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.


15 AUG 2017

The railways

It is a great shame that those calling for the renationalisation of the railways after today's no real-terms increase in rail prices cannot in the main remember what a nationalised railway was like. How sad that few now remember what a synonym for filth, old and tardy trains and the worst ever catering services was a nationalised railway. Poor service standards have improved, as has punctuality, the newness of the rolling stock and above all safety. A huge number of accidents took place while British Rail was in charge which, since privatization, has fallen rapidly. Britain's railways are safer than ever.

Since privatisation, the number of passenger journeys has increased from 735 million in 1994-95 to 1.7 billion in 2015-16, according to the Office of Rail and Road. None of this is due to the increase in population but to the far better service being provided and the newness of the trains. Journeys are simply better. Provision for new trains was only possible under private ownership.

Another fact is that, even if all profits made on the railways were reinvested in the railways, it would still require subsidy from the taxpayer. Britain's railways have never covered their costs since 1947 when they were nationalised although they are near to this now and the taxpayer subsidy is now lower than at any time since privatisation. And that is not to look at the problem of subsidising rail travel at all

What is more, some stations and lines which were closed back in the 1960s under the 'Beeching Cuts' have been re-opened. These include the Stirling-Alloa line in eastern Scotland, the Vale of Glamorgan line in south Wales and the Eastleigh to Romsey line in Hampshire.

The case for renationalising the railways simply does not add up. Nobody can estimate precisely how much it would cost to renationalise the railways, but it is expected that the cost would be in the tens of billions – money we do not have. Even if this was done as franchises expired it would still cost a lot and the result would still be chaos. Anyway, why should the taxation earned by working class people help subsidise the cost of travel for middle-class people which is what would happen when any new subsidy has to be introduced. And customer satisfaction is still over 80%.

 


26 JUL 2017

Investment in schools

The end of the school year is not a time to forget our schools. It is a time to set them up for the future and the start of a new school year in September.

For some time now I have added my voice to those calling for better and fairer funding for our schools. I am delighted that an additional £1.3 billion investment in schools on top of the commitment we made at the 2015 Spending Review has been made. What that means is that the Core Funding of schools currently stands at nearly £41 billion this year and will rise to £43.5 billion by 2019-20. This represents an increase of £2.6 billion between this year and 2019-20, and funding per pupil will now be maintained in real terms for the remaining two years of the Spending Review.

Life is all about the choices we make so this investment is funded by reallocating existing expenditure within the Department of Education rather than putting up taxes or borrowing more which will land the next generation with the debt.

The additional funding means that, through the new national funding formula, we can increase the basic amount that every pupil attracts in 2018-19 and 2019-20, while we continue to protect funding for pupils who have additional needs. We will also ensure that every secondary school attracts at least £4,800 per pupil during this period. The distribution of funds is through a national formula. As I said at the hustings in Thame during the General Election, no school will lose any funding as a result of the new formula and all schools will get some increase.

So let us be clear that there will be gains for each local authority and every local authority will see some increase over the amount they plan to spend on schools and high needs in the current year. What we are about is an education system that unlocks potential for every child.


29 JUN 2017

The pay cut amendment to the Queen's Speech

The pay cap of 1% on public sector workers may need to be revised as some of my colleagues are suggesting. However, this needs to be planned and properly costed; not done on the hoof. This was what was wrong with yesterday's amendment put forward by the Labour Party in the debate on the Queen's Speech. This failed attempt to try to attack austerity is all the more shocking given that it is Labour who are the ones who left the record deficit we have been clearing up over the last 7 years.

Of course, I understand the sacrifice that has been made to deal with Labour's debts, including by public sector workers. But we need the proposed end to the pay cut to be well costed and we must also ensure that we continue to protect jobs and deal with our debts.

Independent public sector pay review bodies are already making recommendations to the Government and I await these and the response we will make in the Budget.

On the question of tax avoidance, I am pleased that the Government has introduced a new tax on diverted profits. This will prevent companies from creating tax advantages by using transactions or entities that lack economic substance. I am also pleased that the 2016 Budget included measures to stop the complex structures that allow some multinationals to avoid paying any tax anywhere or to deduct the same expenses in more than one country. .Since 2010, HMRC has secured around £140 billion in additional tax revenue through tackling avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. In the UK, the tax gap - the difference between the amount of tax due and the amount collected - remains one of the lowest in the world.


21 JUN 2017

Grenfell Tower fire

The fire at Grenfell Tower in London was tragic. I am still coming to terms with the loss of life. When I drive past the remains of Grenfell Tower to get to Parliament it is a constant shock and I am conscious of the devastating effect and how frightening this must be to those living in similar blocks.

There is already much work going on. For example, we are urgently conducting fire safety reviews on all buildings similar to Grenfell Tower. Second, we are ensuring that all high rise buildings comply with recent and current fire orders. These orders specify work to be undertaken following an inspection. These are practical steps which will help ensure buildings are safe for the future.

It is essential that we make sure that fire safety in this country is up to the mark. The Department of Communities and Local Government published updated guidance on fighting fires in February 2014. It had written to all social housing providers and included recommendations on retro-fitting sprinklers a year earlier. All this followed an earlier fire in the Lakanal House tower block. The coroner in this case also recommended simplifying the guidance to fire safety regulations.

There may well be a need to improve fire safety laws or to make sure that they are implemented fully and properly. At present, we simply do not know. We should at least wait until we know what caused the fire. This is the thrust of what we promised in the Queen's Speech. If the problems result from bad upgrades to buildings, for example, that is a failure to meet existing standards and rules not a lack of standards and rules.

I want answers now to what has happened. But we also need to establish what really happened rather than rush out with public statements as judge and juror prematurely. I do not believe that speculation is helpful and we need to make sure that the action we take really does help make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.


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