I was pleased that so many people attended the open meeting in Sonning Common on Friday. The prime purpose was to find out what was on your minds. Some 70 of you came along on the Friday night and we had a very friendly discussion on a number of issues from planning to roads, housing to policing, and the environment to the NHS. There were a couple of points I said I would take away and feedback your concerns. I thought it helpful, though, to provide a few comments in the meantime on three of the biggest.
As I said at the meeting, I meet with the Area Commander from time to time to discuss the workload of the police and how they are tackling crime. We have seen a change in the nature of crime within the area and we have seen the prevalence of rural crime which, with the help of farmers, is being tackled. That still leaves the problems identified at the meeting of break-ins to cars and to vans. It is worth noting that crimes traditionally measured by the Independent Crime Survey for England and Wales are actually down by over a third since June 2010. I was really pleased that overall police spending has been protected in real terms until 2019/20, once local income is taken into account, which will enable the police to continue to adapt. This works out as an increase of £900 million cash by 2019-20. I welcome the fact that Police and Crime Commissioners are being given the flexibility to increase their funding by up to £270 million in 2018/19 by increasing the Council Tax precept by up to £1 a month for a typical householder without the need to call a local referendum. It is clear the police are seeing more complex crime, and here close to Oxford we have seen terrible crimes against children. All of this means that the police need to adapt.
I am fully committed to supporting the social rented sector. But here in this constituency there appears to be more of a need for affordable market housing. I agree that developers are simply not rising to the challenge on this. The issue of the socially rented sector was raised at a meeting inThame. We agreed that it was a good idea to come up with figures for the social rented housing need and I urge Sonning Common to do the same. Since 2010 over 357,000 affordable homes have been delivered across the country, including more than 249,000 for rent. I was pleased to see the announcement of an extra £2 billion in funding for the 2016-2021 Affordable Homes Programme, increasing the total funding to over £9 billion. The additional £2 billion is expected to provide around 25,000 affordable homes, including housing in the socially rented sector. It is also important that a stable financial environment is secured for both social housing providers and renters by setting out a long term rent deal. The proposal, which would grant social tenants the security and certainty they need, will be consulted on this year.
NHS future plan
The Prime Minister has made a commitment that the government will deliver a long term plan for the NHS, and that we would bring forward a multi-year funding settlement in support of it. We have committed £10 billion in new funding for the NHS since last November alone. But after the most challenging winter for many years, we can be in no doubt about the pressures in the system, nor the challenges ahead. We will be looking after a million more over 70's in 2020 than five years' before, while the number of over 85's will nearly double by 2035. But we need to move away from annual top-ups to the NHS's budget towards a sustainable long-term plan. This means building on the work of the Five Year Forward View but looking beyond it with long-term commitments which allow the NHS to realise greater productivity and efficiency gains. We will, therefore, come forward with a long term plan for the NHS, in conjunction with its leaders, clinicians and health experts. As the PM set out, our new plan must turbo charge progress in spreading the excellence which exists in parts of the system across the whole of the NHS. We also know that care is still not properly integrated for people who have both health and social care needs, that the system is often not accountable to patients or the taxpayer, and that citizens should be supported to take more responsibility for their health.
First, let me say that in my opinion the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Expressway is very unlikely to affect Otmoor or other SSSIs in the constituency. The proposed Expressway is part of a wider project currently referred to as the Oxford - Milton Keynes - Cambridge Arc. It is a major project but one which is at an early stage. Much of the preparatory work for this was completed by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). This work is not Government policy and the Government has made no response to the NIC on its proposals. What it has done is to ask my colleague Iain Stewart MP, who has been appointed Government champion for the project, to make recommendations which is why I organised a meeting with him and 25 of my potentially most affected parish councils so that they could make their points directly to him. In addition, I hope to be making points on behalf of the constituency at a meeting with Highways England shortly.
For my part I have already had discussion also with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that he is aware of the local issues and have also put these concerns in writing to him. I have also written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to try to include the A420 to Swindon within the project and I have pointed out the extent of Green Belt around Oxford. I am of the firm opinion that the route should utilise existing roads wherever possible rather than carve a new path through Green Belt land or damage other areas of environmental interest and I have suggested it needs to be routed to the west of Oxford,
I am sure you will be pleased to know that I have also raised concerns about the transparency of the work on this project. A project of this magnitude should have ready access to as much information as possible in the public domain. I accept that some competitive data needs to remain private but feel that the lack of information is adding to speculation. I have asked the Secretary of State to intervene so that as much information as possible can be immediately put into the public domain with explanation as to what is being held back and why. I have also asked him to ensure that there is full public consultation before a route is decided and not just on the preferred option. One of the recommendations of Iain Stewart MP is that the project needs considerably more public buy-in before it goes ahead.
I understand that Highways England are currently looking at possible 'corridors' for the road. They will decide which in the summer – no date has yet been given. Once the actual corridor is chosen work will begin to determine the route but this is unlikely to take place before the mid to late 2020s.
I would also encourage you to make your views known to the Leader of the County Council, Ian Hudspeth (email@example.com) and Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive of the Oxfordshire Local Economic Partnership (firstname.lastname@example.org). Although both say that they have not decided on a preferred route, both have influence on this through their work as part of the Oxfordshire Growth Board. It is important that they are aware of the views of our local communities. I understand too that other councils along the route have already engaged in public consultation.
I attach a letter and an email I have received from NHS Property Services about the parking at Townlands Memorial Hospital. They provide useful information about:
The email gives the details of who at NHS Property Services people should complain to.
I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about the right of the Windrush children who came to the UK between 1948 and 1971 to remain here.
We're not aware of any evidence that anyone has been wrongly deported. There have been a very small number of cases of former Commonwealth citizens who have the right to be here being subject to removal action and detention. This is not acceptable and should not happen again.
The Home Office is setting up a new dedicated team that will work across Government to help individuals identify and gather evidence to confirm their existing right to be in the UK. The team will include a dedicated contact point and aim to resolve cases within 2 weeks once the evidence has been put together. We recognise that some of these people may struggle to evidence when they arrived and how long they have been in the UK, so this dedicated team will work with other departments and any other relevant bodies to help people provide the evidence they need. They won't need to just rely on formal records. Any information they can provide, from schools they attended to places of work, family or former addresses will help build this picture.
No one should be left out of pocket as they go through this process.
Any thoughts that the UK is going to engage in a bombing campaign of the civilian population of Syria have been proved to be very wide of the mark. Theresa May took the decision to undertake a small, limited and targeted strike against the chemical weapons facilities of Syria. The decision has been supported by the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, the Prime Minister of Denmark, the Spanish Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister of Australia, the NATO Secretary General, the ...Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Prime Minister of Canada, the President of the EU Council and the Chancellor of Germany, amongst others. It was also spported by many Labour MPs. They have taken this view because I believe the evidence is very clear that the Assad regime was responsible for "the foaming at the mouth, the floppy bodies of children, and the particular terror those weapons deliberately inspire".
The UK has been operating in Syria with humanitarian assistance and will continue to do so, as far as it is possible. It is making a real difference, providing life-saving and life-changing humanitarian support to the people of Syria, and those who have fled to neighbouring countries. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, UK aid has delivered over 26 million food rations that feed a person for a month, 10.3 million medical consultations, 9.8 million relief packages, and over 8 million vaccines. In 2016/17 alone, UK aid reached over 5 million people with clean water. We are te second largest aid donor in the country. That shows a real concern for the humanitarian situation amongst Syrians.
I disagree with claims that more bombing of the type we undertook would increase the suffering of the Syrian people. I believe the limited and targeted nature of this bombing avoided this but still achieved our objective. We cannot sit by and accept the use of these vile chemical weapons simply because they run the risk of a confrontation with Russia. The lack of humanitarian concern that this implies would be surprising in the extreme. How many more children have to gasp for life in the face of these chemical weapons particularly as the regime prepares for an attack on Idlib. It also suggests that we live in a world where the Russians always have the whip hand.
The view that Theresa May should have sought the permission of Parliament first is more complex. This to some extent is an issue of judgement. Having listened to the Statement that the Prime Minister gave in the House, I believe the need to act with speed and to alleviate further humanitarian suffering were paramount. These happen to be the circumstances in which a Prime Minister is encouraged to act and I believe it was appropriate. It is sad to observe that the political and diplomatic route had failed. Attempts to involve the UN were frustrated by Russian vetoes, preventing any meaningful dialogue.
I have had discussion with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that he is aware of the local issues and have also put these concerns in writing to him. I am of the firm opinion that the route should utilise existing roads wherever possible rather than carve a new path through Green Belt land or damage other areas of environmental interest. I do not agree with the idea that a southern route should be chosen to bring Aylesbury into the equation. Houses there would be a comuter belt for London rather than support the corridor.
I have also raised concerns about the transparency of the work on this project. A project of this magnitude should have ready access to as much information as possible in the public domain. I accept that some competitive data needs to remain private but feel that the lack of information is adding to speculation. I have asked the Secretary of State to intervene so that as much information as possible can be immediately put into the public domain with explanation as to what is being held back and why. I have also asked him to ensure that there is full public consultation before a route is decided and not just on the preferred option.
Iain Stewart MP has been appointed Government Champion for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc (as it is known at present) and I am in regular contact with him to try to make sure that we keep abreast of developments. I have arranged for him to visit the constituency shortly to meet with Parish Councils.
I would also encourage people to make their views known to the Leader of the County Council, Ian Hudspeth (email@example.com) and Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive of the Oxfordshire Local Economic Partnership (firstname.lastname@example.org). Although both of them have written to me to say they are not supporting a southern route, both organisations have influence on this through their work as part of the Oxfordshire Growth Board and it is believed that they favour a southern route. It is important that they are aware of the views of our local communities rather than simply passing the responsibility to Highways England.
I have held important meetings with Henley town council and with Thame town council separately on the question of revising or up-dating the Neighbourhood Plans. We have covered issues such as the purpose of Neighbourhood Plans, what work will be involved, how this relates to SODC and whether a Referendum would be required on any revisions.
Progress on the situation with parking fines at Townlands Memorial Hospital
I have had a letter back from NHS Property Services in reply to one of mine in which they say "the current situation is unacceptable and urgent changes are expected to improve the experience of patients." They also say that they have "interceded to ensure all those users who have been incorrectly or harshly issued with penalty notices have had them rescinded."
A good first step and I will shortly be posting here the name and address for people to write to seek the rescinding of their fines.
Smart Parking has treated people in an appalling way which is unacceptable.
I want to turn to a subject that can have a big effect on people – the Welfare System. The Welfare System that we have today has been over a century in the making and is the work of each political party that has held office in that period. The system has grown and adapted as society has changed and thus it is likely that it will always need reform to meet new challenges and circumstances. By and large, the system works well to help get people into work so that they can support themselves and their families. In this constituency, we have one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the country. This does mean job opportunities for some and in-work benefits where necessary. It also means support for the minority who cannot work through sickness, disability or personal circumstances. It is a mark of a civilised society that we look after those who cannot look after themselves. This may be life-long support for someone or support through a temporary difficult time.
In recent months, I have been concerned with the operation of aspects of the current system, particularly Personal Independence Payments which are in a period of transition, and may not be meeting the needs of some people. Thus some of the very people we seek to support are falling through the gaps. For example, I am concerned at the time assessments can take and also at the quality of some assessments. Where there is a discrepancy in an assessment, I am concerned at the time it can take to raise a concern and for reassessment. I am concerned, too, at the difficulties that seem to arise when assessing medical conditions with debilitating symptoms that are intermittent or erratic and which may just happen not to be apparent at the time of assessment.
I am concerned that this may be failing some of the vulnerable people in our society and therefore I have raised my concerns with the new Secretary of State for Welfare as a matter that needs addressing urgently. I await her response.
I share the concerns of those who have written to me about the NHS and the perceptions in the media. But the NHS has been fully funded according to its own requests and they write as if we have never had a winter crisis in the NHS. We have had a winter crisis of some kind or another every year and this year's is increased by the rising number of flu cases. As was said yesterday in the House of Commons by a member of the Opposition, "the normal pressures have been added to this winter by freezing weather and influenza."
However, in 2009/10 the Conservative shadow Health Secretary chose not to try to take advantage of the then near flu pandemic at the time because he recognised that there were operational pressures on the NHS and it was not down to him to score party political points. At that time, tens of thousands of procedures were cancelled to provide capacity to cope with the emergency at the front doors of our hospitals, many of them at the last minute. So, the approach we have taken of cancelling operations in advance is a much more humane and sensible way to do things and it provides much more opportunity for hospitals to cope with the pressures that are coming through the door.
Despite tight public finances, the Government has actively supported the NHS's own plan for the future. The total spent by the Department of Health in England is about £145 billion. We are increasing NHS spending by at least £8 billion in real terms over the next five years.
Over the next three years, the Government will provide the NHS with an additional £2.8 billion resource funding. By the end of last year, the NHS had received £335 million to manage winter pressures; a further £1.6 billion will be invested in 2018-19, and in 2019-20, £900 million will be provided to help address future issues. Furthermore, the Government is currently offering local councils an additional £2 billion to help them fund adult social care services in a time of great pressure.
Here in Oxfordshire, the snapshot report of Delayed Discharges of Care (so-called bed blockers) for the end of December shows a massive reduction compared with May 2017. Delayed Discharges of Care can contribute to the problems faced by the NHS at this time. This is in line with the trajectory agreed with the Department of Health and I hope you will join me in congratulating our health workers for achieving this significant improvement.
This improvement has been achieved through recruitment of more staff and commissioning extra packages of care and interim nursing home beds to mitigate pressure. So more people are leaving hospital with a care package and that is driving the reduction we have seen, together with tightening up and streamlining assessment and other internal processes. The reduction in delays has been achieved by getting the right resources to those patients who need them to return home, and not due to people going home without the support they need.
I believe fully in the NHS and its values, and I would like to assure you that the Government is committed to a tax-funded NHS, free at the point of use, wherever and whenever you need it. That is why it is increasing NHS spending. Ministers will continue to ensure that the NHS is given the priority it deserves.
I know the NHS is extremely busy – as it always is at this time of year – but staff are taking the necessary steps to make sure patients continue to get seen as quickly as possible.
In Scotalnd where the health service is controlled by the SNP similar pressures are being felt and similar action is being taken. In Wales where Labour run the NHS it is also a similar picture.
Let us be clear that the NHS has record levels of funding, with the Government supporting it over winter with an additional £437 million as well as £1 billion extra social care funding this year. And with planned action now rather than piecemeal actionn over the next few months.
So, the NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before. There are more beds available across the system. We have reduced the number of delayed discharges of elderly people who would otherwise have been in NHS beds rather than in social care (so called Bed Blocking). More than one thousand extra beds have been freed up in our NHS since February and we have extended the flu vaccination program.
We have been able to deliver more money for our NHS every year through adopting a balanced approach to the economy.
We are all well aware of the challenges the NHS is facing this winter in light of rising patient numbers, a flu epidemic, and the increasingly complex needs of an ageing population and we have planned for them. Our NHS was recently ranked as the best and safest healthcare system in the world and we want it to continue to deliver outstanding care.
Let me begin by sending my very best wishes to you all for a very Happy New Year. As I send greetings, I am aware that New Year is often a time of mixed feelings. The optimism of New Year is so widely celebrated that it can leave some people in low spirits as they look forward to the year ahead. As a New Year begins, I try to anticipate with optimism what we can achieve.
We should think of all those who volunteer across our society and provide valuable services to our communities; we take them for granted at great cost. In 2017, I was grateful for the opportunities set before me. For example, the chance to thank and help a number of individuals including medical charities focused on a wide range of illnesses both physical and mental. I also gave my support to ending the threat of closure of Chiltern Edge School and to trying to secure more funding for our schools.
As I look forward to 2018, I hope it will be a happy time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as they marry at Windsor. I will be playing my part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April, travelling to Nigeria as the Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to the country and to Strasbourg as a Parliamentary representative on the Council of Europe, playing a part in the successes they can bring for the country.
Nearer home, I hope to see the continuation of important activities such as Neighbourhood Planning, and to engaging with constituents at a number of different levels. Most of all though, I look forward to everyone enjoying a peaceful and prosperous time. The Henley Constituency is beautiful, with thriving communities and much goodwill. I hope we will all focus on things that can improve life for those who live here and ensure that they can take advantage of the opportunities that life has to offer.
Some people say we live in 'interesting times'. In truth, all times are 'interesting' and I hope that together we will be able to have constructive discussions about how we can make the most of the opportunities they offer.
I am delighted that the UK is leading the world in clean growth, reducing emissions faster than any other G7 country.
A BBC web site reported today that the UK has achieved its greenest year ever in terms of how the nation's electricity is generated,. The figures are produced by National Grid. It also revelaed that he rise of renewable energy helped break 13 clean energy records in 2017. In June, for the first time, wind, nuclear and solar power generated more UK power than g...as and coal combined.
Britain has halved carbon emissions in the electricity sector since 2012 to provide the fourth cleanest power system in Europe.
British wind farms produced more electricity than coal plants on more than 75% of days this year.
I have been asked how I voted on Amendment 7 to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Let me be clear from the beginning, I voted, as I said I would, with the Government. After due consideration, I could not see that the amendment moved by the rebels had any merit or made any difference as I explain below. The House, largely for opportunistic reasons, took a different view but this is just the committee stage of a Bill in which the Government has won 34 out of 35 votes by reasonable majorities.
Amendment 7 was not about parliamentary sovereignty nor was it to give me a say over the Brexit Bill. I already have a continuing say over the Brexit Bill as I will explain later in this note. What the amendment, however, wants to suggest is that all we will be doing is voting on Brexit at the end of the process and that Parliament will have no role in the discussions up to that point. This is simply a misrepresentation.
Parliament has a continuing role in the process not least through the various Select Committees which hold Ministers and Departments to account and which are producing their own reviews of the impact of Brexit. My own Select Committee (the Justice Select Committee) for example has already done a review of Brexit on the legal system and has had a Government reply. We have also visited jurisdictions like Jersey and the Isle of Man to explore the effect Brexit will have on them. So, this work is not restricted to the Select Committee set up to review us leaving the EU and applies to us all.
I have already circulated a table illustrating how the EU Withdrawal Bill will deal with other measures to secure parliamentary approval during its passage. The use of Statutory Instruments (SI) in this is a normal and acceptable part of the way the House of Commons works and provides full scrutiny of the matters an SI covers.
I have quoted before the comments of a fellow Remainer in the constituency about amendment 7 – the so-called meaningful vote amendment. In his email, the writer accepts that Parliament will be given a meaningful vote as indicated by the Brexit Secretary but says that he wants a guarantee. Others have been more forthcoming and have said that the reason they wanted the amendment to succeed is due to the character and alleged actions of the Brexit Secretary.
This attack on an individual personality is what I found most unacceptable about the amendment and what I find, quite frankly, an abuse of parliament. A statement made by a Minister at the Despatch Box is absolutely valid regardless of whether the Minister subsequently changes. I find it unacceptable to use the parliamentary process to pursue a campaign against one Minister. In addition, of course, the Government has been very diligent at reporting back to Parliament by Statement after each major visit to Brussels. On the last occasion the Prime Minister spent almost 2 hours being questioned.
The Government has made it clear that there will be at least two agreements. A Withdrawal Agreement will be negotiated under Article 50 whilst the UK is a member of the EU. It will set out the terms of the UK's withdrawal from the EU as well as the details of any implementation period agreed between both sides. At the same time as we negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, we will therefore also negotiate the terms for our future relationship.
However as the Prime Minister made clear the EU is not "legally able to conclude an agreement with the UK as an external partner while it is itself still part of the European Union". So the Withdrawal Agreement will be followed shortly after we have left by one or more agreements covering different aspects of the future relationship.
