Some people have asked why I have rarely written an Issues Briefing on Brexit. There are so many aspects to it that it would be near impossible to produce this as one document and there are anyway many good factual (and independent) briefings produced by the House of Commons Library to which I have directed people on many occasions and again included a link below.
My own position on Brexit has not changed. I campaigned to remain in the EU; I voted to remain in the EU. However, in the result of the Referendum I was on the losing side of the argument. The task now is to get the best deal that we can for the country. What I am after is neither a so-called hard or soft Brexit but a fair Brexit.
THE RECENT DEBATES ON THE EU WITHDRAWAL BILL
In recent weeks I have received some emails on the debate on the Lords Amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. I received emails from both sides asking me to take contrary action and essentially, what these emails were saying was "I am damned if I do and damned if I don't" take a particular view on Brexit. Yet, as the Speaker of the House of Commons made clear, all I can do is follow my conscience on these issues in the full knowledge that I am a representative and not a delegate.
The situation with any Bill is that the position in Parliament is a dynamic one and not a static one. Bills are not put forward on a take it or leave it basis. They are the subject of discussion, debate and most importantly compromise wherever possible. Ministers indicate future changes as well as accept or reject official amendments. The EU Withdrawal Bill is no different. It is not a black or white position and the refinement continues.
What we have been discussing is the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. We have not been taking a second bite at Article 50 and whether the UK should leave the EU. The decision to enact Article 50 which starts the withdrawal proceedings was passed in the House of Commons by 494 to 122 – an overwhelming majority. I share the view that the House of Lords has exceeded its constitutional role in putting forward so many amendments that go beyond the terms of this Bill.
Membership of the EEA, the Customs Union and the Single Market were all defeated as Lords Amendments. In none of these cases did I believe that they were compatible with the decision reached in the Referendum and did not sit well side by side with our exit from the EU. The issue of a meaningful vote has become a fractious one since some are accusing the Prime Minister of going back on an agreement reached with Conservative rebels, although it has now been admitted that no such agreement was in fact reached. Personally, I thought we already had a meaningful vote on this issue and were well placed to hold the Government to account. I will look at any future amendments put forward on this subject but I would not underestimate the constitutional implications of what it is trying to achieve. See the House of Commons Library Briefing on this.
THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE
There is an alternative to the EU already in place and that is the Council of Europe. It is the organisation which has kept the peace in Europe since the end of the Second World War. It is the institution which initiated the Convention on Human Rights which remains the principle treaty on the subject. It is the premier human rights organisation in Europe and looks after the European Court of Human Rights, which is not an EU body but in front of which we have a success rate of well over 90%. It has 47 member countries and was the inspiration in 1949 of the UK amongst others. The work of the Council of Europe already affects a large number of different departments within Government. Clearly, it affects the Foreign Office since it covers so many aspects of foreign policy including whether individual countries meet their Council of Europe obligations and whether democracy can be enhanced in Turkey.
It also covers the work of the Home Office particularly in relation to terrorism and security including the consequences of war in various countries and modern slavery. The Council provides the international framework for discussing issues related to security and terrorism and has produced the Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism which we signed in 2005. This has included criticism by me of the Government of Belgium for not taking action in advance of the terrorist attack at Brussels airport. It covers cultural and related historic activities including football and sports governance. It covers a number of environmental considerations such as the effect of climate change on tidal lagoons and air quality. It covers the Treasury since we have discussed basic citizenship incomes. These are just some of the areas of British Government it touches. The Council of Europe has no legislative ability in itself and its recommendations are just that. Across much of mainland Europe there is a wish not to be on the wrong side of the Council of Europe. It does have the ability to share best practices and ensure that there is a maximum of co-ordination. It is however in the field of human rights that there is a particular focus for our post-Brexit involvement in Europe.
Most importantly, the Council also participates in essential work to increase democracy by monitoring elections. For example we will be participating in the monitoring of the Turkish General Election. It is also producing guidelines for the conduct of referenda. Above all, the Council offers all this in a way which enhances our sovereignty and shows our willingness to share in areas where we benefit from international co-operation. There are no statutory implications for the UK or on our ability to enhance the need for best practice and co-operation.
REVISITING THE REFERENDUM
Some of the emails I received have unashamedly asked me to block or frustrate Brexit. I simply will not do this. To do so would fly in the face of a referendum result which was clear and which both the Conservative and Labour Parties agreed in their manifestos to carry through to fruition. To go back on this would be a betrayal of a democratic decision and I do not believe that that would be in the country's interests.
So it is unhelpful to try to argue that I should vote a certain way in order 'to satisfy the expressed wish of my constituents in the referendum.' The referendum was a national vote and not one based on constituencies where the figures are estimated figures based on a statistical model. The vote was not counted on a constituency basis.
