11 JUL 2019

Speech on retail

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). She has highlighted the structural changes that are occurring in our high streets. She is right to point out that the retail sector employs a lot of people and is therefore extremely important. It is also fair to point out that rent and rates play their part.

I want to stress the structural changes, which the hon. Lady hinted at, and the move away from face-to-face to online shopping, which we are all doing. In those circumstances, a retail strategy is very difficult to bottom out. It is very difficult to come to a view on how an overall strategy should be managed, because the decline that is occurring takes place in different ways in different businesses. I will illustrate that in a moment.

I want to make some general points about things that might help. To start with, I welcome the future high streets fund. It is a much better way of facing the future, rather than harking back to the past and "how things always were". If we look around the country, there are a number of different councils that are doing things in different ways. Great Yarmouth, for example, is developing cultural quarters as a way of encouraging businesses and people into the centre of town. It is all about the creation of place. Others, including Henley, see themselves more as events destinations; the Henley regatta has just finished. It is interesting to note that shopkeepers in Henley always have a difficult view on the regatta; they claim that when it is on, they lose business because young people are all tied up in the regatta and cannot go shopping.

Sir Mark Hendrick

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that city centres have to look at other offers as well as retail to help enliven them. Preston has tried to do that through leisure. Unfortunately, the major business interest that was driving the leisure offer has just gone bankrupt. On the future high streets fund, Preston, a city that is much in need, has just had its bid rejected. That is not good enough. These little pots of money are put there to act as sticking plaster for town centres.

John Howell

The future high streets fund is looking at how high streets can be transformed for the future, not harking back to how things were done in the past. It is looking at imaginative schemes to take things forward. Two things that the future high streets fund grants funding for are improving transport access to town centres, which is absolutely crucial—if people cannot get in and out, the town centre is likely to die—and increasing vehicle and pedestrian flows, which follows on from that. That is a major improvement for the functioning of our town centres.

I have two examples of different types of business that are handled in different ways. The first is pubs. The reduction in the number of pubs has been going on for a number of years, for many reasons—we all seem to want to reduce our alcohol consumption for health reasons; there are the changes in the law on smoking, although they have largely worked their way out; there is a case for saying that many pubs have not got over the recession and are still struggling; and there is also the pricing of alcohol, which means it is often much cheaper to drink at home than in the pub. Alongside that, ​however, employment in pubs and bars has remained quite steady, and has even increased slightly, which needs to be considered in parallel.

My second example is banks. The decline in banks has been going on for 30 years. It is even more significant now with the rise in online banking. I have probably not visited a bank in two or three years—I do all my banking online because it is much more convenient to do that.

My final point is about the integration of housing in the mix. It is important to try to get people to live in the centre of our towns again, so that there is a mix of retail and living accommodation. In my role as Government champion for neighbourhood planning, I will give an example. The town of Thame had about 700 houses earmarked in its neighbourhood plan. It deliberately chose to spread them around the outskirts of the city rather than to have a big development at one end of the town, which would have meant creating a new area and a new shopping area. The reason it spread that housing all round the town was to increase the flow into the centre of town. That is a very good example, which I would endorse, to everyone who is looking to sort out how their towns are organised for the future.

11 JUL 2019

Intervention in debate on active travel

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

My hon. Friend mentioned town planning. There is a crucial point on which the Government could be helpful. His constituency is very similar to mine: it has a lot of footpaths going across what is basically agricultural land. Does he agree that the Government should insist that, when development takes place, those footpaths are not allowed to be extinguished, so that we keep the network that allows us to walk and cycle?

Robert Courts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for making that point. He is right. Those of us who are lawyers know that expunging a footpath is, rightly, one of the hardest things to do in the law. Footpaths are protected, and I agree that they must remain so when new developments are built, to ensure that our latticework of footpaths continues to exist. I would extend that to bridleways as well, which similarly have an historical provenance. I ask the House to bear in mind that, although we tend to think of cycling and walking in the context of the strategy I mentioned, horse riders in areas such as mine and my hon. Friend's are also vulnerable, and ought to be thought about in the context of active travel as well.