The Withdrawal Agreement will need to be signed by both parties and concluded by the EU and ratified by the UK before it can enter into force. The UK approval and EU approval processes can operate in parallel. In the UK, the Government has committed to hold a vote on the final deal in Parliament as soon as possible after the negotiations have concluded. This vote will take the form of a resolution in both Houses of Parliament and will cover both the Withdrawal Agreement and the terms for our future relationship. The Government will not implement any parts of the Withdrawal Agreement until after this vote has taken place.
Any treaty subject to ratification will need to be placed before both Houses of Parliament for a period of at least 21 sitting days, after which the treaty may be ratified unless there is a resolution against this. If the House of Commons resolves against ratification the Government can lay a statement explaining why it considers the treaty should still be ratified and there is then a further 21 sitting days during which the House of Commons may decide whether to resolve again against ratification. The Government is only able to ratify the agreement if the House of Commons does not resolve against the agreement.
If Parliament supports the resolution to proceed with the Withdrawal Agreement and the terms for our future relationship, the Government will bring forward a Withdrawal Agreement & Implementation Bill to give the Withdrawal Agreement domestic legal effect. The Bill will implement the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement in UK law as well as providing a further opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. This legislation will be introduced before the UK exits the EU and the substantive provisions will only take effect from the moment of exit. Similarly, we expect any steps taken through secondary legislation to implement any part of the Withdrawal Agreement will only be operational from the moment of exit, though preparatory provisions may be necessary in certain cases.
Whatever their final form, agreements on the future relationship are likely to require the consent of the European Parliament and conclusion by the Council. If both the EU and Member States are exercising their competences in an agreement, Member States will also need to ratify it. In the UK, therefore, the Government will introduce further legislation where it is needed to implement the terms of the future relationship into UK law, providing yet another opportunity for proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Parliament will be fully involved throughout the process as will I. But I will be involved on the basis of my assessment of the facts rather than the somewhat clumsy attempts to bully me into supporting rebel motions because the constituency allegedly voted to Remain. Whatever the constituency voted, this was a national vote not a constituency one, and we must honour the outcome regardless of our own view as we would in a General Election.
Our new draft animal welfare Bill will mean:
The RSPCA have said:
"To include the recognition of animal sentience, as well as increasing animal cruelty sentencing to 5 years into the new 2018 Animal Welfare Bill, is a very bold and welcome move by the Government."
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home say:
"Battersea is greatly encouraged by the Governments willingness to see sentences for the most shocking cases of animal cruelty increase from 6 months to 5 years and today's announcement takes a significant step in that direction."
This is really good news and takes the issue on much further. It contradicts the false news being put out at the time.
The reality is that the banks are paying more in taxes now than when Labour was in charge.
We have introduced an additional tax on banks which will raise nearly £9 billion by 2022. In January 2016, we introduced an 8 per cent corporation tax surcharge for banks that is forecast to raise £8.9 billion over the next five years 2017-22.
Since the Autumn Budget, Labour have been asked 22 times how they would afford their borrowing binge – and failed to answer every time:
o 'You don't need a number'
o 'Minimal' (The Andrew Marr Show, 19 November 2017).
o 'Trite form of journalism... That's why we have iPads and advisers'
o 'What we would do is ensure that day to day spending is not serviced by borrowing'
o 'We're now at the stage where interest rates are so low we should be borrowing to invest'
o 'It pays for itself'
o 'It pays for itself'
o Talked over another question (Today, 23 November 2017).
o 'Not at all, you get, it's trite journalism walking into a studio and ask you to pluck a figure out of the air and all the rest of it' (BBC Radio 5 Live, 23 November 2017).
o 'The point I'm trying to get at is we do not want figures banded around about future investment, interest rates at a later date, that will then be used to frighten people off from properly supporting investment' (Peston on Sunday, 26 November).
o 'Because the debate is about whether or not it is cost-effective. And you know as well as I do soon as any figures bandied about...'
o 'No, no. There isn't a big hole in it... What we're saying is bring it into public ownership, it will be managed more effectively. It will pay for itself' (Paterson on Sunday, 3 December 2017).
o 'Cost us zero'
o 'It's impossible to say'
o 'You can't put a figure on that at the moment'
o 'You can't say... It will cost what it costs'
o 'It works through'
o 'People are getting ripped off' (no response)
o 'It's not difficult'
o 'You've got to get it right... it's impossible... the basic principle is utterly sound' (BBC Daily Politics, 6 December 2017).
The success of the Blue Planet series reminded me of the enormous amount of work we are doing to lead the way in making our oceans safe and to protect the creatures that inhabit them.
For example we are banning microbeads and looking at how a return scheme for plastic bottles might work. This will have a big impact on marine life. Extending the Blue Belt alone will protect about 150,000 rare seabirds.
As the chairman of Natural England, Andrew Sells, has said "Extending the Blue Belt gives vital new protection to some of our most precious coastal wildlife."
There have been questions over the planning challenges at the Thames Farm Site between Henley and Shiplake. Let me try to explain the issues for those who have been unable to read the judgements and decisions or the original submissions. This is both a national and a local issue.
A key and crucial measure in planning and development is the 5 year housing land supply (5YHLS). This is a measure which assesses whether or not the Local Planning Authority has set aside sufficient land to provide for planned housing in its area. Where an area is covered by a Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP) the requirement is for a 3YHLS. Using accepted methodology, SODC can demonstrate a 4.1 year housing land supply. This means that where there is no NDP developers may be given permission on land not in a strategic plan, but, where there is an NDP the plan which the community has developed should be adhered to.
In the case of Thames Farm, the Planning Inspector came to the conclusion that SODC did not even have a 3 YHLS. As the site is in the area covered by the Henley and Harpsden Joint NDP (HHJNDP) this judgement and its divergence from the recognised figure is important as it seemingly undermines the HHJNDP. Hence the challenge to the Planning Inspectors decision.
Since the time of the Thames Farm decision, there have been two other appeals heard by two different Planning Inspectors and each has concluded that SODC does have a 4.1 YHLS.
Hence there is concern over the inconsistency of the decisions made by different Planning Inspectors. This is rightly being challenged through the legal system by SODC. I have also raised it with the Secretary of State and the Chief Planning Officer and in other ways. Both are taking these concerns seriously and investigating on a wider basis.
On the issue of affordable housing, when people say they want 'affordable' housing most often they mean low cost market housing to allow people to get onto the housing ladder. It is important to distinguish between this and social housing where residents are tenants of a Housing Association rather than home owners. There is, of course, some need for social housing but in this area there is greater demand for low cost market housing.
The National Planning Policy Framework sets the requirement for planning authorities to deliver a housing mix to need the local demographic need. It is the responsibility of the District Council to set the target numbers of affordable housing that can be built and to work with developers to deliver that as far as possible. It is not the responsibility of the MP. However, I have argued in Parliament that Neighbourhood Development Plans should have a defining say in the type of houses built not just the location. Such views are being looked at now and can't come soon enough.
We have a Plan-led Planning System which means that you cannot simply build what you want, where you want. Affordable housing has to be part of the whole mix. There is a strong role for younger people to get involved in a Neighbourhood Plan production group and make a contribution to the debate to ensure that their needs and views are heard and included in local planning.
Applications outside of the planning system makes a total mockery of the system and especially of local participation. This is why these issues are so important and we must have clarity and consistency.
I spent a very enjoyable day today in Wheatley. It was very good to be back in the village again and I was able to do and see a lot.
First, I started at the Merry Bells with a little surgery. It was very good to discuss ME with a constituent who reminded me of the article I had appeared in alongside campaigners. There is still much more to do here but we await new guidelines from NICE. While there I was also happy to help put up the Christmas tree and chat to some interesting people.
I then went on to Wheatley Fire Station where they had arranged a demonstration for me by firefighters of what they did and what equipment they used to deal with a road traffic accident. It was an excellent demonstration and it was good to see more women becoming firefighters. I was conscious of how quiet and calming it was around the demonstration – to keep those who might be trapped calm. In looking over the fire engine I was struck by the range of equipment a tender carries with it.
Finally, I called in at the village post office in its new location where a Barclays Bank had existed before. I was glad I was able to help with the siting of the post office and I was pleased to be invited to open it. It is a very good example of seeing how this sort of business thrives by keeping someone with business experience in charge.
This was a budget to recognise two things. First, it set out to recognise that we are on the brink of a technological revolution in which we can either embrace the future or fail in our attempts to take the country forward. Second, it is a budget that recognises that we need to raise our productivity. We have 3 million more people in jobs but we need to make sure that our productivity is equally high. There are several ways in which we can do this. One of them is by the provision of the right skills and training and this is why the budget contained important measures to increase our skills base. But one of them is by the provision of the right skills and training. That is why the budget contained important measures to increase our skills base. The budget for example launched a partnership between three organisations – the Government, the CBI and the TUC – to set out the strategic direction for a National Retraining Scheme which will give people the skills they need – not just now but throughout life – to get on and when changing jobs. This is crucial as over the next 20-40 years the risks of automation are going to hit many jobs. People have a choice here of upskilling for the future or being left behind.
Apprenticeships too have been a success. Within my own constituency a brand new electrical training centre has opened at the site of the Culham Science Centre. This provides a top class training location for learners in the Oxfordshire area. The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) Apprentice Training Scheme has been running successfully for the last 12 years at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. It is now expanding and diversifying to provide apprenticeships in a wide range of other areas to help UKAEA achieve its future talent needs and to support the Government's plans to increase apprenticeships throughout the UK. All of this is a major contribution to productivity and to skills.
This needs to be set in the context of 3.4 million apprenticeships since 2010 and government changes to the apprenticeship scheme. This all about focusing on increasing the quality of apprenticeships and allowing apprentices to develop their talents and progress their careers. That is precisely what is happening in my own constituency at the Culham Science Centre and the budget helps this.
The contribution that digital skills and improved technology can make to productivity is also important. In a question I raised in debate with the Secretary of State for Business it is clear that this is not just about providing our towns and cities with 5G mobile telephony and better broadband. It is also about picking up on the significant opportunities in many of our rural areas. We need to make sure that the progress we make in our towns and cities is shared with our rural areas. That is why the £30 million to test artificial intelligence is important and should be seen alongside the provision of Ed Tech on-line digital skills courses. I do think on-line course are the way forward to provide better access as will the new employer designed courses in construction and digital with the budget promised.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the changes to the education system. Increased investment will help to improve technical education to a level of ambition which matches our industrial strategy and can rival the best systems in the world. That is why the budget introduced the new T-level which will have real currency with employers and in the labour-market. The qualification will be awarded when the pupil has secured the technical qualification, work placement and English and maths. This will secure occupational competence in the relevant field and will address the existing skills gap may employers currently face.
I welcome the Government's investment of an additional £500 million per year in England's technical education system. This will ensure it creates genuine opportunities. Increased investment will help to improve technical education to a level of ambition which matches our strategy and can rival the best systems in the world.
Improving our skills base is one of the best long-term strategies for improving productivity. This is essential to ensuring our economy thrives post-Brexit. I think the budget addresses these problems head-on. It provides real opportunities for skills training right across life and will make a strong contribution to improving productivity and the life chances of individuals The consultation on the industrial strategy set out the education and training, particularly in maths, digital skills and other aspects of our technical education. There are skills shortages around the country, and what we have set out will provide enormous opportunities particularly to young people and to those who are changing career
As the Secretary of State said at the end of the debate: The industrial strategy and this Budget are about prosperity for all..... Our Budget takes us into the future."
I welcome and support the budget. In this briefing I set out a few of the big picture issues it addresses and some that relate to this constituency. The Government is continuing to stick by its fiscal rules and make the public finances more sustainable. The deficit has been reduced by three quarters from a post-war high of 9.9 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 to 2.3 per cent in 2016-17, its lowest level since before the financial crisis. The Government has also properly grasped the scale of the UK's productivity challenge and is making the investments necessary to address it. Borrowing this year will be significantly lower than previously forecast.
£6.3 billion of new funding for frontline NHS services and upgrades to NHS buildings and facilities has been announced. In addition, the government will fund pay awards for nurses and other relevant staff such as midwives and paramedics, provided they are part of a deal with the unions to boost productivity.
The NHS is a national issue which affects us all. The government had already endorsed the NHS's Five Year Forward View and funded it with £10 billion for the NHS by 2020-21. However, even with that funding, the health service remains under pressure with more people than expected using NHS services each year. That is why we are now providing the £6.3 billion of new funding as a significant increase to the NHS's budget. This will improve the service that patients receive in A&E, reduce waiting times for treatment after referral, and put the NHS on a stronger, more sustainable footing.
This funding should enable the NHS to:
It is worth recalling that in 2016-17 the NHS:
The 2016 British Social Attitude Survey showed overall satisfaction with the NHS remained at historically high levels, and the 2017 GP Patient Survey showed almost 85% of respondents rated their overall experience as good.
Action to improve air quality, including a new £220m Clean Air Fund, will be funded by targeted changes to company car tax and to vehicle excise duty for those buying new diesel cars. Drivers of petrol and ULEV cars, those who have already bought a diesel car, and vans and HGVs will not be affected, while all motorists will benefit from the Budget decision to freeze fuel duty.
There have been significant improvements in air quality in recent years, with nitrogen oxide emissions falling 19% between 2010 and 2015, and 69% since 1970. However, air pollution is still at harmful levels in some places including in Watlington and Henley in this constituency. The government published its National Air Quality Plan in July 2017. This required local authorities in England to draw up plans to improve air quality. In this Budget the government goes further with funding for a new Clean Air Fund to help people and businesses adapt and I hope this helps in the work the District Council is already doing.
In order to encourage manufacturers to bring the next-generation of clean diesels to market more quickly, the government is introducing a temporary levy on diesel cars. From April 2018:
new diesel cars will go up one Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) band in their first-year rate the existing Company Car Tax diesel supplement will increase by 1 percentage point
Neither charge will apply to next-generation clean diesel cars that meet the Real Driving Emissions Step 2 standard.
In support of the National Air Quality Plan, the government will use the money raised through these tax changes to pay for a new £220m Clean Air Fund. English local authorities with the most challenging pollution problems will be able to use this fund to support people and businesses to adapt as measures to improve air quality are implemented. This new fund is in addition to the £255m funding for the plan announced in July, and takes the total amount invested in air quality and cleaner transport to £3.2bn since 2010.
The government also wants to see fully self-driving cars, without a human safety operator, on UK roads by 2021. There are trials driving these at Culham Science Park. We will take action to ensure the UK is a world leader in electric cars, including: £200 million government investment, matched by the private sector. This is likely to have the single most major impact on air quality.
Together with the reforms announced in the Housing White Paper, the Budget puts us on track to raise housing supply to 300,000 per year, on average, by the mid-2020s.
The Budget makes available over £15 billion of new financial support for house building over the next five years, bringing total support for housing to at least £44 billion over this period. It introduces planning reforms to ensure more land is available for housing and that the country is maximising the potential of its towns and cities to build new homes.
The Budget also confirms: an additional £10 billion for the Help to Buy Equity loan announced in October to help 135,000 more people buy new build homes. It will also bring together public and private capital to build five new Garden Towns.
The planning system will protect the Green Belt, at the same time addressing the lack of availability of land in the right places for new homes and ensure the UK makes better use of underused land in towns and cities. To improve land availability for development, the government has begun considering intervention in 15 areas where there is not an up-to-date plan.
The government will continue to support those looking to buy homes now, through Stamp Duty Land Tax and the Help to Buy Equity Loan. It will run a competition to develop innovative solutions that help first time buyers ensure their rental payments are recognised in their mortgage applications. The government will also allow local authorities to increase the council tax premium on empty homes to 100% to make sure homes are kept in use.
We are committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022, and eliminating it by 2027. The government will also provide £20m of funding for schemes to support people at risk of homelessness to access and sustain tenancies in the private rented sector. To support Housing Benefit and Universal Credit claimants living in areas where private rents have been rising fastest, the government will increase some Local Housing Allowance rates by increasing Targeted Affordability Funding by £40m in 2018-19 and £85m in 2019-20. The government will also consult on the barriers to landlords offering more secure tenancies to those tenants who want them.
There is also a deal with Oxfordshire which I hope will provide infrastructure to accompany the houses councils have agreed to build (100,000). The consultation on the housing need figures I announced a little while ago continues but it does not prevent councils agreeing a separate figure for deals such as this. There are a lot of questions still to be answered on this which I am putting to our councils.
Universal credit represents the biggest modernisation of the welfare state in a generation. It supports those who can work and cares for those who cannot. Already evidence shows that under universal credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the previous system. Once it is fully rolled out it will boost employment by about 250,000.
There have been some concern on the delivery of Universal Credit, which I understand. I am therefore pleased that the Budget announced a £1.5 billion package to address these concerns. From February 2018, the Government will remove the seven-day waiting period so that entitlement to Universal Credit starts on the first day of application. From January 2018 those who need it, and who have an underlying entitlement to Universal Credit, will be able to access up to a month's worth of Universal Credit within five days via an interest-free advance. The period for repaying advances through reduced payments will also be extended from six to twelve months, making it easier for claimants to manage their finances. The Government will also make it possible to apply for an advance online. From April 2018 those already on Housing Benefit will continue to receive their award for the first two weeks of their Universal Credit claim.
The Government will permanently raise the price at which a property becomes liable for Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) to £300,000 for first-time buyers to help young people buy their first home.
This is to ensure that this relief also helps first time buyers in very high price areas like Oxfordshire, it will also be available on the first £300,000 of the purchase price of properties up to £500,000, meaning an effective reduction of £5,000. The relief will not apply for purchases of properties worth over £500,000. This measure will ensure a stamp duty cut for 95 per cent of all first-time buyers who pay stamp duty, and will mean no stamp duty at all for 80 per cent of first-time buyers.
Boost for RAF Benson
Under the terms of the budget, a further £36 million of banking fines has been committed over the next 3 years to support Armed Forces and Emergency Services charities and other related good causes. This completes the LIBOR Charity Funding scheme. The successful applicants will receive the funding from April 2018. Oxfordshire Play Association (OPA) will provide community support facilities to Service families at RAF Benson and Dalton Barracks in Oxfordshire and has been awarded £98,535. I am delighted that OPA has won this grant and that it can support children at RAF Benson with good quality play experiences. It is a great support to our Armed Forces and will be much enjoyed.
There were, of course, other issues raised in the budget including schools, fuel duty, alcohol duty, the personal allowance, and the National Living Wage. There were also other measures to support business on which I hope to write separately.
There have been some perverse comments on the action of SODC in trying to unscramble the decision taken by a Planning Inspector in the case of Thames Farm. Let me try to set out my position.
Thames Farm was not included in the Henley and Harpsden Neighbourhood Plan. I am not concerned with the reasons why it was not included. That is for those who produced and voted on the plan to deal with. Neighbourhood Plans are after all local planning documents. The planning application for Thames Farm was therefore rejected by SODC and went before a Planning Inspector. The application was not determined on the basis of whether a Neighbourhood Plan existed or whether the site of Thames Farm was included in the Neighbourhood Plan. It was decided on whether SODC had a three year housing land supply. I had helped change the rules on the housing land supply from one where councils needed to demonstrate a five year housing land supply to stop their policies being considered out of date to one where they needed to demonstrate a three year housing land supply where there was a Neighbourhood Plan.
The Inspector found that SODC did not have a three year land supply by 1 house per year in a judgment which many have found extraordinary and which flew in the face of SODC's calculation that it had a 4.1 years housing land supply. Most importantly, in two subsequent decisions by Planning Inspectors – at sites in Benson and Crowmarsh – the Inspectors accepted that SODC did indeed have a 4.1 years housing land supply producing a contradictory situation. It is quite right therefore that SODC is seeking clarity on the decision by pursuing this through the Courts. The fact that the development contains affordable housing does not mean that all planning rules are suspended and development can go ahead come what may, as some have claimed. The number of affordable housing is determined by the council and is included in its Local Plan.
I am working with Central Government to help determine this matter but we have to wait until the legal process has been concluded. Until then, the case remains sub judice. The decision also says a lot about the lack of consistency and of judgement on the part of the planning inspectorate and I am pursuing reform of the inspectorate in my role as chairman of the backbench Communities and Local Government Committee.
