from the M40 through Watlington after delays in getting weight limit signage put up around Junction 6 of the M40.
Additional traffic and road issues often arise. The questions of an additional bridge across the River Thames at Reading is nothing new but has come to the fore again. I have continued to co-chair the 3rd Bridge meetings and to make the point that the road network in South Oxfordshire simply cannot cope with the additional traffic released by building a new bridge. We have successfully demanded additional survey work to test the impact of a new bridge on the road network in the constituency. The outcome is awaited.
I have joined with neighbouring MPs to campaign for improvements to the A34 to see safety improvements and possibly upgrading the road to give motorway status. With the Minister we agreed a safety audit for the road as the start of further action.
Standing up for the Green Belt and AONB
The Green Belt is a planning designation and serves a specific purpose in maintaining the setting of our cities and preventing urban sprawl. I have long supported constituents in their campaigns to protect this in key areas. Similarly the AONB (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) are important parts of our landscape and I have continued to work to protect them in my involvement in the reform of the planning system.
Working to ensure delivery of adequate flood prevention and drainage.
In some parts of the constituency flooding can cause problems. The responsibility for ensuring adequate protection rests with the County Council which in turn relies on the expert work of the Environment Agency. I continue to act as an intermediary where there are specific concerns to help ensure that we do not see a repeat of past problems.
Supporting communities with Neighbourhood Planning
As the Government's Neighbourhood Planning Champion, I have supported communities in the sharing of planning responsibilities with the District Council known as Neighbourhood Planning. It is always better for communities to have a plan. As the Prime Minister said to me in the House of Commons "Neighbourhood plans are a crucial part of the planning system. That is how local people can have a real say over what is happening in their local area." It is good news that we have several adopted Neighbourhood Plans in the constituency and several more in preparation. They are not invalid because SODC does not have a five year land supply. I have worked with many communities as they set out on the process of developing their own plan and have stepped in to uphold plans where challenges have been made through specific applications.
Supporting work to keep unemployment low
At times, we have been the best performing constituency in the UK for having the lowest unemployment. Much of this is of course down to the hard work of the many local businesses. I am also delighted to see so many businesses running apprenticeship training for young people to help with this. There are several schemes run across the constituency. Recently I was pleased to visit a new apprenticeship training unit at Culham for AEA and associated companies and also to meet with apprentices at Lucy Electric in Thame. It was a delight to support an RAF apprentice in competing in the World Skills Championship in Sao Paulo where he won a silver medal and also the AEA apprentices for winning in the Brathay Championship.