04 JUL 2019

Speech on Tier 2 and Tier 5 immigration

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. It was also a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) introduce the debate. I wish to discuss some points that this debate generates.

The hon. Gentleman set out the background issues very clearly. As he pointed out and as the letter from the Catholic Church clearly points out, the debate is held in the context of the supply of priests, particularly in the summer, and allowing the laity to continue to attend mass. So there are two issues at stake: the laity attending mass and the priests being allowed a holiday. I am all for priests being allowed a holiday, just as I am all for MPs being allowed a holiday. As an aside, when I first came into this House, a very senior Member said to me, "The person you should acquaint yourself with to get the right sort of status is the suffragan bishop." Members can interpret that as they wish. Whether the popularity of MPs and suffragan bishops has taken the same turn is something I will leave for others to decide.

We have heard about a change whereby visiting priests are required to apply under tier 2 rather than under tier 5, and that is producing problems, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Ged Killen) illustrated, as well as costs for various communities. There are also English language burdens they have to suffer and a little more red tape than under the current scheme. However, I do not think the problem is widely shared among all religious communities. The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) nods. I will illustrate how it is not the case in some communities.

I accept that it is a case for the Catholic Church and for many others, but we live in a world where it is very difficult for anyone to recruit priests. Although this is perhaps the subject of an additional debate on another occasion, I point out that Anglicans are in a much better position because they have admitted women as priests. They therefore have an enormous supply of priests who are available and ministering. Whether the Catholic Church wants to take up my suggestion is a matter for it to decide and I will not interfere.

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)

I am sitting here as a Catholic utterly stunned by what the hon. Gentleman suggests. He is here in Westminster Hall suggesting that the Catholic Church should change its policies because of what he perceives to be an issue and because of the actions of the Government. Honestly?

Mike Gapes (in the Chair)

Order. I know it is tempting to have a wider debate, but will Members, including Mr Howell, focus on the motion before us?

John Howell

Thank you, Mr Gapes. To respond briefly, I was not suggesting that; I was leaving it to the Catholic Church to decide. As I said, we can debate that issue on a separate occasion, but I think my point is a valid one.

I made inquiries in the Anglican Church about whether it has this problem. The answer was no, it does not have this problem, for a number of reasons. First, there is a supply of Anglican women priests, so the supply issue is taken care of. Secondly, Anglican ministries are organised increasingly in teams, so someone is always around; because all the members of the team do not take their holiday at the same time, someone in the team is always available to cover for others in the ministry. It is important to bear that in mind.

Carol Monaghan

The Catholic Church organises in teams as well, but the smaller groups within the archdiocese have priests who are already stretched to the absolute limit. When one takes a well-earned break, the others are simply asked to do even more. For them just to pick up the slack, as suggested, is unsustainable.

John Howell

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but I return to mine: we live in a time when it is very difficult to get enough people to come forward for the priesthood of whichever denomination.

David Linden

The hon. Gentleman will realise that in my speech I quoted the Very Reverend Dr Susan Brown, who is both a woman and a member of the Church of Scotland, which permits female clergy. If the Church of Scotland, which is not the Catholic Church, acknowledges that this is a problem and one not specifically related to gender, does that not drive a coach and horses through his argument?

John Howell

I am tempted to say that if it is not just a Catholic problem, perhaps it is a Scottish problem.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

I am listening careful to the hon. Gentleman's argument. Does he accept that the issue that we should be debating is whether the changes are right in principle? They might not affect every single religious grouping to the same degree, but the question that we parliamentarians should talk about is whether the changes are right in principle.

John Howell

I thank the right hon. Lady for her intervention, but I do not see the two as different; I see them as all part of the same problem. I will go back to my comments on the Anglican Church.