I went to an excellent animated poetry reading last night by Jeux D'Esprit in Henley called Something Wicked. It was an event for the Chiltern Centre for Disabled Children of which I am Vice Patron and a Friend. I was happy to speak at the end to try to raise money for the Chiltern Centre and the collection looked very generous. It is on all weekend. I would really advise you to go.
I am taking this opportunity to publish my latest letter to GWR. I have been in contact with GWR on a frequent and regular basis but I thought it useful to publish my letter to them as I have said I will make the response available publically.
It relates to the experiences of travellers on the Henley Line.
We are in a phase of transition but that should not delay answers to the questions I have raised.
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.
A few facts about Health Care specifically in the Henley constituency:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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
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.
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.
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 email@example.com You can also follow me on Facebook www.facebook.com/JohnHowellOxfordshire or on twitter @JHowellUK
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.
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.
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%.
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.
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.
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.
No mainstream political party denies the result of the referendum on 23 June. Each of them has said that they accept and acknowledge the result. So what it is the argument really about?
Some initially said that they wanted a new referendum either now or at the end of the process which the Archbishop of Canterbury, no Conservative stooge, had said is not "a good way of dealing with the process at the end of negotiation. It will add to our divisions; it will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic".
So what this election seems to come down to is whether the PM is going for a 'hard brexit' or not.
The term 'hard Brexit' is a self-defining one meaning whatever you want it to. Some choose to bring the subject down to one issue - access to the Single Market. But is a Brexit that involves workers' rights, a common travel area with Ireland, maintaining crime and terrorism co-operation, protecting the rights of both EU nationals in this country and of British nationals living in the rest of Europe and a strong working partnership really a 'hard brexit'? I think not. The Prime Minister said that "we seek the greatest possible access to [the single market] through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement.....That agreement may take in elements of current single market arrangements."
I am unashamedly an internationalist. I defend the work of the Council of Europe over human rights and believe it is important to hold member countries to account. I am also working to help Europe deal with the problem of populism - a new phenomenon for the continent. Through my work on the Council of Europe I make sure that Britain's voice continues to be heard. On the international stage, I am very involved in the Middle East where I have talked to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian argument and held high level meetings with the PLO. Africa is a challenging market where my work as the PM's Trade Envoy to Nigeria involves me in advising not on the details of trade agreements but on the macro-economic course set by the Nigerain government. I cannot think of a better time for the Henley constituency to have such an internationalist as its MP and how much this contributes to the role of the UK in the world and to the prestige of the Henley constituency.
There is a lot of talk in the press and media about the idea that Britain is heading for a hard Brexit. This is a total fiction which needs to be looked at closely. It defines the concept of a hard Brexit within its own terms which bear no relationship to the 12 points made in our Brexit White Paper which you can read here http://www.johnhowellmp.com/john's-blog/brexit--continued-no-4/944. The press has selected one issue – access to the single market – as the indicator of a hard Brexit when if you read our 12 points they include protecting workers rights, maintaining the common travel area with Ireland, maintaining crime and terrorism co-operation, and, protecting the rights of both EU nationals in this country and of British nationals living in the rest of Europe. These are hardly examples of a hard Brexit. They also ignore totally what the Government is doing to create a deep and meaningful partnership with the rest of Europe based on free trade.
So let's look at several other issues being raised in the press and media:
Dubs Amendment: sadly, an argument based on parliamentary tittle tattle rather than facts which were that the original amendment was defeated, no promise to bring 3,000 refugee children from Europe was given, and other ways of delivering assistance already exist and are working.
A Second Referendum is required on Brexit: the Archbishop of Canterbury, not a usual Conservative suspect, has said that it is not a good way of dealing with the process at the end of negotiation. "It will add to our divisions; it will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic; it is unwise."
Give EU residents rights now: a move which sells the 1.2 million Britons in Europe down the river.
This is a question not about re-running the referendum but about who has the strength of leadership to get a good deal for Britain which is not based on a hard Brexit but on the concepts of our values which we hold so dear.
Let me say straight away that I am happy to help in whatever way I can to give Chinnor the power to control the future development of the village. The current situation arises because SODC "lost" its five year land supply figure when the calculation process, agreed when the Local Plan was approved, was changed which renders its local plan out-of-date. The five year land supply identifies a future supply of land which is suitable, available and achievable for housing. It is thus a measure of the deliverability of housing. This situation arose as the result of conflicting opinions from the independent Planning Inspectorate on SODC's then Local Plan and the situation is being addressed through the production of a new Local Plan.
In the meantime, I have already moved to give the village back control over development by helping to change the regulations so that villages with Neighbourhood Plans that meet certain criteria only have to show a three year land supply rather than a five year land supply. The quickest way, therefore, of Chinnor achieving control of planning is for it to complete its Neighbourhood Plan.
The actions of the Government
It is wrong to say that this Government or its predecessor have introduced a law allowing developers to go to appeal or that it has made it impossible for councils to appeal decisions. If you look at the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 you will see there the same right of appeal for the applicant against a decision of a local authority to refuse a planning application which you are seeing in Chinnor (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/8/section/78). The ability to appeal a decision, therefore, goes back to at least 1990.
In addition, Councils are still fully able to appeal decisions and at a recent meeting with Parish Councils I have obtained a promise from the Leader of SODC that he will always appeal decisions where there is a good planning case. SODC has in fact taken cases to appeal and to judicial review to support the village as it tries to meet local housing needs.
The importance of Neighbourhood Plans
Secondly, the Government and I gave Chinnor an important power in the planning system by introducing the rights of the village to create a Neighbourhood Plan. I am afraid it is not possible to ignore this or to sweep it under the carpet. Nor can one walk away from the fact that when asked to produce a Neighbourhood Plan, Chinnor initially refused. Despite both I and Chinnor's District Councillors repeatedly recommending that the Village start work to produce a Neighbourhood Plan it was decided that this course of action would not be taken. That refusal helped create the conditions which we face now and drew developers to the village like a magnet.
I am very glad that a group of local people, including Parish and District Councillors are taking the future of the village under control now by preparing a Neighbourhood Plan at this stage and the quicker this is completed the better the position you will be in. I have already had several meetings with the Parish Council and the Neighbourhood Plan working group and am pleased that the Plan is now with the independent Planning Inspectorate.
Are people involved with the plan? Have people commented on the plan during its consultations? Have poeple made themselves aware of the plan itself? Will people be voting during the referendum?
The importance of a Neighbourhood Plan for Chinnor
Thirdly, when SODC lost its five year land supply a Neighbourhood Plan would still have been of immense value. First, as the judgement in the High Court case of Crane v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWHC 425 (Admin) shows, Neighbourhood Plans still carry very significant amounts of weight in the planning system even where the District Council has lost its five year land supply. This means that a Neighbourhood Plan would have had the strongest of influences in helping to decide on planning applications in Chinnor just as it did in the case of Thames Farm, near Henley. As I have already mentioned, I helped change the regulations to ensure that where a District Council loses or does not have a five year land supply, a community with a Neighbourhood Plan which allocates sites for development will only have to operate under a three year land supply figure. SODC has a three year land supply and a Neighbourhood Plan would therefore now not be considered out-of-date and would carry full weight. This is an important change which works fully in the interests of communities.
A local or a national issue?
The belief that this is no longer a local Government issue, but is an issue for me as your representative at Westminster is misjudged. Planning is a local matter with responsibility shared. The District Council knows better than anyone sat in Whitehall or in Guildford (where the Regional Assembly used to sit) what is needed in any village across the county. My job is to make the planning system fair within the law. This I have been doing as I set out on this web-site at http://www.johnhowellmp.com/john%27s-blog/protecting-and-speeding-up-local-plans/826. The changes I am seeking to introduce would have a profound effect on communities like Chinnor in giving them more security over the future and I am pleased that some are being introduced as part of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill and some others in the Housing White Paper.
What I can do
Let me be clear what I can and cannot do as an MP. First, I have no right to interfere in any planning application. I can comment only as an individual member of the public. Second, I have no ability to overturn cases which have been heard by SODC's planning committee. There is a clear process in place for this in which I have no rights to be involved. Thirdly, what I can do is to ensure that the planning system is fair within the law and this I am actively doing. I am also pleased that in recent cases brought before the High Court and the Court of Appeal, the position of Neighbourhood Plans has been upheld.
However, there are two issues in which I am already involved and on which I would like your help. First, there is a question about the cumulative effect of development on infrastructure. I've long said that the cumulative effect of applications should be looked at. The principle which currently applies of looking at 'each application in its own right' has its limitations when looking at large developments. It leaves no room for seeing the implications on infrastructure of all types. I admit that it can be solved by completing a Neighbourhood Plan which can take that general view in a local context. However, I have also been trying to raise it as an issue with the National Infrastructure Commission particularly in relation to the road network. I issued an invitation to the National Infrastructure Commission to a meeting to discuss this in relation to Oxfordshire. I am still awaiting a response but will continue trying.
Second, is the question of a moratorium on planning until you have a Plan in place. I do not wish to mislead and believe this will be very difficult to achieve. However, I would like to put together a village petition that I can present to Parliament. I cannot say what effect such a Petition will have but I believe it is worth trying. We would need to agree wording. Are you willing to help? This will obviously have to wait until ater the General Election.
On the back of my article in November in the Henley Standard, let me say that people should be justly proud of the Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan. I am equally proud that I was able to give Henley such an important power in the planning system.
It is all the more important now that SODC has "lost" its five year land supply figure – a measure of housing deliverability. Without it, there would be no protection for Henley. But as I have said from the very beginning, what I did not do was give Henley the power to decide everything about planning by itself. I gave it the right to share in the process of developing the planning system locally by producing policies to help shape the town.
Judgement in the High Court clearly shows Neighbourhood Plans still carry very significant amounts of weight in the planning system even where the district council has lost its five year land supply. This means that a Neighbourhood Plan would have had the strongest of influences in helping to decide on planning applications as it did in the case of Thames Farm, near Henley.
More recently, I helped change the regulations to ensure that where a District Council loses its five year land supply, a community with a Neighbourhood Plan which allocates sites for development will only have to operate under a three year land supply figure rather than five. SODC has a three year land supply and the Neighbourhood Plan would therefore now carry full weight.
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. The idea that Neighbourhood Plans are worthless in these circumstances is incorrect. It is also wrong to say that the Neighbourhood Plan is worthless because of the attitude of SODC to the Plan. Like Woodcote, rather than simply complain about SODC, the Henley team needs to be involved negotiating and discussing applications with SODC. It is about sharing. I understand that that is precisely what the Henley team is doing. 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.
I was pleased to see Henley represented at a meeting I recently called with SODC and parish councils undertaking these Plans. Much was explained particularly how wrong it was to play politics with such Plans.
A Neighbourhood Plan has legal status based on its policies not on the words which surround them. Good strong policies for the town. It is this Government that is thinking of the "ordinary people" rather than the developer by giving them this power. Just ask yourself, would you really prefer the old system of a man in Whitehall deciding these things for you? I know I would not.
Attention has rightly been drawn to the humanitarian situation in the Yemen. The conflict has resulted in over 21 million people requiring urgent humanitarian assistance The UK Government is at the forefront of providing aid to the country which so far for this year amounts to some £100 million. This is widely regarded as influential and crucial. The head of UNICEF in Yemen has said that the UK had been an essential partner in Yemen: He commented that our support "has been absolutely essential to maintaining a very large nutrition programme in Yemen and other services, WASH and health. Without that, we would not have been able to provide the significant scale of assistance that we are providing today."
However, I take issue with a widespread analysis of the problem. Let me explain. There is a legal basis which comes from the UN for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and a legitimate need to quell the armed uprising of the Houthi rebels. Left unchecked, the expansion of the Houthi rebels in the country would continue abhorrent practices such as the use of children as soldiers and forced marriages. We also need to stop extremist militant groups such as AQAP gaining further space to operate in Yemen. The suggestion that by denying weapons to Saudi Arabia we would end foreign weapons being available is not true. The Houthis are backed by Iran who would continue to supply arms either directly or through terrorist organisations which are allied to them such as Hezbollah. I have yet to see an Amnesty International report condemning the actions of the Houthis in Yemen.
The question that is really being raised is one of has there been serious breaches of international humanitarian law in the region. I am aware that there are allegations of this on both sides of the conflict. There is of course a need to minimise harm to civilians. The Government regularly raises the importance of international law with the Saudi Arabian Government and other members of the military Coalition and successive Ministers have visited Saudi Arabia for this purpose. We are not opposing calls for an international independent investigation, but want to see the Saudi-led Coalition investigate allegations of breaches of international law which are attributed to them; and for their investigations to be thorough and conclusive.
We are not a member of the Saudi Arabian-led Coalition and British military personnel are not directly involved in Coalition operations. We take arms export responsibilities very seriously and operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. An export licence will not be granted if to do so would breach any aspect of what is called the mandatory Consolidated Criteria. This includes respect by that country for international humanitarian law.
Peace talks are, and have always been, the top priority. We are clear that a political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and end the conflict. The war in Yemen is tragic for the displaced people. It requires peaceful negotiation of a solution and the absence of interference from Iran who see this as a convenient way of keeping Saudi Arabia tied down.
Unfortunately, I cannot be at the opening today of Townlands Memorial Hospital in Henley by the Lord Lieutenant. I have to be in Parliament to help through the Neighbourhood Planning Bill which I know is important to communities. The first thing I would love to do is to give Townlands and all the people who work there my very best wishes. It has been a pleasure visiting and seeing for myself how the hospital works and talking to the medical staff and the GPs involved with it.
The people of southern Oxfordshire, whom the hospital serves, should be very proud that a major investment has been made in its refurbishment, and that it has become an exemplar across the country of how a community hospital can be made to work well for the wider community. I hope that we can now kill the myth that this is a hospital without beds. It does have beds – located in the care home at the side of the hospital – which are well used. The number of beds owes much to careful and patient negotiation with the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). Incidentally, care homes such as this are also helping to tackle the problem of bed blocking within Oxfordshire.
Feedback from patients has shown that the Rapid Access Care Unit is providing just the services people need. The system of ambulatory care being offered whereby patients are treated as far as possible where they live is endorsed by the Royal College of Physicians, by local GPs and by the NHS. It is in the best interests of the patient as is evidenced by medical opinion. Nevertheless, I am in the process of writing to the County Council on behalf of all the MPs in Oxfordshire that the County Council should spend the money given to it by Central Government for adult social care (an additional £16 million) on hiring social care workers. In addition, some 70% of patients for whom this is an issue want to die in their homes yet we still allow 60% to die in hospital.
The issue of Townlands generated considerable activity for me in Parliament from my question to the Health Secretary on rebuilding Townlands in January 2014 to a debate I initiated on Ambulatory Care and other questions to Health ministers throughout. I also visited a hospital deploying ambulatory care in Welwyn Garden City to see for myself how it worked and had extensive meetings with the CCG.
We are very lucky to have got the hospital we best need at this time and for it to be at the forefront of medical practice in the country. I have invited the Secretary of State for health to visit it.
Hospitals such as Townlands Hospital in Henley are held up as excellent examples of new ways of working that are helping to address health concerns such as the integration of social care and the NHS and the provision of social care at home. The hospital has beds available in the adjacent care home for those who really need them but otherwise works on rapid assessment and treatment of people in day care. This is a model which is being promoted widely elsewhere with Townlands as the exemplar.
Bed blocking as it is often referred to occurs where it is difficult to assess and release patients into social care quickly enough. It is not a question of the numbers of beds which are available – medical assessments suggest we have enough beds. It is a question of throughput of patients. Care homes play a vital role in this in providing intermediary places while assessments are conducted and social care found. The good news is that there has been a distinct improvement in the amount of time individuals have to be in hospital while the social care is arranged and the average time is currently about a week.
Across the country, concern over the provision of adult social care has been a key issue in recent weeks and months. It was also an issue at the top of the agenda in the regular meeting of Oxfordshire MPs and Oxfordshire Health Chief Executives today which I chair. It is important that, where it is medically possible, people are cared for in their own home. This is not simply about NHS efficiency but more critically that time in a hospital bed causes accelerated deterioration of health. The best place to be, if at all possible, is at home – a move backed by the Royal College of Physicians and GPs.
Ensuring there is sufficient staff to meet the need can have a knock-on effect on delayed discharges from acute hospitals. That is why key discussions are taking place between the County Council Adult Social Services team, who are responsible for staffing the domiciliary care, and the NHS teams to seek alternative ways to resource this growing need. It is why we, as MPs, are asking for the money which has been given by the Chancellor to local government to cover social care be spent on hiring suitable carers.
The issue of 'bed blocking' has also been raised in relation to the delay of routine operations. Although this is sometimes the case, more often routine operations are postponed due to urgent cases coming in which necessarily have to take priority. I can well appreciate the distress caused when a planned procedure is postponed at last minute. I am sure most people will understand that life threatening cases have to be given priority. I am assured that every effort is made to avoid delays and addressing the domiciliary care concerns will no doubt help.
In a recent meeting with farmers in my constituency the problems they face with Bovine TB (bTB) were once again raised. Bovine TB is one of the greatest challenges facing cattle farmers. Not only is their livelihood put at risk but the cattle that they have bred and nurtured are often needlessly slaughtered. Bovine TB is the greatest animal health threat to the UK and causes devastation and distress for farmers and rural communities. In the last 10 years over 300,000 cattle were slaughtered.
248 members of this constituency have signed a petition to end the badger cull. I understand their feelings but I disagree with them. Cattle movement controls and testing are being strengthened as is the regime for tackling the disease among other farmed animals. The Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme has supported badger vaccination projects on the borders of the high-risk areas such as ours, but there is a worldwide shortage of the BCG vaccine which needs to prioritise available stocks for humans. In line with the Welsh Government's decision, attempts to source it for badger vaccination have been suspended.
As part of the approach, culling continues to play a vital role, and, following advice from the Chief Veterinary Office, seven additional licences have now been granted for parts of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Culling therefore continues to play an important part.
In discussion with the farmers they were sympathetic to those who are concerned for badgers and call for greater understanding of the wider issues. The Government is delivering a 25-year strategy to eradicate this disease and protect the UK's dairy and beef industries. The link between badgers and bTB is known with a 40% infection rate among badgers in hotspot areas. Farmers are working with the government on these restrictions and also by improving biodiversity on farms. Much of this is at their own cost.
Having spoken with farmers and visited farms where they are having to restrict cattle movements I have a better appreciation of the implications of this. It is more far-reaching than generally understood and affects the welfare of farmers and farm stock alike.
There has been recent attention to the issue of EU citizens in the UK and I spoke about this issue on BBC Radio Oxford. In the debate on the Lords amendments to the Article 50 Bill a former Leader of the Liberal-Democrats spoke about the plight of EU citizens in the UK, mainly his mother and his wife. What he did was to sell the 1.2 million British people in Europe down the river. By claiming that we picked the fight and therefore should deal with the issue on our own, he sought to punish the UK for having reached a decision with which neither he nor indeed I agreed. Another speaker described the British people in Europe as old and retired as if this meant that they were not worth protecting. I disagree.
What we are after is reciprocal rights for both EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in Europe. As the Polish Prime Minster said: "Of course, these guarantees would need to be reciprocal. It's also important what guarantees the British citizens living and working in other member states of the European Union will have." It is wrong to describe this as using people as a bargaining chip. It is getting agreement to a principle. The idea that we can act unilaterally on this issue reduces the negotiations to nothing more than a fireside club chat or one in which we seek to set an agenda which the other side can simply ignore having nothing much else to gain. As the Polish Prime Minister said, this is about reciprocity and it is good that it will be high on the issues to negotiate with the EU.
