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.