A number of emails have tried to say that this decision was obtained on the basis of lies by the Leave campaign alone without a reference to the lies of the Remain campaign in what was widely described as Project Fear. This also fails to acknowledge that these lies continue on both sides of the argument today; witness the heavy distortions of what MPs have said by Remain leaflets. It fails too to acknowledge that the odour of sanctity surrounding the Liberal-Democrats is now well and truly compromised. It was the Liberal Democrat Party which was fined £17,000 by the Electoral Commission after the party breached campaign finance rules relating to the EU Referendum. The Party failed to submit a complete and accurate spending return. As The Daily Telegraph pointed out the fine is only slightly shy of the £20,000 maximum which can be levied. In addition, the Open Britain campaign was also fined for an incorrect spending return linked to the Referendum. Similar fining of the Leave campaign has already been documented.
A PARTY POLITICAL ISSUE?
Those who ask me to dispense with party interests in the national interest ignore the fact that what is in the national interest is itself a party political issue and that different parties take different views. And yet, as I have already mentioned, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party are united in respecting the result of the Referendum. What we are seeing now is less about Party politics and more about Leave or Remain with underlying political advantage being grabbed wherever it can.
I understand the passion felt by those who want to remain in the EU. As I have said, this is the view that I took as well during the Referendum Campaign - although I fully admit that the EU requires fundamental reform which we are unlikely now to see. But we have to admit that we lost the vote. It is no use saying that opinion polls show people are changing their minds. Surely, the last General Elections have taught us that opinion polls are massively unreliable and are not an equivalent to a referendum or a general election. Moreover, the polls do not show a clear and massive swing for the Remain campaign anyway.
People try to tell me that Theresa May is heading for the hardest Brexit of all, but with no explanation of what this derogatory term means and in the face of an acknowledgement from her that there should be a customs arrangement with the EU. Other emails have spoken of negotiations being gridlocked. I simply cannot see that in the state of our negotiations, or at least I cannot see anything unusual about the state of the negotiations with the EU that is at all different from the negotiations I conducted in the private sector. The only thing that is different is a somewhat malign interest from the press and media. On the subject of a second referendum, frankly I do not like the idea. I do not believe it will help the situation by making a second referendum less divisive. We are going to see the same arguments raised again. We are going to see the same level of acrimony; the same willingness to use the law at every opportunity; and the same request for whoever loses to take their views into account. I am conscious of the statement made by the Archbishop of Canterbury who said that a second referendum on the final Brexit deal would be "unwise" and "not democratic".
THE BREXIT HUB
For those who would like to get non-partisan briefings on Brexit the House of Commons Library has set up a section on its website. This link takes you to the opening page
Over the past few years I have been approached by a number of people with environmental concerns on the subject of aircraft noise over Henley and the surrounding area. To this has now been added similar concerns to do with the new third runway at Heathrow. During this period I have organised two meetings in Henley with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), NATS and Heathrow for people to be able to put their questions directly to those actively involved in dealing with these issues. I have also visited the air traffic control centre on the south coast to see for myself how this is handled. The fact remains that aircraft have to land into the wind which means that, when the wind is an easterly, planes turn over Henley to line up to land at Heathrow. Although the predominant wind is from the West there have been significant periods when the wind has come from the east. About 70% of the time planes work on westerly operations which is less noticeable in our area. The increase of late in the number of days of flying on easterly operations can be found at https://www.heathrow.com/noise/heathrow-operations/wind-direction
The second important point to bear in mind is, as has been pointed out to me, that many people in the constituency, and particularly in Henley, make their living from aviation either by flying as air crew, by travelling themselves or by working in support functions in and around the airport. There is a balance to be struck.
In addition to the meetings I organised, I have raised the issue with Ministers, have asked questions in the House and also spoken in debates on the subject. The bottom line is that the CAA and NATS have begun work on a comprehensive review of how we use airspace around airports. Better use of airspace, better use of new technology including quieter and more environmentally efficient planes, and changes to the height at which aircraft are brought in to land will all have a major impact on the level of noise over the constituency and could provide considerably more respite. To this mix has been added a third runway at Heathrow.
The combination of these two projects holds out the real possibility that the system of stacking aircraft around London can virtually be abolished. This has enormous potential for decreasing pollution and making communities on the flight paths much quieter. That is why I was keen to ask the Secretary of State for Transport what the relation between these projects was during the Statement on the third runway.
In his Statement to the House of Commons, the Secretary of State said specifically that the new runway cannot go ahead without demonstrating that it can follow air quality guidelines. He also pointed out the strong mitigations which would exist and the way that noise pollution would be tackled which is comparable with some of the most generous packages in the world. He also pointed out the intention to deliver on a six and a half hour ban on night flights. The fact is that new planes are cleaner, greener and quieter than the ones they are replacing. All this is in the context of a significant community engagement programme.
It is clear what we should be doing. We should first aim to participate in the airspace review to ensure that our needs are fully taken into account. Second, we also need to be heard as the project for the new runway develops to ensure that mitigation factors affect Henley in a positive way. Both of these are processes I have already started including within the House of Commons by asking questions of the Secretary of State himself. Thirdly, we need to ensure that the list of communities covered by the community engagement programme includes us.