I would also draw your attention to a very good speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the House of Lords. In his speech he said "neither is the complexity of a further referendum a good way of dealing with the process at the end of negotiation. It will add to our divisions; it will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic; it is unwise. Even if circumstances change ....—even if they change drastically—a dangerous and overcomplicated process is the result of a referendum." It is a thoughtful speech and he ended with the following words: "I have seen two cardinal errors made in seeking to bring reconciliation and building common vision. The first is to complicate the process; the second is artificially to simplify complicated substance. ...... I fear we risk making the process too complex and the substance too simple."
He could have been talking about the same issue as I started this note with. He pointed out that division in our country was something to be healed. Reciprocity of rights is the obvious way to go.
I was disappointed that the Liberal-Democrat candidate didn't do her homework before putting pen to paper in a recent edition of the Henley Standard. The Government is accused of doing a u-turn on a promise to bring 3,000 refugee children to the UK. It has done nothing of the sort. First, the idea that, under what has come to be called the Dubs Amendment, 3,000 children were going to be brought to the UK was defeated in Parliament and an alternative agreed which did not mention any arbitrary numbers. So, the promise was not to bring a specified number of individuals to the UK but it required the Government to consult Local Authorities on how many additional children they could manage. This we have done.
I am sure you can imagine that refugee children coming to a foreign country have complex emotional and often physical needs. It is right that the Dubs Amendment requires the Government to ask Local authorities how many more children they could safely accept.
Second, it is implied that the Dubs Amendment is the only means by which unaccompanied children can be brought to the UK. It is not. In 2016 we relocated almost as many children from within Europe to the UK as the entire EU's relocation scheme.
Each year 3,000 children arrive in the UK and claim asylum and we are taking approximately 2,000 – 3,000 each year through various resettlement schemes. All of these children need support and protection. It is right that we prioritise our efforts on those children caught up in the conflict in Syria and the surrounding area - rather than in safe areas of Europe - so that they can come to the UK safely and directly and with their families.
I am committed to supporting, protecting and caring for the most vulnerable asylum-seeking and refugee children. By the end of this Parliament, we will have resettled over 20,000 vulnerable Syrian nationals and a further 3,000 of the most vulnerable children and their families from the Middle East and North Africa and I am pleased that our resettlement programme is one of the biggest in Europe.
Issues raised at Brexit Meetings
Introduction to feedback
I am grateful to all who attended my open meetings on Brexit and to those who have emailed raising issues and concerns. Many of the issues that have been raised are still open for debate and negotiation.
More generally there is much information in the public domain and it is far better for me to steer people to this than to repeat. The House of Commons Library, which is independent of any political party, has a dedicated resource on Brexit and a hub on the Parliament website 'Brexit - next steps of UK's withdrawal from the EU' - where papers on a wide range of specific issues are posted. Those interested can access the hub at this link www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/ . You can also sign up to receive updates as new papers are posted.
In the rest of this note I will summarise the specific issues raised with me thus far and add comment where appropriate. Please note that these issues are not listed in any order of importance. I appreciate that many of the issues raised are deeply personal and important. I have tried to give a factual note on each.
The role of the EU courts
Part of the Leave campaign suggested that the UK would be free of 'interference' by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in decisions of the UK courts post Brexit. This is not correct. The UK signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights ('ECHR') before the EU even existed. We did this as one of the 47 nations that signed up to the Council of Europe which is entirely independent of the EU and which administers the ECtHR.
I think that what was meant was the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ interprets EU law to make sure it is applied in the same way across all EU countries, and settles legal disputes between national governments and EU institutions. My own feeling is that there are circumstances in which the ECJ will continue to apply.
The single market and trade issues
Several issues around trade were raised. This is a key concern for many businesses and one on which we have intention and direction of travel but no answers as yet. Some of the questions raised were general, some more specific.
There is a chapter in the White Paper on trade with the Government seeking to prioritise 'the freest and most frictionless trade possible'. Clearly new relationships need to be established both with EU countries and with other countries around the world.
A series of papers have been written by the House of Commons Library on this and can be found at this link: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/economy-business-and-trade/
Among the issues raised with me are concerns about small business and the weight for negotiations that some larger organisations have. There was also concern that negotiations will be done for specific companies rather than more generally which could lead to exclusivity in the future. Outside of the EU there was concern that agreements with other countries such as the US could lead to the UK having to accept inferior goods and so undermine the UK market.
There was a question on the cost of negotiating new trade deals especially in a climate of austerity. Figures can only be estimated at present.
The referendum and voting
Questions continue to be raised on why we had the referendum, on whether it was advisory, on whether we should take notice of the result, and on whether we should have a second referendum. I appreciate that those who would have preferred to remain in the EU might want to do all they can to turn around the result of the referendum. However we had a vote in which a majority voted to leave and that is what we have to accept. I can see no merit in continually revisiting this not least due to the increased uncertainty that it could cause. As one who voted to remain I accept the result and now see my task as supporting the Government to get the best deal that we can.
Some suggest that the problem of the EU is a Conservative Party issue. It is not; it is an issue for members of other Political Parties and for those who are members of none. A quick trawl of the history of this will show that our relationship with Europe has been a matter for debate for decades. More recently our membership of the European Union has come into question across the board especially with new countries joining and with increasing legislation which some found overly burdensome. It is not a new invention of the current Conservative Party. Indeed, many Labour supporters voted to leave and the Liberal-Democrats had the biggest rebellion proportionally of any party over the Bill on Article 50.
Some ask if Article 50 is revocable. We are in uncertain times with a new President in America and with General Elections in several EU countries but most notably in key countries such as France, the Netherlands and Germany this year. We do not know what the scene will be in two years' time. However we need to keep pace with change and assess the implications as we move forward.
The Model for our Exit.
The Government is not looking for an 'off the shelf' deal such as a Norwegian or Swiss model. The new model the will reflect the UK's unique, existing trading relationships with EU member states. It will be an agreement between an independent sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union.
EU nationals and freedom of movement and EU Citizenship.
One of the key issues in the Referendum debate was about controlling immigration. Leaving the EU will mean that the free movement directive will no longer apply and the migration of EU nationals will be subject to UK law – which the UK will be able to set. I recognise the importance of this issue to many and especially those who have depended on the freedom of movement in their own lifestyle. The Government wants to secure the status of EU citizens living in the UK. We must remember too that this is as much of an issue for UK nationals living in EU member states whose status the Government wants to protect too. The Government wants to secure the status of both EU citizens living in the UK and that of UK nationals in EU member states at the earliest opportunity.
During the negotiation period, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and of Britons in the EU will not change. The UK will remain a member of the EU in full until it leaves.
The Great Repeal Bill and Transitional arrangements
A new Bill will be laid before Parliament which is anticipated to be called the Great Repeal Bill. It is anticipated that this will be announced in the Queens' Speech, which sets out the legislative programme for Parliament, at the next State Opening of Parliament in May.
The Bill which will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 (the ECA) which took us into the EU is expected to incorporate European Union law into domestic law wherever practical. These legal changes are likely to come into effect on the day we leave the EU. The purpose of incorporating EU law into domestic law is to avoid the 'cliff edge' that some talk of where we are left in limbo without law where issues have not been part of the negotiations or dealt with in the run up to leaving. Thus in the short term we would be under the same law as at present.
The Government has indicated that the Great Repeal Bill will contain delegated powers to enable the Government to adapt any laws on the statute book that originate from the EU so as to fit the UK's new relationship with the EU. This could be a huge task. The House of Commons Library has estimated that 13.2% of UK primary and secondary legislation enacted between 1993 and 2004 was EU related. The review of all EU-related legislation, as well as that which will be transposed by the Great Repeal Bill, makes this potentially one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK.
Beyond this Bill I suspect that we will see an implementation period in which Britain, EU member states and EU institutions prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us will be in our mutual self-interest. This might be about immigration controls, customs systems or criminal justice. For each issue, the time to phase in new arrangements may be different but I do not envisage an unlimited period of transition – this would not be helpful for either side.
The Environment, farming and agriculture
In one sense all of the issues raised have implications on other issues. However there are some issues that may be regarded as 'cross cutting,' having wider implications in a number of areas. One such area is environmental issues and in the short term we must remember that the Great Repeal Bill will give us a holding position.
Farming is important as a local business but agriculture, farming and fisheries are also of much wider concern in relation to environmental issues and food standards. The UK's agriculture, food and fisheries sectors are currently heavily influenced by EU laws, through frameworks such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy. Some of this has been an unnecessary burden and leaving the EU will provide Britain with the freedom to deliver its vision for a world-leading food and farming industry, as well as a sustainable seafood sector for farmers and consumers.
There are many enquiries taking place across both Houses of Parliament and last October the House of Lords initiated debate on environmental and climate change issues going forward. In addition Ministers will be working with environmental organisations and the public to develop new policies tailored to the specific needs of our habitats and wildlife instead of following a one size fits all approach for all the EU countries. Ministers have said that they are committed to seizing this opportunity as they work on an ambitious 25 Year Plan for the environment. Until we leave the European Union, the existing arrangements remain in place. The Treasury has confirmed that any structural fund projects, including agri-environment schemes, signed before our departure from the EU will be honoured for their lifetime even if they run beyond this point.
The safety of the British people is a priority for the Government. Along with France, the UK is the only EU member state with a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and with an independent nuclear deterrent. The UK is also one of the few countries in Europe to spend 2 per cent of its GDP on defence as recommended by NATO. After it leaves the EU, the country will continue to play a key role in European security and defence. The UK will seek a strong future defence relationship with the EU and will continue work with EU member states in the fight against terrorism and crime.
Strengthening the union
The Government is working with the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to seek to deliver an outcome that works for the whole of the UK. There is a Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) which will allow the leaders of the Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Ireland governments to help shape the UK's exit from the EU. I think this is a helpful approach but in the end and as it stands, the UK will negotiate and leave the EU as one country.
Currently the Government is taking steps to ensure that any decisions taken by the devolved administrations will remain in place. After leaving the EU, legislation on devolution settlements will be set here in the UK by democratically elected representatives.
As promised at the meetings and at the beginning of this paper I will do my best to keep constituents informed on the key issues that are being raised with me. Some of the debates and enquiries going forward will be of general interest others will be more relevant to particular sectors. Equally some of the issues will attract greater media coverage than others and in that arena some will be sensationalised others played down. This is a cross Party issue and I will do my best to report things as factually as I am able.
I am aware of some issues not covered in this paper such as the protection currently in place for disabled people much of which is enshrined in EU regulations. Again, I offer the comfort of the Great Repeal Bill which will mean that these protections are carried forward.
On others issues too I will take opportunities to pursue them as appropriate and as best I can in the different Select Committee enquiry and forthcoming debates.
The Brexit Hub on the Parliament website mentioned earlier has specific sections on the following, each of which has subsections:
Defence and security:www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/defence-and-security/
Economy, trade and business: www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/economy-business-and-trade/
Education, science and research: www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/education/
Employment and pensions: www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/employment-and-pensions/
Energy and the environment: www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/employment-and-pensions/
Farming and fishing: www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/farming-and-fishing/
Health and social care: www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/health-and-social-care/
Transport and infrastructure: www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/transport-and-infrastructure/
Immigration and border controls: www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/eu-referendum/immigration-and-borders/
John Howell OBE MP
For the avoidance of doubt, I did not support the attempt to reintroduce the Dubs Amendment or to amend the Bill.
The Dubs amendment was never intended to be an open ended scheme. If we were to continue the scheme indefinitely then that would create an additional pull factor. It is right that we prioritise our efforts on those children caught up in the conflict in Syria and the surrounding area - so that they can come to the UK safely and directly and with their families.
In 2016 we relocated almost as many children from within Europe to the UK as the entire of the EU's relocation scheme.
This was because of our efforts to support the camp clearance in Calais where we took over 750 unaccompanied children. 200 of those children from Calais were brought to the UK under the Dubs amendment and we have committed to take a further 150 'Dubs' children from France, Italy and Greece.
The Dubs amendment required us to consult Local Authorities on how many additional children they can manage. Each year 3,000 children arrive in the UK and claim asylum and we are taking approximately 2,000 – 3,000 each year through resettlement schemes. All of these children need support and protection. It is right that the Dubs amendment requires us to ask Local authorities how many more children they could safely accept - and that is exactly what we did. Some Local authorities are currently taking a disproportionate share of this burden; they are struggling to place the children in their care and have to pay for children to be supported in other Local Authority areas. We cannot allow a situation where councils choose to prioritise certain children over others and our National Transfer Scheme is intended to support a fairer distribution of vulnerable refugee and asylum seeking children across the UK.
Our aid spending is making a real difference to the lives of children in the conflict zone and the surrounding countries – including Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. By prioritising our resources there we are able to reach more children; to provide them with education, with healthcare, and with support. Last year we were able to provide this help to over 800,000 children in Syria and the surrounding countries for the same investment that it would take to support 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under 16 in the UK for one year.
I am committed to supporting, protecting and caring for the most vulnerable asylum-seeking and refugee children and I am pleased that our resettlement programme – which will bring 23,000 vulnerable people to the UK to start new lives by the end of this Parliament, is one of the biggest in Europe. By the end of this Parliament, we will have resettled 20,000 vulnerable Syrian nationals and a further 3,000 of the most vulnerable children and their families from the Middle East and North Africa.
The essence of the Kindertransport was to take unaccompanied children from an unsafe area of the world and to give them sanctuary. That is precisely what the Government has done. It is not taking children from countries of Europe which are safe but it is helping to care for them where they are.
We have pledged over £2.3 billion in aid in response to the events in Syria and the region - our largest ever humanitarian response to a single crisis, and we are one of the few EU countries to meet our commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on overseas aid. We have also committed over £100m of humanitarian support to help alleviate the Mediterranean migration crisis in Europe and North Africa.
A number of constituents have contacted me about school funding and I appreciate the concerns. Funding for schools in the constituency has been an issue that I have pursued on behalf of the schools over some time. In the last couple of years I have support the F40 fair funding campaign, I have petitioned parliament, I have arranged meetings with local school heads with fellow MPs and have myself raised the issues with Ministers.
The review of school funding seeking a fairer formula was started by the previous Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan and the latest proposals out for consultation are Stage 2 of the review. The figures that have been set out are proposals and the consultation is open until 5pm on 22nd March. There is therefore time for anyone to make their views known through this process.
The following links will lead to the necessary information:
Schools Funding Overview https://consult.education.gov.uk/funding-policy-unit/schools-national-funding-formula2/
Link to consultation: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/schools-national-funding-formula-stage-2
For my part I have arranged a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss the situation personally with her. The meeting is scheduled to take place in early March and I will report back on my website in due course.
I have received emails from individuals which are well-meaning but are somewhat confused. They relate to the so-called Dubs amendment which dealt with unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The original Lord Dubs amendment called on the Government to relocate 3000 unaccompanied children from Europe, as a fair proportion of the estimated 10,000 children who Europol said were missing in Europe. That amendment was defeated, and I have already set out on this web-site my reasons for voting to oppose this arbitrary figure and its concentration on children from Europe. The Government did accept a revised amendment to the Immigration Bill put forward by Lord Dubs, which proposed that the Government consults with local authorities before setting out a plan for resettling children from Europe to the UK. No fixed number on arrivals was put forward, but instead the Government said it would consult with local authorities across the UK to determine how many children would be resettled. This February, 'in accordance with section 67 of the Immigration Act', the Government announced that it will transfer the specified number of 350 children who reasonably meet the intention and spirit behind the provision. This number includes the 200 or so children already transferred from France. It does not include children transferred to the UK where they have close family here.
Work continues in Greece, Italy, and France to transfer further children under the amendment, to strike a balance between enabling eligible children to come to the UK as quickly as possible and ensuring local authorities have capacity to host, support and care for them.
The Immigration Act obliged the Government to put a specific number on how many children it would take based on a consultation with local authorities about their capacity. The French, while committing to processing the children who have come from the Calais camps, have said that the hope of being taken into the Dubs scheme and coming to the UK stops children cooperating with the French authorities. In addition, we should not risk incentivising perilous journeys to Europe, particularly by the most vulnerable children.
In 2016, over 900 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were transferred to the UK from Europe. This included more than 750 from France as part of the UK's support for the Calais camp clearance. Over 200 of those children met the published criteria for what became section 67 of the Immigration Act (the revised Dubs Amendment). The remainder were transferred under an accelerated process based on the family reunion criteria of the Dublin regulation. It is still the intention to resettle 3,000 of the most vulnerable children and their families from the Middle East and North Africa region under the vulnerable children's resettlement scheme and it must be right to focus on helping those outside of Europe, as they are the children most at risk.
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.
The recent High Court decision
I have been asked to comment on the recent decision of the High Court over Article 50. I am not a lawyer but it seems to me that the High Court judges have not decided that Parliament must be involved in a decision about all that is involved in dealing with Brexit. The question they have decided on is much simpler and it is what must happen to trigger Article 50.
They have decided that to trigger Article 50, Parliament must be involved. The question before the Lord Chief Justice and others was as simple as that. The comments from those who wanted to Leave the EU that the judges are trying to overturn Brexit is far-fetched and far from the truth. The comments from those who wanted to Remain that this gives Parliament the chance to reverse the Referendum decision is also just as far-fetched. The point remains that we, as Conservatives, stood at the General Election on a manifesto, supported by over 11 million people, which promised to uphold the verdict of the Referendum whichever way it went regardless of our own feelings and the way we voted as individuals. That is what we are trying to do.
I happen to know the Lord Chief Justice. I do not know, nor have I ever asked, what his politics are on this or any other issue. He is an honourable and highly professional man and I have no reason to doubt that the same applies to his colleagues. He may well be right. But it is also right that attention should be put on the legal arguments made and not on the individuals themselves. Newspapers which attack the man and not the ball should be ashamed of themselves. It is completely right, therefore, that the Government should be able to appeal this judgement to the Supreme Court for a definitive judgement just like any other and to submit its arguments.
I have been written to by a number of people saying that they like to live in a tolerant non-racist country and that Brexit has made this impossible. The suggestion is that this ideal is what Britain was like prior to the Brexit vote. As someone who has opposed racism at all levels, I am surprised at this view. The view that the UK has suddenly become a xenophobic society is simply wrong. Prior to the Brexit vote, a few in this country had shown what a racially intolerant place it really is. The Stephen Lawrence murder for example has had profound effects on racism in this country. In addition, do people really believe that antisemitism in the Labour Party is a result of Brexit or is in any way new? Of course, it is not; and again shows how intolerant a few have made this country.
Brexit has certainly given an excuse to those with a wish to foment racial violence to do just that. But to suggest that the Government is abetting this is simply wrong. EU nationals, for example, continue to be welcome here.
There have been some truly abhorrent hate crimes perpetrated against EU nationals in the past weeks, and I will not stand for attacks of any kind. They must be, and will be, tackled in the strongest possible terms. But to suggest that we are a tolerant country in which racism plays no part is also simply wrong and denies the hard work being undertaken by many charities and many individuals to stamp out racism wherever it is found.
First Appeared on ConservativeHome 5 November 2016
Today marks the start of the year-long celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, when the UK and Israel will unite to commemorate one of the most defining moments in our shared history. Over the past century the world has witnessed a country rise out of the desert and flourish, against all odds, to become the 'Start-Up Nation' – a world leader in technological innovation, cyber security, academia, and medicine.
The Balfour Declaration was instrumental in the creation of the State of Israel, adding the official British voice to the chorus that wanted to give "a land without a people to a people without a land". The document served, in effect, as a legal birth certificate, in the form of a letter from Conservative Foreign Secretary Arthur J Balfour to Lord Rothschild dated 2nd November 1917. It conveyed Lord Balfour's support of His Majesty's Government for Zionist aspirations for Jewish self-determination in Israel, the land of the Hebrew Old Testament, following centuries of persecution.
Lord Balfour wrote, "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". The Declaration also emphasised that it should be "clearly understood" that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country" – a privilege not historically given to Jews in Europe or the Middle East.