Valerie Vaz

The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time in allowing us to intervene. I am a Roman Catholic, but I speak on behalf not just of that Church but of the religion directly affected by the changes, which is the Sikh religion. He is right when he talks about the Church of England, but that is exactly it: it is the Church of England; many of the others are international religions and therefore need religious workers to come here. More to the point, does he not agree with having an interchange of people of different faiths coming to this country, whether of the Catholic Church or of any other religion? Does it not mean that we are able to look beyond our shores, therefore helping international relations, and not only understanding each of our own religions here but understanding them internationally?

John Howell

I am happy to refer to the Church of England as part of the Anglican Communion, which is a worldwide organisation that exists in so many countries that one might have thought that if there were a problem, it too would experience exactly the same problem, because there are exchanges of people between different countries, dioceses and parishes.

I will take my glasses off to read what Christian Concern said, because it is in quite small print. It states that

"it is possible to enter the UK as a 'business visitor' to undertake some preaching...provided the person's base is abroad".

That is the basis on which the exchange of Anglican personnel takes place; it is not that the Anglicans do not invite colleagues from the Anglican Communion to come over to preach in their churches. I have been to many services at which the preacher has come from a country overseas. We need to ensure that we do not get two things confused: the restrictions on the priesthood, which I know exist, for whatever reason; and the changes to the immigration system.

Last, I mention my close contacts with the Jewish community. I appreciate, from conversations beforehand with the hon. Member for Glasgow East, that his view is that the Jewish community in Scotland has similar problems. However, I asked my Jewish colleagues exactly where the problem was likely to occur in the Jewish community, and most if not all of those I questioned did not see this as a problem for them. Again, we have to go back to this being a much more complex question than simply one of visas.

I offer those reasons up as a view on the issue and to widen the debate.

04 JUL 2019

Speech in debate on ESOL

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I will start with a reference to the all-party parliamentary group on social integration, which correctly provided a statement that, to be successful at getting ESOL taught, we had to ​ recognise that we were up against cultural norms among the groups to whom we were trying to provide the language training. I remember 11 or 12 years ago, when I was a councillor in Oxford, seeing groups of women in particular who had been coming to English classes for five or six years, but whose English was no better than on the day they first went. It was an opportunity for them to get out of the house and have social interaction with other people on the course.

ESOL teaching can be useful for that purpose of providing social interaction, but that does take away from the purpose of providing the language tuition that we all think is important. Fortunately, most refugees do not fall into that category; they passionately want to learn English. There are many reasons for doing that: for talking to neighbours, for having that normal family social interaction, for studying and, most importantly, for work-related activities.

Much of the thinking about teaching English stresses the need for a community-based strategy. I am not sure that I understand what a community-based strategy is in this case, particularly given that so much of the English-language training is provided by large local government organisations that can hardly be described as community-based in the way they operate. At some point we will have to bottom that out when we talk about how these services should be delivered in the best possible way.

I have mentioned that it is essential to run language training courses for large refugee communities; it is essential to run them for all refugees, but particularly so where there are large refugee communities. My own constituency does not have any, so I can speak on this with a touch of objectivity, and look at that training to see how it proceeds. I have also already mentioned the importance of English language training for people getting a job, but that also leads to another question: what role should employers have in providing English language training for people to whom they offer jobs? That is much more than simply the social mixing that I talked about at the beginning.

The ability to teach the English language affects so many other areas. One area that it affects particularly is that of loneliness; if a refugee is lonely and does not have the right language skills, they will be even lonelier. It is essential to be able to address that. I remember reading the story of a refugee lawyer who spoke very little English, but who wanted to be able to continue to practise law when she came to the UK with her family. To be able to practise UK law in the UK, she had to take a conversion course. The stories that were told of the difficulties she faced in finding that sort of language training, just to be able to keep her family alive in the way to which they were normally accustomed, made for a sorrowful tale, and it is one I would recommend to all hon. Members.

