12 JUN 2019

Speech on planning and housebuilding targets

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

When I first came to the House in 2008, I began work on a paper called "Open Source Planning", which set out an important distinction and led to the abolition of the top-down targets that had existed under the Labour Government. It took a little while to get rid of them, but we have not replaced them. The Chancellor's target of 300,000 houses is an aspirational or soft target, because it cannot be achieved on its own without consequential changes to the planning system. We have already made a large number of changes, and there are more on the way.

The main target that we should be aiming for is one based on housing need. Under previous Administrations, it was left to individual councils to come up with the figure for housing need and methodology to calculate it. That was incredibly expensive for councils and led to an enormous number of court cases, as developers challenged them. I was very pleased when the Government asked me to sit on the Local Plans Expert Group and come up with a new methodology. We were the first to introduce a methodology based on Office for National Statistics figures. Although there are some problems with it, which I am sure the Minister is aware of, it is a very useful starting point.

Unfortunately, many other deals—for example, growth deals—have subsequently come into play and overridden those figures. The councils concerned have come up with other figures to replace the need figure that is based on, for example, strategic housing market assessment surveys that are quite old. We and councils must have an overriding desire to go back and take those figures out to the public to discuss what is being done and ensure that there is public buy-in.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) mentioned the NPPF. I am very pleased to have been involved in the original version of it. All we tried to do with it was to boil it down from thousands of pages to 50 to make it accessible to everyone.

The best targets are those in neighbourhood plans. They have been developed by the community, and the figures from the district council that they have been built on are merely the minimum figures. The community can add to them whenever it wishes. Neighbourhood plans are very good at protecting the open and green spaces that the community wishes to include. There is a great need to protect the people who spend a couple of years producing a neighbourhood plan, which is why ​ I introduced a private Member's Bill to take away the right of appeal if a developer has definitely gone against a neighbourhood plan.

I do not think the system is broken. We have gone out of our way to try to fix it. I would point to the fact that the viability calculations that developers have to produce are public. They are available and have to be discussed, and local councils should have access to them.


12 JUN 2019

Intervention about IPP priosners

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

The point that the hon. Gentleman has just made is very important. This issue has a big impact on families. I do not think we should lose sight of that as the debate proceeds. The other point is that the number of prisoners who self-harm during these sentences is much higher than the number across the rest of the prison population. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those two factors should play a part in his thinking?

Mr Dhesi

With great eloquence, the hon. Gentleman has highlighted two of the key reasons why this debate is so important. I concur fully with his views.


12 JUN 2019

Question on TV licenses

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

Lord Hall is quoted today as saying that many feel that

"the Government should continue to foot the Bill."

Does the Secretary of State have an idea of what caused the change of thinking in the BBC? Would he like to say a little more about what he expects the BBC to do to support older people?

Jeremy Wright

I do not know what caused the change of view. There has been a gradual process—a transition—during which public subsidy has diminished and the BBC's responsibility for covering the cost has increased, so this is not an immediate, overnight change. The BBC has covered such costs in larger and larger amounts for two years. It is up to the BBC to determine what more it feels it can do to support those must vulnerable pensioners.

For those asking what more can we do, I think I have made it clear. The Government have already done a huge amount for pensioners. We have made substantial inputs into ensuring that the poorest pensioners in our society are properly supported. The BBC needs to talk about and think about what more it can do. That is exactly the conversation I intend to have.


11 JUN 2019

Speech on cystic fibrosis

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. My first introduction to cystic fibrosis came before I became an MP. I wrote some newsletters and did some public relations work for the Cystic Fibrosis Holiday Fund, the main objective of which was to provide holidays and ancillary facilities to under-18s who suffer from cystic fibrosis. On the basis of medical advice that was given in 2000, we now cannot take those children away together, so the fund spends most of its time generating respite break grants and providing the Family Revitalise programme. Those initiatives are both important, but do not compare with making available Orkambi or any of the other drugs that have been mentioned.

Two families in my constituency have children with cystic fibrosis. I have spent time with both families, and have seen that largely the children are happy, normal children who enjoy all the things that other children enjoy. Hanging over them, however, is the threat of a double-lung transplant just to stay alive.

Orkambi changes lives, and we need to look at ways that we can make it available. A number of structural difficulties were identified during the conversations that I have had on the matter. The first is one of commercial incentive and risk. To compound that point, one can look at the relative strength-in-numbers of those who suffer from diabetes or from cystic fibrosis: diabetes accounts for 4 million people, while cystic fibrosis accounts for only 70,000. A major hurdle is therefore already built in for those with cystic fibrosis to overcome. We should not forget that.

The issue of the time taken, which has already been raised, goes back to criticisms of the NICE process. The criticisms that I would make fall into three types: first, NICE adopts the same evaluation process for a drug that might treat tens of millions of people as it does for a drug that treats a few hundred thousand or, indeed, a few thousand. We need to bring home to NICE that that is not a right way to proceed.​

Secondly, the same evaluation process is also used whether the drug is taken for a brief period or a long one—in other words, whether it is a short use cancer-related drug or, as in the case of Orkambi, it must keep being taken over many long periods. That factor needs to be built into any evaluation of the drug as well.