The Balfour Declaration was ratified by all 51 countries of the League of Nations when the Mandate for Palestine was approved in July 1922. The Mandate recognised "the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine" and "the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country".
By 1917, the infrastructure of a Jewish state was already being established, with the widespread foundation of kibbutzim (communal settlements), later followed by moshavim (smallholder cooperatives). The affirmation of the British Government served to validate this process, rather than initiate it. After the Holocaust and the expulsion of hundreds and thousands of Jews from the Middle East, many of the persecuted sought and found refuge in the Jewish and democratic state.
Israel has lived up to the highest ambitions of the Balfour Declaration, as a democratic, prosperous and self-reliant state. The UK must encourage the Palestinians to respond to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's call for the immediate resumption of peace talks which is the only way to achieve a lasting two-state solution.
Sadly, despite Israel's success and its positive contribution to the world, all too many continue to deny the Jewish State's right to exist, and a vocal minority attempt to delegitimise it. Last week, a 'Balfour apology campaign' was now infamously launched in the House of Lords by the Palestinian Return Centre. As we all now know, during the event, a number of offensive and anti-Semitic remarks were made. It confirmed long-held concerns by many that some of these individuals harbour unacceptable views. Sadly, they were accepted by the panel and many were met with applause, including the notion that the Jews provoked the Holocaust. Shockingly, at no point did Baroness Tonge, who chaired the meeting, challenge the remarks as inappropriate.
I, for one, along with colleagues across the Conservative Party, will continue to stand up in the House of Commons to support Israel against the attacks it faces – whether from Hamas, Iran, or the far left, and look forward to celebrating this hugely important milestone.
Last week I gave a cautious welcome to the announcement that the Government was backing the independent Airports Commission proposal for a third runway at Heathrow. It is, quite simply, time the Government made a decision on the shape of our airport capacity in the South-East and it gives us a chance to bring into the open many issues around noise which are affecting the constituency and which have dogged discussion.
The Commission took evidence from a wide range of people and concluded that the economic case for a third runway at Heathrow is far stronger than for a second runway at Gatwick although in the end I suspect we will need both. It is an economic case of which most of us are part. For example, in the last year I have made five flights on parliamentary business from Heathrow. On each occasion I have met numbers of constituents in the terminal at Heathrow waiting to board planes.
Regardless of Brexit, we need a strong hub airport in the South-East to compete with the likes of Paris and Amsterdam. We have to recognise that we need to promote Britain and to find a solution for the business and pleasure trips we are all taking. The idea that there is no necessity for increased capacity in the South-East stands in marked contrast to all the professional evidence taken, including from pilots. The idea that we can prevent people flying by taxing them at increasing rates per flight is utterly unrealistic.
However, I have only given a cautious welcome to a new runway at Heathrow because the real issue is about how the runway will be used and what can be done to mitigate the impact of noise in the constituency over the Henley area and wider afield. This is a time for cool heads rather than hot heads and for a proper evaluation of the proposals. The media today work on instant judgement and soundbites. But this is a time when the judgement needs to be informed and based on detailed work rather than on a self-indulgent throwing of the toys out of the pram.
I have been working on the issue of aircraft noise for some time. Over the past year or so, I have arranged for meetings in Henley between local people and Heathrow, the CAA and NATS (the air traffic controllers). I have also visited NATS control centre on the south coast to see for myself how they operate to make us safe in the sky. With neighbouring MPs we have had further solid meetings with NATS and others to go into detail about the issue and I will be having further meetings. I recently held a meeting with senior personnel from Heathrow at which we discussed how the new runway will ease pressure on traffic and help reduce the need to hold traffic in the holding stacks around London. This is important for assessing where planes will line up to land at Heathrow and where they will turn including over Henley. In addition, the CAA will be conducting a review of air space across the country and how we use it and we are also seeing changing technology in aircraft engines for example which will help alleviate some of the noise issues. Finally, I am trying to reconcile detailed analysis of the use of flight paths over Henley with what is actually going on.
For many the issue of aircraft noise is a major problem and I take those concerns seriously. I am particularly pleased that in the forthcoming scrutiny, issues of noise will be considered. I will be looking to evaluate what impact the new runway will have and to ensure that there is adequate noise mitigation in the final deal. I will, therefore, be looking at the data which will be published in the New Year to understand the implications of this for constituents especially those currently experiencing nuisance from air traffic. This is a long-awaited opportunity for full and robust review which I welcome and I will be encouraging constituents to engage with the public consultation and share their views with me.
However the attitude of constituents to the new runway is by no means one-sided or clear and, as ever, there are different views put forward. I have, for example, received emails from residents of Henley asking what all the fuss is about. One said to me "I have lived here for all my 72 years and can honestly say that not once has noise from a plane going into or leaving Heathrow annoyed or alarmed me". Another said that he wondered why I was spending time on the issue since it was not creating major problems, particularly compared with the days of the VC10.
Letter from Cllr John Cotton to John Howell MP
Thank you for your letter to Local Plan 2032 Preferred Options consultation. I hope this response via email is acceptable.
As you are aware we are still at the informal stages of consultation and there will be further opportunities for the community to be involved before our plan is submitted next year.
I appreciate your comments about the challenging situation we are in with regard to housing need and five year housing supply. I note you are looking at ways to improve cumulative impact of development other than the existing methods: environmental impact assessments and officer assessments, all as part of the consideration and determination of planning applications. Clearly the sooner we can achieve a robust, realistic and sound plan, the better.
An important part of our summer Preferred Options consultation was identifying the principle of a strategic site, with our preference at that stage for Chalgrove. The purpose of our consultation was to understand whether there were any show-stopping planning reasons for choosing a particular strategic site. We also wanted to gauge whether we were right in our approach, following planning practice, of assessing sustainable locations for housing with Green Belt sites last. Early indications from the consultation responses are that there are no insurmountable constraints to development at Chalgrove and we should consider sustainable housing sites outside of the Green Belt before those within it. We are, however, still analysing all the responses and have yet to reach a firm conclusion.
My response to your "five key questions" is that that we are still collecting and assessing evidence. However, the HCA, as promotor of the Chalgrove site, is undertaking a programme of community liaison and technical work to support their proposal. The community liaison is through "Enquiry by Design" (EbD), which is an approach recognised in planning and should be encouraged by all major developers. The EbD workshops will consider the implications and impacts of connectivity with the village of Chalgrove and other surrounding settlements, and also the provision of infrastructure and services, such as medical facilities. Alongside this and able to feed into EbD will be the results of some technical studies to help inform the local community in their responses. The planning policy team (and the county council) is testing the infrastructure requirements of the Chalgrove proposal and the other six strategic sites, so we can effectively assess them and have evidence for a robust conclusion. The outcome of this work will be included in the next local plan consultation and will provide the basis for any eventual planning policies.
Our intention is to produce detailed 'master planning' policies, which could potentially be supported by supplementary planning documents, to deliver quality development on the strategic sites identified in the local plan. These strategic sites will be to support Didcot Garden Town, Science Vale and make a contribution to Oxford's unmet housing need. Should we have sufficient detail in time for the submission of the local plan these policies will include details such as the relationship with the surrounding settlements. This issue will also be considered through the application process.
With regard to Neighbourhood Planning, as you know, we support the great work being undertaken by communities across South Oxfordshire to create neighbourhood development plans. The Local Plan will be explicit in its support of community led projects and NDPs. The collection of evidence and opinion on the local plan will help to give strategic direction and certainty to NDPs.
Our continued coordination with NDP groups and all resultant local plan policies will, of course, be subject to further formal, regulation 19, consultation and the examination in public before we can adopt a new development plan for South Oxfordshire.
Thame is in the last three finalists for the Small Town category in the Great British High Street 2016. I urge all who support Thame to vote at http://thegreatbritishhighstreet.co.uk/finalist-small-market-town My hearty congratulations go to Thame for reaching this stage. I have voted for Thame. Voting closes 18th November.
Much has changed since 23rd June when the Brexit referendum was held and the media have been having a field day. In this briefing I address some of the questions and issues that have been raised with me on Brexit.
The result of the referendum on 23rd June was not what I wanted nor what I voted and campaigned for. It was also not the result which the Conservative Government wanted or campaigned for. Contrary to the impression being created, a Conservative Government wanted to remain in the EU. Not only was the majority of Cabinet Ministers in favour of remaining, so was the majority of all Ministers. Furthermore as a result of the outcome we also lost an excellent Prime Minister.
However, the result of the referendum vote is history and it falls to us as the Government of the day to implement the majority wish expressed in the vote which was to leave the EU. The priority now has got to be looking to the future where it is in all our interests that Britain's departure from the EU occurs in the best possible way and that that departure is smooth, constructive, and orderly minimising uncertainty for all.
Those who voted to leave the EU will be content with the situation. I fully understand those who voted to remain feeling discontent but, although close, the outcome of the vote was none the less clear. In the winning Conservative Party manifesto of 2015, which over 11 million people voted for, we said:
"We will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the EU. And then we will ask the British people whether they want to stay in on this basis or leave. We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome." (My underlining)
That sets out clearly the reasons why the referendum was not 'advisory' and why a second referendum to reverse the decision is inappropriate. We had committed to honour the result whatever the outcome. Contrast this with the view taken by UKIP, with which few will want to identify, where Nigel Farage threatened in May that a 52-48 win for the Remain side would be "unfinished business".
I am all too aware that the referendum campaign has been criticised from both sides. Whatever one feels about the nature of the campaigning the outcome cannot be subjected to a level of psychological analysis as to why people voted the way they did and what influenced them. No General Election has been subjected to such systematic pseudo-analysis in the past and I hope will not be subjected to such analysis in the future.
Since the referendum, the ides of a hard or soft Brexit has emerged. This is largely a fiction of lazy journalism. At best, it is a shorthand for one outturn of the negotiations. Sadly, it is as imprecise as most shorthand terms are. As Sir Malcolm Rifkind has recently written "There is a facile assumption that it is logical for those who voted to Leave to now want a "hard Brexit" while remainers are anxious for a "soft Brexit"." But as he goes on to point out, there is a huge range of options between zero and 100%, for example, over our access to the single market as the negotiations will show. Trying to set out Brexit as a bipolar option between hard and soft is foolish and tries to over-simplify what is a complex matter.
I am keen to protect jobs in this country and in this constituency and I will do this by lobbying for an outcome which does this. I am also keen to protect current residents of EU member states including Britain. I will keep constituents informed of how these and other issues progress as the negotiations continue and will do so via my web-site and Issues Briefings. In the meantime, as Labour MP Frank Field said in The Times "The government is totally right ... not to declare its negotiating hand. It is absurd to expect it to give a running commentary." We should let the Government get on with negotiating our exit from the EU taking scrutiny from the new Select Committee and from Parliament where appropriate. .
At Planning Committee on 7th September you will have before you the application P16/S0970/O, Thames Farm. The Officer report on this application is comprehensive and well prepared and sets out the history on this site which, I think it is fair to say, has been contentious. You will have a number of issues to consider and I value your work in doing so.
As you may know, I have been the Government Champion for Neighbourhood Planning and it is in this capacity that I write. It will be no surprise that I am fully supportive of Neighbourhood Planning. It gives communities a real say in the planning system for the first time in planning history. I am therefore concerned at the risk of undermining the recently made Henley and Harpsden Joint Neighbourhood Plan (HHJNP).
We all know that planning is a quasi-judicial process and applications such as this one often have to be weighed up in the light of contradictory evidence. I would like to draw you attention to a recent case and to a piece of Government Planning Policy Guidance which I cannot see referenced in your Officer report. This is the case of Crane v SSCLG and Neighbourhood Planning Policy Guidance: Paragraph: 044 Reference ID: 41-044-20160519. The important thing to note is the revision date of the particular piece of guidance which is 19th May 2016.
I want to draw your attention to the fact that if a Local Plan is considered out-of-date, this does not necessarily mean that all Neighbourhood Plan policies are also considered out-of-date and puts some Neighbourhood Plans which have only recently been adopted in conflict with the Local Plan. In this case, I do not believe the Henley & Harpsden Neighbourhood Plan (HHJNP) can be overridden by the absence of a 5 year land supply at the level of SODC.
In the case of Crane V SSCLG (2015) EWHC 425 the court upheld the Secretary of State's decision that, notwithstanding that the Neighbourhood Plan was believed to be out of date because of the absence of a 5 year land supply by the district council, permission for the development of 111 dwellings contrary to the Neighbourhood Plan should be refused on the basis that the development was in conflict with the Neighbourhood Plan.
This has immediate parallels with the current case where the council does not have a 5 year land supply but the development is contrary to HHJNP. This is an important decision for those opposing development in conflict with an adopted Neighbourhood Plan
What the paragraph of planning guidance, which post-dates the Crane case and supports this judgement, says is as follows.
Should there be a conflict between a policy in a neighbourhood plan and a policy in a Local Plan, section 38(5) of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requires that the conflict must be resolved in favour of the policy which is contained in the last document to become part of the development plan.
As you will be aware the last document in the development plan was the recently made HHJNP. I take the reference to policy in the Local Plan also to refer to the loss of a policy in the Local Plan such as the 5 year land supply. I would, therefore, argue that the terms of HHJNP prevail notwithstanding the fact that SODC as a whole does not have a 5 year land supply.
Your Officer has quoted Paragraph: 083 Reference ID: 41-083-20160211 which is also part of Neighbourhood Planning Policy Guidance. The important thing to note with this is that it was revised on 11th February 2016. Thus the Planning Policy Guidance (PPLG) that I have quoted above is more recent than the PPG noted in the report.
In conclusion I acknowledge the need for housing and am fully supportive of planned growth. I acknowledge the current 5 year land supply positon of the council as it stands under present Guidance. However I am very concerned at the risk of undermining the HHJNP and indeed the Neighbourhood Planning process and believe that Guidance and case law supports the Neighbourhood Plan..
I urge you to consider this case and Planning Policy Guidance among the rest of your deliberations on this application and especially to note the dates of the revisions.
With thanks for the valuable work that you all do.
John Howell OBE MP
Member of Parliament for Henley
Member of the Council of Europe
Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to Nigeria
House of Commons
London, SW1A 0AA
Tel. 020 7219 6676
MP answers questions on Neighbourhood Plans
Thame was at the forefront of Neighbourhood Planning. It was one of the first in the country to formally adopt its plan as part of the planning system. It is not surprising then that Thame is also among the first asking questions about the review of the Neighbourhood Plan.
A Neighbourhood Plan invites the local community to share in the development of the planning system within their area alongside the local District Council. Once a Neighbourhood Plan has been through its referendum it becomes part of planning policy. This means that it is used to determine applications and that gives it legal force.
Once made, a plan cannot be unpicked in a piecemeal fashion. A plan is examined by a qualified person and voted on at referendum as a whole. To try to change one part would necessarily have an impact on the rest of it. Thus it stands as a whole. However, inevitably there will come a time when the plan needs to be reviewed. The most obvious of these is when the local planning authority, locally the district council, reviews its own Local Plan. Review does not automatically mean starting over again or a complete change. It should not necessarily invalidate existing plan policies. It may be that additional policies are added or additional strategic housing sites allocated. In this case it may be necessary to seek the support of the community through a further referendum. A new Bill on Neighbourhood Planning to be published shortly will give guidance on this
Some ask why do a Neighbourhood Plan if it has to be reviewed and if sometimes things seem to be imposed from a higher planning authority? This is about recognising that responsibilities in a plan are shared and, perhaps more importantly, it is about retaining community control. For example although a community may not have the overall say in the amount of housing it needs to take, it can determine where it thinks the housing should go. The community can also make clear in its Neighbourhood Plan facilities it would like to see provided for residents and infrastructure needs.
There is every reason for a community to have a Neighbourhood Plan. We have seen close by to Thame the effects of not having one and the benefits of doing so. I continue to encourage all communities large and small to have a hand in directing their own future
MP working on planning reform
In this second article on planning I want to set out what an MP can and can't do in the planning system and how it works. In the last Parliament we made planning a local issue – to be shared between neighbourhoods and the District Council. No housing numbers are set by Government. Local planning is a devolved responsibility. As an MP, I have no influence over this process. This sounds as if I am washing my hands of planning but I do not make decisions on strategic planning as in the Local Plan nor do I have any say over individual planning applications. I can comment along with other residents but my voice carries no more weight than others.
However as an MP what I can do is to try to make the planning system as a whole work better and to look at the environment in which planning operates. This is precisely what I have been doing in parliament. I was instrumental in the fundamental reform of the planning system in the previous parliament which gave places like Thame the rights to create a Neighbourhood Plan.
More recently I have worked as a member of the Local Plan Expert Group to produce a report detailing a number of recommendations some of which are being brought forward under a new Bill, to be introduced shortly. These changes relate to the speeding up of the production of local plans and to strengthening neighbourhood plans. Among the recommendations are those to simplify and shorten the process of plan making, to give communities more control over development in their local areas, to establish a common methodology for Strategic Housing Market Assessments (SHMAs) – the means of assessing housing numbers – and to give security over the 5 year land supply which councils must maintain. In the case of South Oxfordshire the combination of the different recommendations would have the effect of reducing the housing needs and enabling SODC to demonstrate the all-important five year land supply.
I appreciate that these recommendations have yet to come forward and SODC must proceed with its consultation. This makes it all the more important to point out the lack of infrastructure in and around Thame to cope with the houses proposed and to request that infrastructure is provided with the development.
Councillor John Cotton
Leader South Oxfordshire District Council
135 Eastern Avenue
Milton OX14 4SB
13 August 2016
Consultation response to the Preferred Options Document prepared by SODC
I attach my comments on the Preferred Options consultation being carried out by SODC. I refer throughout to the work I have done on the Local Plan Expert Group and I remain available to push for our recommendations to be taken forward which, according to your own calculations, will bring major relief for SODC.
There are two issues on which I have been working which I would draw your attention to. The first of these is the absence of an up-to-date local plan for the City of Oxford. I discuss this further below in relation to its impact on SODC. The second is the change I am requesting that will bring relief for all those districts struggling to establish or re-establish their five year land supply figures and also a better means of calculating the number of houses. Neither of these take away SODC's need to undertake the current consultation.
I am happy to talk with you about how I might be able to help.
Background to the consultation
The background to this consultation is the need to produce a SHMA on an Oxfordshire basis and to restore the five year land supply for the district. The latter is a good objective to follow since the absence of a five year land supply leaves the district open to the whims of developers and has seen excessive development in Chinnor and in Benson. Much of this is due to the fact that when assessing individual applications, there is no ability to look at the cumulative impact of development and to judge each application on its merits. I am looking at means by which this can resolved.
In relation to the SHMA, the Minister of Planning has clearly stated in letters, which you have seen, that the SHMA is the starting point and not the ending point of discussion about the numbers proposed. In this case, the fact that the Vale of White Horse and Cherwell have used the SHMA figures which have, therefore, been tested at enquiry gives them more credibility than they would otherwise have had. As you know, the work I have been doing with the Local Plan Expert Group has recommended that the employer estimates of growth are removed from the calculation of SHMAs and has proposed a solution to the issue of the five year land supply. We are of course awaiting a Government decision on our recommendations which has been delayed as a result of the Referendum vote.
However, on top of this is the uncertainty posed by the fact that the City of Oxford figures come outside of the local plan process since their last local plan was dated 2005. This makes it difficult to evaluate the numbers being put forward and which affect the SHMA. In addition, the City is pursuing a number of housing policies which inhibit the building of houses and have not properly subjected their own evaluation of housing sites within the City to full public examination.
In these circumstances, the SHMA figures must be viewed with some caution and I am happy to state that publicly.
Turning now to your list of strategic sites.
This is a development proposed of 6,500 houses which will become a town bigger than both Thame and Henley. The reasons for opposing this are identical to those proposed for the settlement of Stone Bassett and I will not repeat them here. This is a development which is not required in Oxfordshire and I oppose this development.