Finally, I will mention, as I frequently do in this Chamber, the work of the Council of Europe. The UK is a member of the Council of Europe and it is rare that we take what it does into account. It has a programme called "Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants", which is there specifically to ensure that member Governments of the Council provide the linguistic training that is essential for migrants to be able to improve themselves by learning the language so that they can do all the things that we take for granted.​

03 JUL 2019

Question to the PM in G20 session

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

The readmission last week of the Russians to the Council of Europe is being described by the Russians as international approval of the Russian invasion of Crimea. Did the Prime Minister have the chance to tell Putin that we totally reject that view?

The Prime Minister

I was able to make clear to President Putin the view that the United Kingdom takes: this was an illegal annexation of Crimea. I was also able to make it clear that we expect Russia to return the sailors and ships that were taken from the Kerch strait.

03 JUL 2019

Intervention in debate on London markets

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

Given what my hon. Friend said about the current state of things for the tenants, I wonder whether this is an opportunity to go back and look at the idea of the tenants taking ownership of the market.

Chris Heaton-Harris

I am sure the tenants would be delighted to have such an opportunity, but there would obviously have to be some sort of procurement process. That is not a possibility or a probability at this time because there are already contacts signed for the redevelopment of the market. It is a very good piece of real estate in London, where fantastic businesses are sited.

03 JUL 2019

Speech on Poles in WWII

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) mentioned the attitude of the Attlee Government to Stalin. I am very pleased that last week we did not show that same attitude to the Russians. At the Council of Europe we stood up with the Poles to try valiantly to prevent the Russians from coming back. We may have lost, but it was a fight worth having.

My hon. Friend also mentioned—I think prompted by my intervention—the role that the Poles played in intelligence. He mentioned the three mathematicians—he gave their names, so I will not repeat them—who helped valiantly to crack Enigma and shorten the war by at least two years. That illustrates an important point: that Poland had the largest intelligence service in the second world war. It covered many countries right across Europe, and beyond. It was responsible for a number of activities, including guiding the allied landings in Morocco and Algeria. Just think of that: the Polish intelligence force guided those allied landings.

In 1943, the British intelligence service received more than 10,000 messages from Polish intelligence—an enormous number. More importantly, the Polish intelligence force managed to capture a complete V2 rocket and send details of it back to the UK so that we could analyse them and help to prevent that rocket from creating any more devastation. That is a fantastic achievement ​ for any intelligence service, and we should pay full tribute to it. We have spoken about the experience of the pilots, and we should not forget those Polish fighter pilots who served alongside Bomber Command and helped it to deliver what it was supposed to deliver to Germany.

The UK holds the records of many Polish personnel, and has freely made them available. They are more than just a symbol of Poland; they are a virulent symbol of the real sacrifice that was made by the Polish people during the second world war. If we can do something with them to make them more available and prominent, I will happily join that campaign to ensure that it happens.

03 JUL 2019

Petition for Langtree School

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

I present a petition that has been signed by 406 residents of the village of Woodcote in my constituency and by surrounding villages that feed into the school of Langtree. The purpose of the petition is to try to remove once and for all issues over school funding. This is a similar petition to the one that I submitted in connection with Henley itself a little while ago.

The petition states that the petition of the residents of Woodcote, Oxfordshire, of friends of Langtree School and of those from surrounding villages declares that a funding review is needed in relation to Langtree school; further that this school funding review should address how funding increases will be made in relation to schools in the Henley constituency in real terms beyond the amounts already being spent on schools and how to eliminate the gap between the best and lowest funded schools in the constituency; further that there must be a review of areas of inflationary pressures and situations where schools provide additional services such as social care, or deal with criminal behaviour to examine the real costs of providing education; further that there must be an assessment into the extent and access to capital funding; further that the Basic Entitlement must form an appropriate percentage of the National Funding Formula used locally; further that the Department and Treasury must ensure that small primary schools in the constituency remain integral to their communities.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[ The petition of residents of Woodcote and friends of Langtree School,

Declares that a funding review is needed in relation to schools in the Henley constituency; further that this school funding review should address how funding increases will be made in relation to schools in the Henley constituency in real terms beyond the amounts already being spent on schools and how to eliminate the gap between the best and lowest funded schools in the constituency; further that there must be a review of areas of inflationary pressures and situations where schools provide additional services such as social care, or deal with criminal behaviour to examine the real costs of providing education; further that there must be an assessment into the extent and access to capital funding; further that the Basic Entitlement must form an appropriate percentage of the National Funding Formula used locally; further that the Department and Treasury must ensure that small primary schools in the constituency remain integral to their communities.