The third criticism that I would make of the NICE process is that it is too focused on short-term benefits, and not on long-term benefits, which we know that Orkambi can produce. As has been mentioned, the data released by Vertex show that after 96 weeks of treatment, the rate of lung function decline reduced by 42%. That is a major long-term thing to hang on to. Furthermore, the net value of Orkambi is hard to calculate and therefore to capture accurately. A number of direct costs need to be taken into account, such as the cost of hospitalisation, and there is evidence that Orkambi starts to reduce the number of other medicines that need to be taken.

We have heard that Orkambi is available in many other countries in Europe, although I hear that the Spanish Government are having difficulties with Vertex, in the same way as we are, over the availability of the drug. The agreement that was reached with Vertex to make Orkambi available was a disappointing affair. We need to put on the pressure to ensure that that happens and that generic drugs are brought forward to be used instead. The example often cited is Ireland—both families in my constituency mentioned the situation there—and it is interesting to note that success story of the use of Orkambi. It has been very successful there, and we should all take that to heart in making progress to ensure that young people suffering from cystic fibrosis have access to this drug.


09 JUN 2019

Question on Uk-Israeli Tech Hub

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

The Secretary of State has already mentioned the UK-Israel Tech Hub, which is the first of its kind and has already generated business of £85 million. How does he see that developing over the coming years?

Dr Fox

I see it going from strength to strength, and as greater investment goes into both economies we will be able to scale up the innovation and creativity that is clearly shown in the tech sector. That will be of benefit not only to our two countries, but to the wider global economy.


05 JUN 2019

Speech on school funding

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

On the Wednesday before the recess, I submitted a petition to the House that had been signed by just under 1,000 residents of Henley. I will not read it out, but I hope the Minister will agree that it is a friendly petition. I am concerned about the gap between the enormous figures that are increasingly being put into education and what is actually happening on the ground in schools. The petition asked for a review in advance of the comprehensive spending review to settle once and for all what it costs to run education and how we can get that money to schools.

We have tackled a number of issues separately—we have tackled teachers' pay and pensions, and agreed to fund them—but we need to know in what other areas funding is falling short in the squeeze that has occurred between keeping the budgets more or less as they are and inflation. Every year, the Minister makes the honest claim that we are spending more on the revenue budget for schools than we were the previous year. That is a very laudable thing to have done, provided the money actually gets to the schools themselves.

One of the things that will help is to bring out the difference between a soft formula and a hard formula. We have a soft formula at the moment, and local authorities have a role in distributing and, indeed, top-slicing the funds before they get to the school. It might be thought that they do not top-slice very much, but they do, and it can make a big difference to the schools. That also applies to schools that are part of multi-academy trusts. We must ensure that, in creating such trusts, we are not just creating another local authority equivalent that is able to top-slice more and more funds, resulting in schools getting less and less. A review and a move to a hard funding formula would be a very good way forward.

I will finish on a completely different matter. Apprenticeships form a large part of further education colleges' income. In the Henley constituency, I am organising an evening to bring together schools and businesses in order to see what apprenticeships they want to fund and how they can be funded.


05 JUN 2019

Question on trade union access to workplace

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

I am glad that the Minister mentioned all of those organisations, but there is another organisation that he should mention, which is the Council of Europe, of which we are a member. The Council of Europe has always taken a very strong line on this issue. For example, it runs facilitation courses to help people to understand the role of trade unions and how they can participate in them. That is something that we should be proud of.

Andrew Stephenson

I thank my hon. Friend for his point. He is not just a powerful advocate in the Council of Europe, but a powerful advocate in this place for the role it plays in helping to make positive change, not only in this country but across Europe.

Trade unions have played a long and positive role in our society; they have long represented their members and lobbied for wider changes in society. They have campaigned on equality issues for women and other groups, helped to tackle child poverty and fought against modern day slavery. They have shown how we can bring about change that benefits everybody in society.


05 JUN 2019

Question on post sentencing disclosure

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

Does the Minister agree with me that forensic science is a major area where a lack of transparency is inhibiting the review of post-sentencing disclosure?

Edward Argar

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of forensic science in convictions —increasing the number of cases that go through court and result in convictions—and therefore of the role it plays in reviewing cases post-conviction. If he wishes to write to me with further details of specific issues in that context, I will be very happy to write back to him responding to those points.


23 MAY 2019

Question in Urgent Question on those with Learning Difficulties or Autism

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

The NHS has been using a system of ambulatory care, particularly to deal with elderly patients by treating them in their home, plus a hospital visit. Why has this not been rolled out quicker to those with learning disabilities and autism?