I have been approached by residents in Chalgrove who are distraught at the proposal to build on Chalgrove Airfield. They particularly point to the lack of infrastructure to support such a development and the effect this will have on the community of Chalgrove itself and their way of life. If this development is to proceed, it will be important to see it as breaking the mould. 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 on surrounding villages. I appreciate that this is a level of detail which normally comes at the end of the process rather than at the beginning but unless everyone has the information they require at the beginning which ensures that infrastructure has been thought of from the start, it is impossible to evaluate this option properly.
I therefore have five key questions on this development in order to be able to evaluate it:
If this information cannot be provided in more detail, the proposed development must either be scaled back or abandoned.
Looking at other sites you have listed:
Those opposing the development of Chalgrove Airfield have once again raised the prospect of building on Green Belt land at Grenoble Road. As you are aware, Green Belt is not an environmental designation but a planning designation and it is appropriate that you should from time to time review its boundaries. This you did less than a year ago and the resulting report sits on your web-site. One of the principal purposes of the Green Belt is to prevent urban sprawl. What your report showed "confirms the generally very high level to which the Green Belt, as designated between 1955 and 1992, still retains its openness and meets the five criteria set out in the NPPF. This demonstrates the success of the Green Belt policies in establishing a level of permanence to the Green Belt over these years."
It is clear from my own observations that although this report is less than a year old, many people including councillors, have failed to acknowledge that this study was undertaken or have regard to its findings. This is disappointing.
Grenoble Road remains Green Belt and forms a good buffer between the City and the surrounding villages. I cannot see how you would justify changing it and building on it despite the wishes of the City of Oxford.
Other issues include:
The situation in Thame
The additional houses required by SODC in Thame stand in marked contrast to the requirements of other towns and areas in my constituency. Couple this with the increased housing numbers required for the area outside of SODC but around Thame and the major issue of infrastructure provision becomes apparent. So far, Thame has not seen any significant infrastructure development to accommodate the existing increase in housing envisaged under the Neighbourhood Plan.
In addition, the percentage increase in housing for Thame seems excessive. I wonder whether in the light of the total number of houses actually being built and in the light of the large number of Neighbourhood Plans being produced there is not greater scope for evening this out.
Great care needs to be exercised in consulting on these options that they do not run contrary to or impede the development of neighbourhood plans. SODC has done a good job in encouraging Neighbourhood Plans and it needs to ensure that Preferred Options approach seeks to bolster Neighbourhood Plans rather than compromise
them. I have already had complaints that what you are proposing cuts across the work of the Neighbourhood Plan team in Wheatley, Chalgrove, and Thame and has a big impact on the work of the team in Benson.
In considering the responses to the consultation I am concerned that the options seem to suggest that if Chalgrove Airfield does not proceed the Harrington site will. This would be an incorrect approach. It would at that point be a requirement on you to bring forward other sites such as the site at Culham into the equation.
I remain available to help in any way possible and to pursue options for the good of the constituency and of the district.
John Howell OBE MP
Member of Parliament for Henley
MP encourages residents to respond to SODC consultation
For the next three weeks I am going to contribute articles that deal with planning. In this first article I want to refer to the current consultation being conducted by SODC. Thame along with other communities is understandably concerned (as am I) with issues around more new development and also the demands on infrastructure. I was pleased to be able to attend the public meeting in St Mary's Church to discuss the response to the SODC consultation on the new Local Plan. It is good to be able to listen first hand to the views and questions of residents. I appreciate the many concerns that can arise at the prospect of more development and there are many questions to be answered in the detail. I also recognise the views that we need more housing to allow our young people the chance to continue to live here.
The SODC consultation is just that - a consultation, and as such I strongly encourage everyone to submit their views in response to it. I will be doing so because in this area I count as a regular citizen and have no special influence to bring to bear. Feedback from residents is important to help the council know our feelings. If questions and concerns are not expressed now it will be too late to raise them later.
Some have asked why we are facing these questions when we recently went through the same exercise. One of the problems has been the slowness with which neighbouring councils have made their own Local Plans, especially Oxford City Council. The absence of an up to date local plan for the city (the last one dates from 2005) makes it difficult for SODC, or us, to assess the need for houses or to challenge Oxford City's own approach to planning within the city. Other neighbouring councils are also on a different timeline. In planning, neighbouring authorities have a duty to cooperate with one another. Council boundaries are lines on a map and the links between communities and demands on infrastructure need to work. Hence current work by Aylesbury Vale and Wycombe District Councils.
Planning doesn't stand still and there are many interlinked issues as I will show over the next few weeks.
I have just returned from a visit to Nigeria as the Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to Nigeria. It was both a highly enjoyable and fascinating visit which took forward the opportunities of doing business between the two countries and portrayed the UK in the best possible light. It was all the more enjoyable because of the sheer competence and good humour of our High Commissioner in Nigeria and the Acting Deputy High Commissioner. Without these two, my activities would not have been half as successful.
The Trade Envoy role was started before the Brexit vote in the UK. It is a sign of the commitment the UK government is making to Nigeria and to doing business there. Brexit makes the need to get business deals in operation all the more urgent but it doesn't change that commitment.
The UK has dropped to fifth position in terms of the countries doing business there which given the closeness of the language, of the legal systems, of our joint membership of the Commonwealth, of our shared values is quite frankly unacceptable. Much of this is due to the fact our concentration has been on oil and gas at a time when the oil price internationally has taken a nose dive. President Buhari's aim is to diversify the Nigerian economy and my aim is to diversify British interests. PwC predicts an increase to £7 billion by 2030 of non-oil and gas exports. That is why I am trying to organise a British fashion show in Nigeria next year.
During the course of the week we visited the site of the new Dangote refinery which will produce enough oil to satisfy Nigeria's domestic needs and have some left over for export. There are still opportunities here for British business. We also visited Eko Atlantic a breath-taking vision and ambition for the development of part of the seafront in Lagos. I also launched PwC's new booklet "Seizing the opportunity" produced on commission from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. I had conversations with prominent Nigerians in the oil and gas sector, with British business present there and with FCO and DFID officials responsible for taking forward a highly imaginative agenda for prosperity. We also visited a number of British and Nigerian companies including Ladol, an offshore logistics company based in a free trade area of Lagos, and Guinness which has had an operation in Lagos since 1962. There were numerous other meetings and visits I had during my all-too-short visit to the country including to the Nigerian Bottling Company. But one of the most prominent was ringing the closing bell on the Lagos Stock Exchange – the 2nd biggest in Nigeria – and addressing the country's press and media afterwards.
Of course, Nigeria has its challenges too and no visit can blind you to those. The threat of terrorism from Boko Haran in the North-East of the country is being tackled with the help of Britain. Convertibility of the currency is still a developing situation in which we are providing pointers. Corruption remains endemic but is being tackled by a new President who came to power to do just that and Britain is helping in this process too. Finally, the reliability of energy infrastructure needs to be improved and this is something where British companies can play a major role.
What I want to do in my time as Trade Envoy is three things. First, I want to see a massive increase in trade between our two countries. It currently stands at around £4 billion per annum. Second, I want to see an increase in the ranking in which Nigeria comes in world tables as a country in which to do business. Third, I want to see more effort being put into increasing the prosperity of ordinary Nigerians. Prosperity is of mutual benefit. British brands are much appreciated in Nigeria and we are home to the 2nd largest diaspora in the world. Let us build a bright future for a Britain that has always looked outwards and for a Nigeria which is set to be the power house of sub-Saharan Africa.
I led an important debate in Parliament on ambulatory care in April. You can watch what I had to say at http://www.johnhowellmp.com/john's-blog/watch-my-ambulatory-care-debate/821 or read the transcript at http://www.johnhowellmp.com/news/my-speech-on-ambulatory-care/817 .
Subsequently, I was pleased to meet with the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) to discuss the importance of innovating and transforming our NHS. The RCP is a membership body that supports and educates trainee and consultant level hospital doctors across the UK and internationally. We discussed new models of healthcare projects led by the RCP nationally which I hope we can learn from in Henley.
During our conversation, I expressed concern about the risks of long hospital stays experienced by some older people. This is particularly relevant for Henley. We know that an unfamiliar and unsettling hospital environment puts vulnerable older people at a higher risk of falling, for example. Hospital falls and long lengths of stay hugely impact on the person's family who would prefer their loved one to be treated at home.
Health and social care traditionally work separately which can be challenging when treating people with more than one care need. This division means that it is difficult for patients to move between care settings.
Too often, as I said clearly at the beginning of our discussions in Henley, I hear that older people are unable to get the care they need in a timely manner when they are ready to leave hospital. That is why I support the integration of social care and the NHS. The RCP is developing a new and forward thinking alternative to the way people are traditionally cared for. As part of the Future Hospital Programme, the RCP are working across eight NHS pilot sites in England and Wales. The principles of the project are for doctors, nurses and therapists to work with social care professionals and charity support workers on a daily basis to identify patients who are ready to leave hospital. They work together to plan for patients care to continue in the community to enhance recovery and recuperation. Working in this coordinated way, has reduced the need for people to be admitted to hospital by 20% on average; that is an extra 282 people who arrived at A&E and were able to return home the same day with support.
It was shocking to discuss research that suggests that up to 40% of those who die in hospital could have had their needs better managed in a non-hospital setting. The RCP recently published recommendations to address these problems that too many people are dying in hospital. They are actively encouraging doctors to consider whether treatment could be best provided at hospital, or in the community or at home. It is important that people and carers recognise that healthcare delivered at home can be a safer alternative.
Health and social care should be organised around the needs of the people who are using the services that our hospitals, GPs and therapists offer. I hope to be able to support our local care services in Henley to work together to ensure that everyone can receive the right treatment, in the right place, at the right time. The future of the NHS has to be a system of healthcare that isn't restricted to the bricks and mortar of the hospital building.
I hope to work with the RCP in the future so that we can improve our healthcare systems and ensure that we all have access to the best possible care as I believe we do in Henley.
(The data in this note are taken from findings at the Mid Yorkshire NHS Hospital Trust Future Hospital Development site, between January 2014 and January 2015.)
When the county council was looking at its budgets earlier in the year several concerns were raised with me on potential loss of services. One in particular was of the possibility of reduction or loss of bus subsidies and the knock on effect that this might have on bus services.
Parliament has not had any control over bus subsidies since the mid-1980s and the decision rested entirely with the county council as part of how it put together its budget and used its money to meet local priorities. I encouraged constituents to make their concerns known to their county councillor as indeed I did too. More importantly, I also called for creative thinking on this and other budget issues. We cannot and should not just assume that things have to be done the way they have always been done. Lifestyles change and thus demand for different services change. Technology changes and this too often has implications for the way that things are done. I spoke to encourage creative thinking on these issues. For example in a generation where we are seeing taxis being summoned via smartphones it seemed to me that there could be application of such technology for public transport.
Having spoken to a number of bus companies, I was pleased that some were indeed experimenting with just this sort of approach and I encouraged them to do so in Oxfordshire.
I was also keen to reassure people that a decision to remove a subsidy did not necessarily mean that every previously subsidised service would be cancelled. It would be up to the operator to review their services and decide whether they wish to continue operating it, or modify it. This in turn would depend on usage and the contribution of a particular route to the network of services run.
Whilst looking to the county council to think again I also had meetings with bus companies myself to raise residents' concerns and to find out what their reaction to the potential loss of a subsidy might be. I was pleased to find that the companies were taking a pragmatic approach and looking positively to see what they can do to retain their network. On some routes there were simply insufficient passengers to make it economically viable. However in other cases new thinking on timetabling did enable some services to be retained with some alterations to routes and schedules. By getting local communities to talk directly with the bus companies in several cases it has been possible to come to acceptable arrangements to keep a local service running.
I also encouraged other organisations to engage with the bus companies. For example one business was concerned about staff being able to get to work and entered into direct negotiations with the bus company to see if they could fund part of the route which specifically enabled this. The call for creative thinking has also been taken up by local councils, such as parish councils, looking into making their own subsidies to support services.
When services that we have grown used to are put at risk due to changing circumstances the first action must always be to consider the options. Sadly too often the first action is protest which sets up an atmosphere of conflict rather than cooperation. The latter is a constructive and positive approach which often results in a mutually acceptable solution to the benefit of all.
Finally, I am supporting the Government's Buses Bill. Over the years there has been a general decline in passenger numbers and the Bill aims to get more people using buses. Buses can reduce congestion and air pollution, offering great benefits to the environment. The Bill will give local authorities new choices to improve bus services in the interests of residents.
Update on a number of constituency issues
A large number of people have asked me how I am going to vote and why. Below, I set out my thinking on the issues which arise. I do so not to politicise the issue any more than it already is but to explain my thinking and the rationale which went into my decision. Every single person registered to vote will be able to do so and my vote will be but one amongst many. I trust that all voting will weigh up the many issues and not be swayed by some of the emotive arguments so often headlined in the media.
Like me, I am sure you have been fed up with the level of vitriol this campaign has created. I like to think that this merely serves the interests of the press and media From the beginning of this campaign, I have made my view abundantly clear that I favour staying in a reformed EU and that the deal that David Cameron struck was a good deal. You may disagree with me on this. But I believe that this is best for us now and for future generations. A vote to leave will not take us back to the situation we were in before we joined the EU. The world has changed and life moved on.
The issue is not in fact about the money we pay to the EU though this is often raised. If you watch the BBC, they give a good explanation that the total amount of money spent on the EU is not £350 million per week that some quote but £161 million when the rebate and other flows are taken into account. The whole picture is important. It also needs to be taken in the context of other spending to get a balance. For example compare that with the £2.6 billion spent every week on the NHS or the £1.4 billion spent on education. The real question though is not how much we spend but whether what we get in return is value for money. My judgement says that the answer to that question is that the EU does deliver value for money – just – and we are stronger, safer and better off in the EU. That is the question I would ask you to think about before you cast your vote. A vote to stay is a vote for certainty. We'll be better off in Europe because we'll get to keep access to the Single Market of 500 million people, with a say over the rules of doing business across Europe. That means more jobs, lower prices, and more financial security for British families.
Could Britain survive outside of the EU? Undoubtedly, yes. But there would be a huge cost in doing so. That is what the figures which have been produced pointing to a recession, to house prices going up, to mortgages being at risk, and overall funding falling, are meant to show. A new trade deal with the EU (and with other countries) would take time to negotiate and it is difficult given the situation in which Norway is in to see how we would be better off with this sort of deal which would require us to accept so much without any say over its contents or application. As I said at the beginning, I came to the conclusion that you simply cannot turn back the clock to an earlier era when so many economists have pointed to the difficulties leaving the EU would create; when leaders of the Commonwealth want us to stay and have held out no prospect of a new relationship; when a new way of operating in the world has emerged in which we play a strong but independent role as a member of the EU. These are the issues you will need to think about before you vote.
Immigration is of course an issue. But of the total number of immigrants, about half (some 188,000) do not come from the EU but from outside and would not be affected by our membership of the EU. We are already tackling this group and I get more complaints from people about how tough our immigration policy is now than I do about how lax. We do have the ability to control our borders now since we are not part of the Schengen agreement on border arrangements and we have turned back people from the EU from coming to our shores. The idea of an Australian-points system was an idea put forward by UKIP at the last general election. It was a bad idea then and it's a bad idea now. Conservatives opposed the idea at the General Election and it is interesting to see it unravel as the Dutch and Spanish Prime Ministers threatened restrictions on Britons' ability to work in the EU. An Australian-style system is unnecessarily complicated. It will actually increase immigration and it will wreck the economy because we would leave the EU's free trade area of 500 million people. The think-tank Migration Watch has savaged Australia's points based system as being "totally unsuitable for the UK" and Australia has twice as many migrants per head as the UK.
Finally, in relation to the deal struck by David Cameron, it is worth considering what has been achieved. There are measures to prevent our involvement in the deepening of EMU and of protecting the City of London's financial centre. There will be a system of red cards which will stop legislation going forward where national parliaments object to it. Our national security remains the sole responsibility of our own Government. There are measures to increase the competitiveness of the European Union including repealing legislation. There will be no commitment to our participation in ever closer union. There will be changes to the social security arrangements and we will be allowed to limit the access of new EU workers to in-work benefits for a period of up to four years from the start of employment. Personally, I think this is a good deal for Britain and gives us a very real special status.
It is now for you to decide on our future with the EU. I urge you to do so without the level of vitriol that has been shown. There are balanced arguments to be considered which need to be discussed rationally rather than emotionally and a decision based on judgement taken.
I have welcomed the Queen's Speech as the next step in delivering security for working people, increasing life chances for the most disadvantaged, and strengthening our national security.
It is a One Nation Queen's Speech that will improve lives across the country, and contains measures that will continue progress in delivering the Conservative Party's manifesto commitments. Since 2010, the Government has been working to do this, and we have seen:
The Queen's Speech uses the opportunity of a strengthening economy to go further. The Speech includes measures that will:
I said: 'Over the past year, we have got on with delivering our manifesto commitments to give people security and opportunity at every stage of their life. We've seen people's taxes cut, wages boosted, more homes built, and jobs and apprenticeships created. But I know there's much more to do. This One Nation Queen's Speech continues that work. New Bills will help people save money, buy a home, get fast broadband access – as well tackle some of the deepest social problems in our country, and strengthen our national security.
'All of this will mean a better and brighter future for this area'
I recommend the report of the Local Plan Expert Group (LPEG) on the simplification of local plans. The report was delivered to the Communities Secretary, Greg Clark MP, and to the Minister of Housing and Planning, Brandon Lewis MP and the consultation on it finished at the end of April.
I was a member of LPEG which considered how local plan making could be made more effective and efficient. LPEG has undertaken a root and branch assessment of all issues, which affect the ability of local authorities to put effective local plans in place speedily. The recommendations simplify and shorten the process of plan making, help ensure that housing and other needs are met and give communities more control over development in their local areas. Less than a third of the country has an up-to-date local plan and estimates suggest that less than half of the country's housing needs are currently being provided for in local plans.
The Group heard evidence that suggested that amongst the factors affecting the successful preparation of local plans was the difficulty of agreeing housing needs, and a lack of clarity on key issues such as the preparation of Strategic Housing Market Assessments (SHMAs) and environmental constraints.
"All of these factors undermine the production of good local plans. We came up with a number of recommendations for government in order to make the process of producing a local plan quicker and cheaper and to bring certainty to the planning system as a whole including to Neighbourhood Planning."
I am the Government's Champion on Neighbourhood Planning.
Amongst the recommendations were the following:
Other recommendations include:
FASTER AND SIMPLER LOCAL PLANS
MEETING AND DELIVERING HOUSING NEEDS
The essence of the Kindertransport was to take unaccompanied children from an unsafe area of the world and to give them sanctuary. That is precisely what the Government has done. It is taking children from the refugee camps in the Middle East and North Africa and providng them with a safe haven as part of a resettlement scheme supported by the UNHCR. It is not taking children from countries of Europe which are safe but it is helping to care for them where they are. This is the right way of proceeding.
The Dubs amendment required that:
I felt this was the wrong way of tackling the problem. Some who have written to me claim that I have "turned away 3000 Syrian child refugees from the UK"; that it is "sickening" and "disgusting". The fact is that we agreed to take 3,000 directly from the camps in Syria. Unfortunately, those that criticise have not read the debate and neither do they want to engage with the real issue. They have failed to recognise that I voted against the Dubs amendment because I genuinely thought it was wrong. The amendment was a good example of the heart ruling the head which could not be included in British legislation.
The first thing that this amendment would have done is to take away the pressure on developed countries in Europe. But these are just the sort of countries which have the capacity to support refugees and should be doing so. Nowhere would this have relieved pressure on any developing countries which do not have the ability or the capacity to support them. Not one child would have been prevented from dealing with the people smugglers.
The only sensible answer is to involve ourselves in the situation before children try to come to Europe. That is why we are so heavily committed to making a proper contribution to the global refugee crisis.