The petitioners therefore request the House of Commons to ask the Department of Education and the Treasury to conduct a review of school funding in Henley that addresses the issues stated above, in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review; and further requests that the findings of this review are communicated to the House of Commons.

And the petitioners remain, etc.]

02 JUL 2019

Speech on homophobia

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.

I may not be gay, but I have an intense feeling of sympathy with the human rights of individuals, and what this petition does is strike a blow for the human rights of individuals. We have heard the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) describe the enormous scale of this problem, and we have heard about some of the areas in which it occurs. I thank him for exposing the full extent of this activity.

The petition suggests that there should be a separate offence for homophobia, and I can see the logic of that and why people might want it, but this is part of a much bigger picture, and we need to see it in the context of that bigger picture to be able to decide what to do about it.

There have been references already to the work of the Law Commission in looking at this matter, and I think we are expecting a report from the Law Commission in 2020 on hate crime and how it has developed. I have a lot of time for the work of the Law Commission; it is generally very thorough and very detailed, and we should take account of exactly what it says. However, I think that the distinction that is being made between online and offline, when it comes to dealing with the sexual orientation of individuals, is in some ways a bit misleading. It is absolutely essential that we stamp out the rigidity in how people look at the sexual orientation of individuals, and we do that both offline and online.

There is something special, though, about online abuse—it is so utterly cowardly. It is so utterly cowardly that the people who perpetrate it do not need to disclose, half the time, who they are or what their views are. We can see the point that they want to make, and it is exactly the same point that we see in other areas where hate crime is endemic—examples include Islamophobia and antisemitism. I have spent quite a bit of my career looking at what is happening in those two areas. ​

I, for one, welcome the creation of the national online hate crime hub, because it has the potential to bring in specialist police officers who can be used to really root this problem out. The problem with online activities is that we need specialists in order to be able to get to the bottom of it. Bringing in specialist police officers and staff is a good way to take this forward.

The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned the important aspect of the mental health effect of all of this on those who suffer from hate crimes. That is a very serious problem, and unless we focus on the experience of those who suffer these things, we will miss a great point about what we should aim to achieve.

I have said many times in this Chamber that, given my interest in human rights, I am proud to be a member of the Council of Europe. It will be no surprise to hon. Members that the Council is fully supportive of the actions we want to take. It stands up for the human rights of every individual. It is important to make that point this week, because, only last week, the Council made the fundamental mistake of readmitting Russia. If we look at the way that gay people have been treated in Chechnya, we see the hatred with which they have been singled out in that part of the country. At the Council, we tabled 230 amendments, which may have been a bit excessive, but it made our point forcefully. I was pleased that one of our amendments called for an apology for what has gone on in Chechnya and for a cessation to those activities.

The Council has also taken on board how to deal with this problem more generally. It has a questionnaire on existing measures and is highlighting examples of good practice—if anyone is interested, they can see it online. I suppose it is ironic that the internet can facilitate the good practice that exposes the bad practice, but that is the nature of things.

We are dealing with challenges to individual's privacy, including whether they want to come out or not. That is a decision for them to make. The more we can do to promote a good check on online activities, to focus on this issue, to ensure that all of us understand what is happening and to take action against it, the healthier we will be.

I have taken the time that you allotted me at the start of the debate, Mr Walker. I am pleased to have done so, because this is an important subject, not only for gay people, but for all of us, and discussing it allows us to show our common humanity with others and our support for the protection of their human rights

30 JUN 2019

Council of Europe: French foreign minister

I asked the French foreign minister a question relating to her speech in which she said that we should be true to our common values. I asked how the current acivitity of the Russians showed any identification with our common values.

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