Caroline Dinenage

That is what we are looking towards, which is why the Government are putting so much more money—£4.5 billion of the extra investment in the NHS—into the sorts of community services that we need to make exactly that a reality. There are cases where people do end up in an in-patient setting, often because services have failed and their situation has almost reached crisis point. The transforming care and building the right support system that I spoke about earlier is all about ensuring that we get people out of those settings as quickly as possible and into the right kind of support in the community.


23 MAY 2019

Speech in debate on Yemen

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

Let me start by saying how pleased I am that the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has brought forward this debate, and how pleased I am to participate in it and follow what he has said. I think we all agreed with his feelings, which he set out very clearly and quite emotionally in his speech, for the people of Yemen, who have suffered so tremendously. I thought his description of that was very powerful indeed. I may be only the fourth speaker in this debate, but the three speeches before mine have covered so much of the ground and so many of the points that there are only a few additional points I want to comment on.

First, I think it is a cause for celebration that we do have the outlines of a truce. We should take great comfort from that. I know it is just the outlines and that it could always go further than that, but in this sort of conflict one has to grab whatever one can to try to keep some sanity in the whole process. The peace process is now more akin to a mediation than to a conference set up to tell the Yemenis what to do. In any mediation, the system only works if there are two people who are genuinely prepared to sit down and talk to each other. Only then can the essence of a mediation, which is for the participants to agree and to bring out themselves the solution to the problem, actually come through. That is a very important point to bear in mind, including for the role the UK may want to play.

A lot more work needs to be done on the triggers that can bring two warring sides to the realisation that they need to come together to agree a peace. I do not think we have done enough work on that internationally. We have done a lot of work on conferences that can take place to cover these issues, but I do not think that they are as important as trying to get the people themselves to agree. The triggers may be very different for different conflicts. The trigger may be the crisis of hunger in the country. The triggers may be external, such as stopping arms sales, in which case we need to stop arms sales to both parties. There may be a whole range of things that we need to look at to make sure that we can really get to grips with this.

It is worth remembering that this whole war started as a result of a Houthi rebel insurgency. I know that some speakers have particularly said that they need to condemn and we all need to condemn the faults on both sides. However, the Houthis are a very unsavoury group of people. The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) raised the issue of boy soldiers. Whether the Saudis are also generating boy soldiers is a separate issue, but we know that the Houthis are employing boy soldiers, and that has to stop because it is a great attack on everything that we all believe in. We must bear in mind that they killed Saleh, the former Prime Minister, and the hon. Gentleman has already mentioned landmines as well.

Mr Mitchell

Part of trying to move the Government to a better place is to accept that there are no good people in this conflict. My hon. Friend mentions the murder by the Houthis of Ali Abdullah Saleh, but the Saudis murdered al-Sammad, who was the President of the Houthis. I had met him, and he was a dove who wanted to negotiate. Part of moving the Government's mindset is just to accept that there are no good people in this, and that includes the Houthis and the Saudis.

John Howell

I have a great deal of sympathy with that statement, but I am trying to make sure that we achieve some sort of balance from our perspective when we look at the situation there. It should not be seen solely as a Saudi exercise in the bombing and intimidation of the Yemeni people; it started as a result of a particularly unsavoury group of people among the Houthis. I cannot remember who mentioned it, but I think the drone attack on the Riyadh pumping stations is very important because sources from the region state very clearly—very clearly—that this was inspired and paid for by Iran and Hezbollah. I think that is really unchallengeable and we would be unable to go against it, and I want to come back to that in a minute.

First, however, let me comment on the scale of the humanitarian crisis, which I think could be a trigger for getting the sides to agree. Some 71% of the population are living in extreme poverty—an enormous number—and 84% are malnourished. The loss in economic output from the country is enormous at something close to $700 billion, which is a phenomenal amount. UNICEF has estimated that more than 12 million children are in desperate need, and the number of internally displaced people is also large and must be considered.

I completely agree that in this case it is not good enough just to pledge aid, although the almost three quarters of billion pounds that we have pledged should not be sneezed at. We must, however, keep the pressure on and ensure that that money is paid, and used in a good way, in particular to help children in that area. The British Government are helping with the creation of the UN civilian co-ordinator in the area, which is a good thing for us to be involved with.

Let me return to my earlier point about Iran. It is true that we do not have the sort of relationship with Iran that we have with Saudi Arabia, but we are not the United States. We have a better relationship with Iran than the United States does—it would be impossible to have a worse one—and we should use that to talk to the Iranians about the geopolitical situation. In addition to what is happening in Yemen, a geopolitical discussion between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being played out, and I view this as a proxy war that is taking place against Iran. As I said, the attacks on the Riyadh pumping stations appear to have come from drones that were supplied by Iran through Hezbollah.

Will the Minister redouble his efforts in negotiating with Iran, so as to take this forward in a positive way? We must ensure that as part of the complicated discussions that must now take place between the Houthis and the internationally backed Yemeni Government, and between Saudi Arabia and Iran, we try to find a trigger point that could solve this conflict.


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