Does that mean we should simply walk away from helping in Europe itself? On the contrary, take Calais as an example. Here we are already supporting local French organisations who are seeking to protect children and reunite them with their families. Or take Greece, where what we are doing has been welcomed by the Greek authorities. The UK is the largest bilateral contributor to the humanitarian response to the crisis in Europe and is assisting countries build their capacity to manage the situation. We are supporting too UNHCR, Save the Children and the International rescue Committee to work with authorities to care for and assist unaccompanied or separated children in Europe.
This is the right way of dealing with the problem. Comparisons with the Kindertransport are wide of the mark. They tug at the heartstrings. But they are wide of the mark and do nothing to help the terrible situation which exists in the region and in Europe.
I was saddened by a headline in the recent edition of the Henley Standard. The headline read "Inside our sparkling new Townlands (with no beds)". The reason I was saddened by this was that, in the context of a perfectly good article, the headline does not represent what has been negotiated for the new hospital. There are currently a total of 14 beds associated with the hospital. The majority are, following latest guidance from clinicians at the NHS, in the Care Home to be built at the side of the hospital where they will remain. An allowance has also been made for some of the 14 beds to be provided on a more flexible basis to support transition to the new model of care.
Rather than continuously alleging that the hospital has no beds, can the Henley Standard not take some of the credit for helping insist that more beds were needed than the original number proposed? The fact is that most of the people attending the hospital are likely to be aged. As the NHS (not Government) has pointed out for people aged 80 and over, 10 days in hospital equates to 10 years of muscle wasting.
There is nothing peculiar to Henley in this and the town is not being done down as a result as some local politicians claim. As I saw myself, the excellent and similar new hospital at Welwyn Garden City works perfectly well and caters well for the community.
Is it not time that the hospital was simply left to get on with doing its job and fixing the 'snags' that arise rather than the dire speculation that has now started that it is being lined up for a bogus privatisation. It is already treating patients. The issue that x-rays did not work at first has been fixed. Everyone is aware just how important the hospital is – not just to the people of Henley but to those who live in the broader South Oxfordshire and whose hospital this also is.
I am glad to see that we are delivering on our commitments on young people's mental health, funding the biggest transformation the sector has ever seen. This involves making £1.4 billion available for young people's mental health, with the full amount made available as promised over the next five years.
This funding will help every local areas revolutionise their service and £28 million will be used to continue the roll out of talking therapies for children, to help more children get the help they need before they get to a crisis point.
Our shared vision of a 7-day mental health service means young people will get the care they need, when they need it, and will help us do much more to prevent mental illness in the first place. For the first time we will truly deliver equality between mental and physical health.
By far the best known international target in the aid field is that of raising official development assistance (ODA) to 0.7% of donors' national income. To listen to those who now criticise this figure you would think that it had just been invented. The issue has been discussed since the 1950s The Pearson Commission, appointed by the President of the World Bank, Robert McNamara in 1968, proposed that aid should "be raised to 0.70% of donor GNP". The issue was discussed at the United Nations during the 1970s and finally was formally recognised in 1970 when the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution which included the goal that "Each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official development assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7% of its gross national product at market prices by the middle of the Decade."
Sweden became the first country to meet the target in 1975 when it was later joined by the Netherlands. Norway and Denmark. Luxembourg reached it in 2000 and continues to do so. The United Kingdom attained it in 2013.
So, the figure of 0.7% of GNI (Gross National Income) comes out of detailed negotiation and agreement at the United Nations and out of work commissioned by the World Bank. A Labour Government in this country failed to achieve this target.
Aid better protects ourselves
A greater impetus was given to securing this target by the instability in the world caused, by amongst other things, through terrorism. Aid matters for our own security because the root causes of many of the problems we face in Britain lie elsewhere. From migration to terrorism, disease to climate change, the more we can do to tackle these issues upstream and overseas, the better we can protect ourselves here at home.
The countries which receive aid have changed as a result of the work undertaken by the Department for International Development (DfID) to tighten the aid budget and to make it deliver value for money. It announced some time ago that 16 countries would no longer receive bilateral aid from Britain by 2016. Take India for example. In November 2012, DfID announced that no new financial grant aid to India would be approved. Commitments to existing financial aid projects, all of which will finish in 2015, are being honoured. After 2015 any new programmes will take the form of technical assistance, sharing UK expertise in trade, investment, skills and health.
These changes reflect India's rapid growth and development progress in the last decade - its growing ability to finance its own development programmes meant that the time had come to end the UK's financial grant support.
Aid to China, too, was stopped in 2011. DfID's relationship with China now focuses on working together, where we share objectives, to reduce poverty and drive progress on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development Goals in developing countries.
What have we achieved in India? 3.6 million pregnant women and children under 5 have been given nutrition programmes. 2 million people have been provided with access to improved sanitation facilities.
We play a much more important role in the world
I firmly believe that spending 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on international development - alongside our commitment to spend 2 per cent on defence (which I notice is not challenged) - means we play a much more important role in the world. But our commitment to the world's poorest does not come at the expense of spending at home. The Government will increase NHS spending in England by £10 billion in real terms by 2020/21, of which £6 billion will be delivered by the end of the next financial year. This will allow the NHS to offer 800,000 operations and treatments and spend up to £2 billion more on new drugs. We are funding more than the NHS itself asked for in its own forward plan. We also confirmed £15 billion funding for investment in our major roads, allowing over 80 per cent of the motorway road network to be resurfaced, and delivering over 1,300 miles of additional lanes.
All this is why I do not believe the Mail On Sunday's recent petition to end the 0.7% of GNI spent on aid makes any sense in today's world. However, we need to continue to make sure that the aid is well spent and does not fund terrorism or those who simply do not deserve it. In this case, the Mail on Sunday was right to point to the way in which British aid funds to the Palestinians seems to be being diverted.
The issue of the funding of terrorism in the Palestinian Authority needs to be rooted out
In December I raised a question with the Secretary of State for International Development about the amount of money that goes to schools in the Palestinian Authority which glorify terrorism. I gave an example of where this had happened. I was assured that financial assistance goes to the Palestinian Authority through a World Bank trust fund that has an independent audit.
I am not satisfied with the answer and have put down a written question to DfID about the same issue. My dissatisfaction arises from the fact that in 2011, the Palestinian Authority Registry published a Government Resolution granting all Palestinian prisoners imprisoned in Israel for security and terror-related offenses a monthly salary. According to the Palestinian Authority definition, more than 4,500 Palestinian prisoners are covered. These prisoners are paid from the general budget of the Palestinian Authority funded by numerous donor countries. So aid money pays the salaries of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel.
It is clear that in troubled parts of the world such as the Middle East, the use of British aid money should be carefully controlled by the funding of only specific projects not associated with Government. This was how Central and Eastern Europe was initially helped with assistance through the Know How Fund of which I was a Board member. And I recommend this approach.
NHS England has just published a multi-agency Quick Guide and supporting information to support local health and social care systems to reduce the time people spend in hospital. It acknowledges the fact that people's physical and mental ability and their independence can decline in a hospital bed. For people aged 80 and over 10 days in hospital equates to 10 years of muscle wasting. Thus it recommends that people should seek to make decisions about their long-term care outside hospital preferably in their own home or in a bed where their true long term needs are understood.
This is a report not prepared by Government but by the Emergency Care Improvement Programme of NHS England. It adds to the overwhelming clinical evidence that this approach is by far the best way of proceeding. The report goes on to say that care at home enables people to live independently and well in their preferred environment for longer. The report contains checklists of questions for patients and commissioners to deliver this situation.
I am immensely encouraged by this as it is on that basis that the number of beds has been worked out at Townlands Hospital and the answer of up to 14 beds associated with the hospital has been reached. It is reassuring to know that we are at the forefront of current thinking and action. It is supported by organisations such as the Alzheimer's Society and clinicians throughout the NHS. It is the right way to proceed and in the best interests of the community as a whole which covers the whole of southern Oxfordshire not just Henley.
Today, there are more than 3 million disabled people in work. In the last 12 months alone, 152,000 more disabled people have moved into work, 292,000 more over the past 2 years. That represents real lives transformed as we help people with disabilities and health conditions to move into work and benefit from all the advantages that brings.
The Government is also committed to supporting those most in need. Spending on those with disabilities or health conditions will be higher in every year to 2020 than when we came into office in 2010. We are currently spending around £50 billion every year on benefits alone to support people with disabilities or health conditions, over 6 per cent of government spending
Our reforms have seen support for disabled people increase. In the previous Parliament, spending rose by £3 billion. We are now, rightly, spending about £50 billion on benefits alone to support people with disabilities and health conditions. Devoting that level of resources to such an important group of people is, I believe, the mark of a decent society.
It is important to note that employment and support allowance for the most disabled—that is, those in the support group—is up by almost £650 a year under this Government. We have increased the higher rate of attendance allowance, we have increased carers allowance, and we have increased the enhanced rate of PIP because we believe that a strong economy should support the most disabled people in our country, and that is exactly what we have legislated to do.
Last week was National Apprenticeship Week. During this period I had the pleasure of meeting some of the apprentices at Lucy Electric in Thame who are training to be electrical and mechanical engineers. This is a good news story. Not only is the company supporting current apprentices, they were also being mentored by people who had been with the company for over 20 years, starting out as apprentices themselves. It was an excellent experience and so good to hear of the young apprentices' positive experience.
We are committed to the task of creating apprenticeships which offer an excellent career start and an alternative route for people who don't want to go to university. I am delighted that, in this constituency alone, there have been 2,800 new apprentices which have started since May 2010. This is part of over 2.6 million new apprenticeships have started across England.
When I did a survey of Thame residents a couple of years ago, a number of people indicated their concern to see opportunities for the next generation. I share that and want to give young people the chance to get the skills that they need to get on in life. That's why I am supporting the Government's commitment to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 and congratulate every college and business locally that has taken on an apprentice.
We are doing so well in this constituency in employing young people. For the third month in a row we were the top constituency in the UK for dealing with unemployment. The good news is that the number of young people unemployed remains at 30.
We are driving up the standards of apprenticeships and introducing new routes into the professions. We also plan to launch the new independent, employer-led, Institute for Apprenticeships. The Institute will regulate the quality of apprenticeships in England, taking on responsibility for approving new apprenticeship standards and assessment plans. I look forward to meeting many more apprentices in the coming months and years.
I've just returned from a visit with the Select Committee on Justice to New York and Boston. The purpose of the visit was to see for ourselves what the US were doing to deal with young adult offenders and to have face-to-face exchanges about what the two legal systems could learn from each other. I tweeted what we were doing as this was a positive visit which could only have benefits for the UK. Imagine my surprise when an apparently UKIP supporter tweeted back in a hostile way 'Why?' - as if a UK MP had no business sharing experiences with anyone outside the UK. What a shame that he had such little interest in improving the welfare and treatment of young offenders in the UK or that it meant so little to him. It was as if Britain should be happy to be an 'island' in every sense of the word and to keep quiet about what we do to anyone. Such a shame!
The popular press parody these visits as 'jollies'. But nothing could be further from the truth. We work hard on these trips pursuing issues about which we are passionate. During the course of the week we were there we had countless meetings and ended up in a high powered seminar at Harvard on youth justice. During the week we sat with Judge Calabrese at a special court set up in a neighbourhood. This was the Red Hook Community Justice Centre, a multi-jurisdictional centre in New York. It was fascinating to see how he has built up such a degree of trust with those that live there and how everyone in the court from the judge to the ushers wished the young defendants well as they were sentenced to go on a course for drug rehabilitation and so avoid a criminal conviction. This was all about stopping repeat crimes and built on the recent research that showed that the human brain does not develop in all its complexity until the mid-20s. In particular those bits of the brain which control restraint often do not develop until 24 or 25. It was difficult to know how this information should be dealt with by those responsible for justice policy and by the insatiable attitude of the press to deal strongly with crime. But one thing I was persuaded of was to reject the idea that young offenders should be housed with adults.
My speech on end of life care can be watched here.
I am very pleased that we continue to be at the forefront of the international response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. This week I raised a question with the Secretary of State for the Department for International Development about refugees. What I asked for was that she continue to concentrate the Government's efforts on the refugee camps in the countries neighbouring Syria and especially Jordan. Without this, the numbers of refugees threatens to destabilise a country on which we all depend for peace and good relations in the Middle East. That is not the case with the UK.
I also raised the question of how much technical assistance we were providing to Greece to deal with the European migrant crisis. This is often ignored in the calculation of aid being given but it is often highly effective. The short answer was that we were providing a lot. See http://www.johnhowellmp.com/news/my-question-on-refugees/780
It is important to remember that the vast majority of refugees are displaced in the region, which is why it is crucial we focus our efforts on supporting those who are displaced there. But it does not take away the need for a comprehensive solution that deals with the people most responsible for the terrible scenes we see: President Assad in Syria, the butchers of ISIL and the criminal gangs that are running this terrible trade in people.
Personally, I am glad that the Prime Minister has proposed that Britain should resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. I am glad for the reasons stated above that they will come straight from the camps in the Middle East which will discourage refugees from taking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.
To support our local communities the foreign aid budget will be used to finance these refugees for the first year and help local councils with things such as housing. The Prime Minister has also appointed a new Minister for Refugees, who will be solely responsible for overseeing the work of welcoming these refugees to the UK.
But simply taking people will not solve this crisis. There is above all a need to ensure that the people we take are safe and secure in the new homes they are given. The Vulnerable Persons Relocations Scheme (VPRS) will make a real difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable Syrians by giving them protection and support in the UK.
We are already:
I understand the concerns for the welfare of migrants in camps in Calais but this has very little to do with Syria or Syrian refugees and it is not easy to separate genuine refugees from economic migrants. It is also important to maintan a robust and balanced immigration policy in the face of this challenge. While I should point out that the management of the camp, both in terms of humanitarian aspects and maintaining law and order, is the responsibility of the French Government, I am glad that the UK has committed to providing £3.6 million per year for two years to help provide support and facilities elsewhere in France. This is so that migrants can be helped to enter the French asylum system in a safe, systematic and humane manner.
The French Government remains committed to meeting its EU and international obligations and the opening of new places in its asylum system for those that claim asylum in Calais demonstrates this. The UK and French Governments are unified in their response to this situation, and both Governments recognise the importance of close partnership and collaboration to reach a long-term solution.
We are above all meeting our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of our economy on aid.
I have recently returned from leading a delegation of newly elected MPs to Israel and the West Bank. During this visit we engaged with the PLO in Ramallah and with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. We heard from one Arab pollster that the position of Fatah, the ruling party on the West Bank, was increasingly precarious electorally. We also heard that Hamas in Gaza, as well as being a terrorist organisation, was also fractured with divisions. The scope this gives to Daesh to take control is alarming.
In negotiation, the PLO tried to blame Britain for creating the problems of the region by having had a Mandate in the area before and after the Second World War. They also blamed the inaction of President Obama on the fact that as a black man in a white country he must have had to deal with many personal racist problems! Finally, they were opposed to the influence of the private sector in the West Bank which could hold the future to prosperity.
Israel does not get everything right – take a look at the settlement policy for example. But it is the only democracy in the region with an active Supreme Court. I was very pleased to accompany two Ministers as they explained how trying to discriminate against Israeli goods and services by boycott was illegal and against our Treaty obligations by anyone receiving public money.
Just to note: one in six generic prescription drugs used in the NHS come from Israel.
Now that the date has been set for the EU Referendum I wanted to be in touch about a number of issues.
The media circus started some while ago and of course the pace has increased. Whilst some people are emailing me to state their views on one side or another a large number of people are simply asking for facts on which to base their decision rather than campaign material for one side or another. I intend to support these calls for information rather than campaign literature.
For my part I have long been a supporter of our membership of a reformed EU and remain so. The Prime Minister has worked hard to get Britain out of 'ever closer union' and give national parliaments the power to work together to block unwanted EU laws. We said that we would make Europe more competitive and we have delivered that in this deal with commitments to cut red tape, in particular for small business. We have also put an end to the something for nothing welfare culture for EU migrants so that we can control immigration from Europe.
Importantly this is a referendum and not a parliamentary vote for MPs over anyone else. I am not sure even the BBC understands this. Every single person registered to vote will be able to do so and my vote will be but one amongst many. I will be happy to state my personal position but am primarily concerned that everyone has access to robust sources of information on both sides of the argument so that each can be informed to make their own decision. Such sources are unlikely to be at the forefront of what the mass media present but I will, as I have said, do my best to seek them out and make them available.
An excellent start will be the Conservative Association debate following the AGM on Saturday 19th March. I am delighted that the Conservative Association Management Committee was forward thinking in setting up this debate. There will be two excellent speakers, Richard Ashworth MEP, who will speak in favour of remaining in the EU, and Steve Baker MP, who will speak for leaving the EU. Each will set out their reasoning and answer questions from the audience.
I've just returned from my first visit to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg as a full member of the Council. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council consists of representatives from individual national parliaments such as the House of Commons. The Council is not an EU body. It was set up in 1949 and includes 47 member countries. The body it incorporates that everyone will have heard of is the European Court of Human Rights. Its focus is on democracy, the rule of law and human rights. It provides a forum for discussing issues of importance to Europe and it will come as no surprise that one of the main subjects for debate was that of migration in Europe.
I spoke in a debate which had been initiated by the European Conservative Group about recent attacks on women in European cities and the attitude of the media to these attacks.This was not in itself a debate about migrants per se. it was a debate about the slowness of the media, including the BBC, to cover the story in a timely and full way. I understand that a Labour MP has disgracefully said that these attacks were no different to a Saturday night in Birmingham. They were and it took days for the fact that the attacks in Cologne were carried out by those of an apparent foreign disposition to be made clear. This smacks of political correctness and does nobody any good. The attacks on the women were utterly disgusting and we should firmly stand up for the women involved as well as for honest, truthful and timely broadcasting.
My attendance at the Council of Europe gives the lie to those in the constituency who try to see the role of an MP as nothing more than a bigger local Councillor who should be interested only in local concerns and local affairs. Foreign affairs, for example, are a good example of wider interests. They play a major part of an MP's activities and this is of course an area where I have specific expertise. I was therefore very pleased to be made the spokesman of the European Conservative Group on the subject of the increased troubles between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. I am not sure that I managed to solve the problem but I was congratulated on my diplomacy.
Overall, this was a great opportunity to participate in international politics at a senior level and, where appropriate, be able to bring up points, such as the attacks on women, that could so easily happen here and on which, in Europe at least, there was widespread political agreement.
On Friday (8 January 2016) I visited the New QEII Hospital in Welwyn Garden City to see how its system of ambulatory care was functioning and how the hospital worked. The new £30 million hospital replaces an old and somewhat dilapidated hospital on the site and opened fully to patients on 15 June 2015. The old hospital is now closed to the public and its land is being used for housing and a care home. The hospital has 443 rooms and no beds. The intermediary care beds are located in care homes across the area with an excellent level of medical treatment linked to the hospital. I went to this hospital because it seemed to have so many comparisons with what is being proposed for Townlands in Henley. I wanted to follow up on concerns expressed by constituents in Henley and see for myself where and how it was already working.
What I found was a thriving hospital with a fully developed ambulatory care service. The main hospital with full A&E is located some 14 miles away at Stevenage. I spoke to patients about their experience of the hospital. Take Dave for example. He could not speak highly enough of the treatment he got. He called in every day for treatment and then got on with his life at home. It had revolutionised the treatment he received which doctors had confirmed would otherwise have required a debilitating 56 days of medication staying in hospital. His experience of hospital stays had shown up the disadvantages of them. He pointed out that people were so much more likely to improve and feel better if they could stay at home. He was clearly a great enthusiast.
I was shown round the hospital by Rachel Quinn, an acute medicine consultant, Dagmar Loue, the senior nurse from the ambulatory care unit and Jacquie Bunce, the lead person from the Clinical Commissioning Group responsible for seeing the development of the new hospital through from the inception of the idea to completion last year. The main difference between Townlands and the way the QE2 was approached comes down to time not substance. The QE2 project was a much bigger project involving a change from a traditional style district hospital to this new style provision and had taken over 7 years to come together. During this time there was considerable opportunity for the project to mature and for the CCG to take people with them. This had included the local MP, Grant Shapps, who had reservations about the change, just as I had, and also campaigned for the retention of an A&E department at the hospital which had now moved 14 miles away to the acute care hospital in Stevenage. The A&E was replaced at the QE2 by an Urgent Care Centre – essentially a minor injuries and minor illnesses unit run by GPs. What the extra time had provided was the opportunity to communicate the benefits of the proposed new system widely and to allay any fears that people had over the change.
I asked about where the impetus for the change had come from. The benefits of an ambulatory care model had come from clinicians – two of whom were showing me round. They pointed to the wealth of evidence from the Royal College of Physicians to support the model and how this had become best practice. What they had been trying to achieve with the reorganisation of hospitals' medical facilities in Hertfordshire was to ensure that there was the best use of resources within the county for the benefit of patients – the right care in the right place. This was clinically driven not policy driven by Central Government just as at Townlands. As my recent question to health ministers in the House of Commons showed the policy element of this was about ensuring greater choice particularly in end-of-life care so that people are able to be cared for in the place they choose and which is appropriate to their needs. Most people wanted to be cared for at home. The decision to locate specialist services in strategic locations around the county was down to local clinical decision making.
The QE2 provides an interesting range of services. There are two GPs working there particularly to deal with the out-of-hours service they provide. There is place to drop people off outside and plenty of parking. They also are able to deal with antenatal, anti-coagulation, hearing, imaging and x ray and radiology, endoscopy, breasts and fractures. On the day that I visited, the hospital was heaving with people wanting to access these services. However, it was the ambulatory care model which I had come to see and to better understand how it works as part of the overall package of health care.
Ambulatory care is where some conditions may be treated without the need for an overnight stay in hospital. As in the case of Dave, the service had taken away the need for an intermediary care bed for his treatment. The advantages of this are clear. It allows patients to get on with their lives and to improve their recovery in a way which hospitalization cannot. From what I could see and from the conversations I had, the system was working well and to the obvious delight of patients. Of course there is still a need for some intermediary care beds to be provided and the Hertfordshire system acknowledges this through the provision of such beds in care homes with strong medical care provided through the hospital. In Hertfordshire there has already been a close integration of social care with the NHS which has made this easier. But to focus too much on this misses the point that ambulatory care is in the best interests of the specific patients using its services and of the patient population as a whole. It also showed that it is not just Henley that is experiencing this change in the provision of medical services but that it is widespread and driven by clinical experience.
Visiting the hospital was a useful exercise for me and helped allay some of the concerns constituents had raised. What it showed was how a system that included a strong local hospital without beds in the hospital itself had become the mainstay of non-GP medical facilities in the area. The use of beds in care homes to provide the clinical beds to treat people with intermediary needs was crucial and was based on clinical evidence. Commissioning beds across the area also allows for greater opportunity for everyone to be nearer their home which makes things easier for relatives. A similar exercise had been conducted to the one at Henley to ascertain the number of beds required and the numbers were comparable. We must not forget that Townlands has up to 14 beds associated with it - some permanent beds and others on demand beds. It is a great shame that we have not had the chance for a broader and longer discussion on this and that the withdrawal of Sue Ryder from the Townlands scheme helped force the new model forward. In any visit, you are in the hands of those conducting the tour. But they answered all my questions and provided the reassurance I requested.
Although it is not possible to answer all questions from a visit like this I was pleased that I took the initiative to go see for myself what is happening in a nearby county. I will leave the last word to the patient I met – Dave. He praised the staff who worked at the hospital and pointed out that without good staff nothing would get done. He said though that his whole experience of the hospital had been so good that if we needed his help in telling the people of Henley just how much patients like him get out of the new system he would be very happy to come over and talk to people about his experience. You can't do better than that.
I wish everyone in the constituency a happy and prosperous New Year and a peaceful time. 2016 is a year we should all approach with confidence and optimism. We were elected convincingly in May 2015 on the basis that we maintain and take forward our economic recovery, upon which all our ambitions depend. Britain is now one of the fastest growing major economies in the world and the Henley constituency is a good part of this. We are getting our national finances back under control. More people are in work than ever before. Here in the Henley constituency the number of people unemployed (and claiming benefits) is just over 200. We have excellent providers of apprenticeship training including the Henley College. We need to support them as they seek to grow and develop.
Five years ago, Britain was on the brink. It is my profound belief that we are made great not through the action of government, but through the ingenuity and hard work of us all. That's why I am so pleased that local companies are employing so many people keeping unemployment low. We have come a long way since my early seminars for local businesses. We are making good progress too in getting a new schools' funding formula that does not discriminate against the amount of cash schools receive in areas such as this. In some cases, schools in some areas receive twice as much as those here. I presented a petition to Parliament signed by so many in the constituency calling on the Government to stick firm to its plans to introduce a new funding formula and they appear to be doing so. We can be proud of what we have achieved so far together. On a different subject, it is clear that there have been significant changes to the way aircraft approach Heathrow on an easterly wind causing additional noise for south Oxfordshire. There is no reason why the planes should be doing this and I have warned the Government that my support for Heathrow expanding depends on getting right the solution to this problem. I look forward to the second public meeting I have called to explore this issue. I look forward to all Neighbourhood Plans going forward to referendum and them receiving the backing they deserve. Neighbourhood Plans set out a great opportunity for people to share in the development of the planning system and I congratulate all those who have worked so hard on them. Lastly, I welcome the re-opening in 2016 of a 21st century hospital at Townlands in Henley.
I hope 2016 can be a year when we abandon the excessive negativity that has characterised some of those in the constituency. I hope that we can continue to work to keep us all safe and secure in the knowledge that we have taken hard decisions both nationally and locally.
I have been included in the top 100 backbenchers for speaking in the House of Commons. According to data compiled by theyworkforyou.com, I rank 100 in the House after excluding frontbenchers such as Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Chris Bryant and the speaker and deputy speakers.
I have spoken on a number of subjects since the General Election including Schools funding, Human Rights in Egypt, Refugees, Aircraft noise over Henley, NHS and Social Care integration, Operation Bullfinch in Oxfordshire, Prison reform, Dangerous driving, Business rates, the BBC, Mental Health and children, Junior Doctors, the Middle East, Right to Buy, Grammar Schools, Lead shot, and Unemployment in the constituency and the role of Henley College.
I raise many issues in Parliament. It is always essential to choose the right way of doing so. I raise very many issues directly with Ministers. Other issues can, where appropriate and where they relate to Government policy, be raised on the floor of the House. I am pleased that I have been able to contribute so much in Parliament. All these issues cross so many different areas and give a good indication of those that are important to the country and to the local constituency. I am pleased, too, that in addition I have been able to attend so many different events and meetings in the constituency. It is good that this has been recognised by so many communities some of whom I have started off on the process of preparing a Neighbourhood Plan as in Goring.
Since the date of the General Election in May 2015, I have attended some 148 meetings and events in the constituency (excluding surgeries) and made over 30 broadcasts for radio or the television.
What does it mean in a representative democracy to be a Member of Parliament? This is a question which is raised from time to time in my constituency and the more so because of the number of campaigns which take place by email. It has been raised in connection with the recent vote to extend our air strikes from Iraq to include Syria.
In a representative democracy the purpose of government and of an MP is to serve the best interests of the nation and of constituents based on judgement not on opinion polls or a rough calculation of how many locally support a particular proposition. Quite frankly, his or her role cannot be to represent constituents' views since there are always mutually contradictory views on any one issue. An MP's job is to represent the interests of the constituency. In doing this, it has been established for almost 250 years that an MP is there to assess the facts and to use his or her own judgement to make a decision.
Take a simple example; which football team do you support? In any audience where you pose this question there will be a variety of answers; some of them national, some of them local. What am I to make of the different views? Is the audience representative or not? How am I supposed to evaluate the opinions of those who do not express an opinion? The only solution is to weigh up the pros and cons and make my judgement. I do this all the time. I have for example opposed the introduction of court fees in the criminal courts and got the Government to change its mind on this issue. I have also indicated that a successful outcome of our negotiations with NATS and the CAA over aircraft approaches over Henley will influence my support for the expansion of Heathrow.
In the case of opinion polls, what they cannot tell us is whether those who answer the question have given the issue any serious thought before the question was put. The more standardised the questions that are put to me, the more likely this is. In addition, answers are often led by the nature of the question itself. Change the wording of the question and you get a different answer. Most importantly, opinion polls do not provide any context for how strongly an answer is felt or what priority the respondent gives to it.
Recent on-line campaigns are no better. Modern technology makes it all too easy to send an e mail at the press of a button with little thought given to the issue. How seriously for example am I to take campaign e mails which begin with the salutation "Dear [INSERT THE NAME OF YOUR MP]" and end with "Regards [INSERT YOUR OWN NAME]". Either way, this does not suggest a lot of thought was given to the subject or to the e mail before the button was pressed.
What characterised the standardised e mails I received on what has been called the Syria vote was the assumption made that I had received no emails in favour of the proposition. They assumed that because they had strong views, everyone else must hold the same view. Accordingly, all I had to do was vote as they told me. Second, they believed that their conscience was stronger than mine. Neither of these was true and devalued the role of an MP.
I am always interested in my constituents' opinions even when I do not agree with them. They can help me in assessing the information and forming a judgement. However, representing people does not mean simply doing what they say. And who are the 'they' anyway? Are those who wrote to me really suggesting that I should rely on guidance solely from the less than 0.5% of voters who contacted me? This is a difficult proposition anyway since many of that 0.5% would take a contrary view. In addition, what weight am I to give to the views of the 99.5% who did not feel the urge to write or e mail?
I do not wish to belittle strongly held views. I share many of their frustrations. But one needs too to retain some perspective and reflect that in most cases the number of people who write to me is as low as 0.1% of the population.
I believe climate change is one of the most serious long term threats that the world faces. I am therefore absolutely thrilled that the United Nations conference on climate change, which has just taken place in Paris, resulted in a historic new global climate change agreement. I believe the deal marks a turning point in reducing emissions and bringing about a sustainable and low carbon future on a worldwide scale.
The agreement involves 195 countries, including the world's largest emitters, committing to act together to combat climate change and to be held equally accountable. The deal sets out a long term goal of net zero emissions by the end of the century, and progress against this goal will be independently assessed in 2018, and every five years thereafter. In addition, in 2020, countries will be expected to update their plans to cut emissions by 2030. They will also be legally obliged to make new post-2030 commitments to reduce emissions every 5 years, from 2025. An independent review will help to ensure that all countries are acting according to their pledges.
I believe the agreement sends a clear signal to businesses and policy-makers across the globe that they need to invest in the low carbon transition. The agreement also gives the world's most vulnerable countries the support they need in developing low carbon economies. With the agreement in place, we should be on track to limiting global temperature rises to below 2 degrees.
Now that the whole world has signed up to play its part in halting climate change, we have taken a huge step forward in helping to secure the future of our planet for the next generation. In striking this deal, the nations of the world have shown what unity, ambition and perseverance can do.
As a global leader in low carbon goods and services, the UK is already well on the way to achieving a low carbon economy. The Government has recently announced that all coal-fired power stations where carbon emissions are not being captured and stored, will close by 2025. In addition, Government support has driven down the cost of renewable energy, and technologies such as solar are continuing to see costs fall. It is important that Government support should help low-cost, low-carbon technologies to stand on their own two feet, rather than create dependence on public subsidies, which ultimately drive bills up for consumers.
The Secretary of State for Justice today tabled a Written Ministerial Statement concerning the criminal courts charge. It contained two key announcements:
A success for our lobbying.
The vote last night on whether we should take action against ISIL military targets in Syria was won by 397 for and 223 against. There is no sense of triumphalism over the result. However, the decision was the right one. I was joined in the lobby for this vote by Labour politicians after an excellent speech by Hilary Benn and by most of the Liberal-Democrats. There was quite a cross-party consensus on the issue. RAF Tornado jets have subsequently carried out their first air strikes against ISIL in Syria.
I had emails on the subject before the vote. Contrary to popular belief, by no means all of these were from those opposing air strikes. Yet those who wrote opposing the motion were characterised by two things. First, they assumed that because they had strong views, everyone else must hold the same view. Accordingly, all I had to do was vote as they told me. Second, they believed that their conscience was stronger than mine. Neither of these was true and devalued the role of an MP. Moreover, I had taken the trouble to set out my thoughts on the motion well in advance on this website. But almost nobody had read what I had written or argued with it. Many of the responses were particularly unpleasant or simply accused me of following a party line ignoring the fact that this was a vote which showed considerable cross-party support.
Voting last night was not easy. You cannot predict outcomes. But I know it was the right thing to do.
As a member of the Justice Select Committee, it is my job to scrutinise and examine the Government's justice policies. An area into which we have just looked is the introduction of the Criminal Courts Charge, which was introduced in April 2015.
The Criminal Courts Charge is a fee which has to be paid by a person who is convicted of a criminal offence, in addition to the sentence they are given by the court. It is imposed as a fixed amount. The Government's intention behind the policy is good in theory, as the charge makes it possible to recover some of the courts' costs from the offenders themselves, making the offenders face up to the cost they have imposed on the taxpayer. However I have some serious concerns about the effect the charge is having in practice.
Firstly, the Government's aim of using the charge to generate additional funding for the courts does not seem likely to work, since only a very small proportion of the fines imposed so far have actually been paid. In addition, I believe the charge is set at too high a rate, given the realistic means of the offenders. I also think the fact that the magistrates and judges do not have any discretion when imposing the charge is leading to some concerning consequences. Their inability to tailor the charge to the gravity of the offence is seeing minor offences incur a large charge, on top of any fines that are imposed by the court.
Very worryingly, there is evidence that the charge may be creating a perverse incentive for defendants to plead guilty, when they have in fact been wrongly accused of a crime, since a smaller charge is given to those who plead guilty. This is not a trend that we can allow to continue!
In my opinion, the victims of crime are the most important people in the criminal justice system. However I am concerned that magistrates and judges may be reducing the amount that defendants have to pay for the Victims' Surcharge, so as to take into account the amount that the defendant is already paying for the Criminal Courts Charge.
As a Committee with have collectively set out these concerns in a report, which will now be considered by the Government, and I feel fairly confident that this should lead to a change in the Government's policy.
I have read the comments some in the constituency have made as to why we should not bomb ISIL in Syria, I have to say that in all conscience I fully intend to back the move to launch airstrikes against ISIL. I cannot see that the arguments put forward as to why we should not do this have any validity. This is not a move simply supporting party loyalty. It is based on my assessment of the situation and I hope to be joined in the voting lobby by members of other parties.
The scale of the threat that we face from ISIL is unprecedented. I disagree that not enough time has been given to the discussion over military action. ISIL has already taken the lives of British hostages, and inspired the worst terrorist attack against British people since 7/7, on the beaches of Tunisia. In the last 12 months, our police and security services have disrupted no fewer than seven terrorist plots to attack the UK, every one of which was either linked to or inspired by ISIL. This is in addition to the terrible attack in Paris. The action proposed is not therefore a reaction simply to the atrocities of Paris, terrible though they were.
My conscience tells me that there can be no doubt that it is in our national interest for action to be taken to stop and degrade ISIL. We are already a target for ISIL and not engaging in the airstrikes will have no effect on this at all. Upon request for assistance from the Iraqi Government, British aircraft are delivering the second highest number of airstrikes over Iraq. However stopping it means taking action in Syria too, because Raqqa is its headquarters and ISIL does not acknowledge national boundaries. It makes no sense for British pilots to stop engaging combatants in Iraq simply because they have crossed the border.
The threat posed by ISIL is further underscored by the unanimous adoption of UN Security Council resolution 2249. The resolution states that ISIL "constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security" and calls for member states to take "all necessary measures" to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL and, crucially, it says that we should "eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria".
I agree that we cannot defeat ISIL with military action alone. That is not what we are trying to do. The Prime Minister's approach is based on the counter-extremism strategy to prevent attacks at home, the diplomatic and political process to work with our allies, humanitarian support and longer-term stabilisation, as well as military action. We are already trying financial sanctions and targeting oil money. In addition, Britain has so far given over £1.1 billion, surpassed only by the USA, and would contribute at least another £1 billion for post-conflict reconstruction to support a new Syrian Government when they emerge.
I too am worried that bombing might hurt civilians. But the UK intends to use high precision missiles against ISIL targets not carpet bomb the whole of Syria, as some e mails have tended to suggest. For over a year we have been using military air strikes to target ISIL positions in Iraq - with some success - after the public outcry at the massacres that ISIL has undertaken and the way that it has treated women and gay people.
Peace is a process, not an event, I agree it cannot be achieved through a military assault on ISIL alone, but the strategy must start with degrading and defeating ISIL. Throughout our history, the United Kingdom has stood up to defend our values and our way of life. We can, and we must, do so again and I will have no hesitation in doing so.
I have been reflecting on Townlands Hospital in Henley. The sad thing about it is the way in which some people have sought to make political capital out of it. I have been attacked in the press by people who I have never seen even once at meetings I have had with the Townlands Steering Group; whose only form of release has been the letters pages of the Henley Standard. And for what? Some have failed to read the letter I wrote which set out exactly how I was involved in the project. For the avoidance of doubt, I refer you to pages 2, 13, 14, and 15 of the Clinical Commissioning Group's Board papers of July and to pages 2, 4, 14, 15 and 16 of the same papers for September. How this can be described as clandestine meetings, as it was recently, I have no idea. What these people are really trying to claim is that the future of Townlands is a party political decision dictated by the Secretary of State for Health and that Henley has been hard done to by this action. This is complete and utter nonsense.
What this is all about is a fight in two years' time for the election of a county councillor for Henley. This party political side swipe at Townlands is unworthy and completely untrue. What they fail to recognise is the way in which clinical opinion has changed over the past 10 years and that we face a new model of care in which the effort is now to keep people out of hospital rather than admit them to die there. Just look at the statistics. 70% of people would prefer to die at home, yet almost 60% currently die in hospital. This contrasts with the Netherlands where some 30% die in hospital. They fail to recognise – largely because it is inconvenient for their political arguments - that this is driven not by party politics but by clinical evidence and the opinion of clinicians.
So what have we achieved?
It is as clear as that and I am pleased to have worked to achieve this.
Have I listened to my constituents? Indeed I have, but my constituents do not all live in Henley but across the whole of southern Oxfordshire and they have very different views. Would I do it again? Absolutely because this is the right solution for this hospital and for the area, bringing 21st century medical care to a community that needs it at a time when the NHS, despite the amount of money we are putting in to it, is under pressure.
Let me turn to something not constituency related. The events which took place in Paris has sickened us all. They were, as the Prime Minister said, the worst acts of violence since the Second World War. Of course we stand with the French people and with all those who lost loved ones in the attack. But we also need to make sure that we have approached the subject from a comprehensive standpoint at home. We simply cannot have physical security here without economic security, It is because our long term economic plan is working that we can afford to spend 0.7% of our GNI on international aid. And while we are on this subject, the plan to refocus half of all our aid on supporting fragile and broken states to tackle some of today's biggest global challenges, including terrorism, the rule of law, good government and democracy makes perfect sense. Indeed, it is precisely to tackle these subjects that I have been asked by the Prime Minister to sit on the Council of Europe in addition to my job back here.
The comprehensive Strategic Defence and Security Review which the Government produced this week neatly blends the soft power such as our diplomatic networks which we are so good at with the hard power of, for example, the £178 billion investment in defence equipment and support we are planning over the next decade. It tackles the threat of radicalisation at home alongside serious and organised crime and cyber-attacks. Moreover, it does so whilst maintaining the size of our army.
This is important for all of us in the UK. It sets out a strong vision for the future and provides the necessary equipment support we always promised. By including terrorism in the equation it is a Review which has done us all a great service and will go a long way to protecting our prosperity.