I was pleased that so many people attended the open meeting in Sonning Common on Friday. The prime purpose was to find out what was on your minds. Some 70 of you came along on the Friday night and we had a very friendly discussion on a number of issues from planning to roads, housing to policing, and the environment to the NHS. There were a couple of points I said I would take away and feedback your concerns. I thought it helpful, though, to provide a few comments in the meantime on three of the biggest.
As I said at the meeting, I meet with the Area Commander from time to time to discuss the workload of the police and how they are tackling crime. We have seen a change in the nature of crime within the area and we have seen the prevalence of rural crime which, with the help of farmers, is being tackled. That still leaves the problems identified at the meeting of break-ins to cars and to vans. It is worth noting that crimes traditionally measured by the Independent Crime Survey for England and Wales are actually down by over a third since June 2010. I was really pleased that overall police spending has been protected in real terms until 2019/20, once local income is taken into account, which will enable the police to continue to adapt. This works out as an increase of £900 million cash by 2019-20. I welcome the fact that Police and Crime Commissioners are being given the flexibility to increase their funding by up to £270 million in 2018/19 by increasing the Council Tax precept by up to £1 a month for a typical householder without the need to call a local referendum. It is clear the police are seeing more complex crime, and here close to Oxford we have seen terrible crimes against children. All of this means that the police need to adapt.
I am fully committed to supporting the social rented sector. But here in this constituency there appears to be more of a need for affordable market housing. I agree that developers are simply not rising to the challenge on this. The issue of the socially rented sector was raised at a meeting inThame. We agreed that it was a good idea to come up with figures for the social rented housing need and I urge Sonning Common to do the same. Since 2010 over 357,000 affordable homes have been delivered across the country, including more than 249,000 for rent. I was pleased to see the announcement of an extra £2 billion in funding for the 2016-2021 Affordable Homes Programme, increasing the total funding to over £9 billion. The additional £2 billion is expected to provide around 25,000 affordable homes, including housing in the socially rented sector. It is also important that a stable financial environment is secured for both social housing providers and renters by setting out a long term rent deal. The proposal, which would grant social tenants the security and certainty they need, will be consulted on this year.
NHS future plan
The Prime Minister has made a commitment that the government will deliver a long term plan for the NHS, and that we would bring forward a multi-year funding settlement in support of it. We have committed £10 billion in new funding for the NHS since last November alone. But after the most challenging winter for many years, we can be in no doubt about the pressures in the system, nor the challenges ahead. We will be looking after a million more over 70's in 2020 than five years' before, while the number of over 85's will nearly double by 2035. But we need to move away from annual top-ups to the NHS's budget towards a sustainable long-term plan. This means building on the work of the Five Year Forward View but looking beyond it with long-term commitments which allow the NHS to realise greater productivity and efficiency gains. We will, therefore, come forward with a long term plan for the NHS, in conjunction with its leaders, clinicians and health experts. As the PM set out, our new plan must turbo charge progress in spreading the excellence which exists in parts of the system across the whole of the NHS. We also know that care is still not properly integrated for people who have both health and social care needs, that the system is often not accountable to patients or the taxpayer, and that citizens should be supported to take more responsibility for their health.
First, let me say that in my opinion the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge Expressway is very unlikely to affect Otmoor or other SSSIs in the constituency. The proposed Expressway is part of a wider project currently referred to as the Oxford - Milton Keynes - Cambridge Arc. It is a major project but one which is at an early stage. Much of the preparatory work for this was completed by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC). This work is not Government policy and the Government has made no response to the NIC on its proposals. What it has done is to ask my colleague Iain Stewart MP, who has been appointed Government champion for the project, to make recommendations which is why I organised a meeting with him and 25 of my potentially most affected parish councils so that they could make their points directly to him. In addition, I hope to be making points on behalf of the constituency at a meeting with Highways England shortly.
For my part I have already had discussion also with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that he is aware of the local issues and have also put these concerns in writing to him. I have also written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to try to include the A420 to Swindon within the project and I have pointed out the extent of Green Belt around Oxford. I am of the firm opinion that the route should utilise existing roads wherever possible rather than carve a new path through Green Belt land or damage other areas of environmental interest and I have suggested it needs to be routed to the west of Oxford,
I am sure you will be pleased to know that I have also raised concerns about the transparency of the work on this project. A project of this magnitude should have ready access to as much information as possible in the public domain. I accept that some competitive data needs to remain private but feel that the lack of information is adding to speculation. I have asked the Secretary of State to intervene so that as much information as possible can be immediately put into the public domain with explanation as to what is being held back and why. I have also asked him to ensure that there is full public consultation before a route is decided and not just on the preferred option. One of the recommendations of Iain Stewart MP is that the project needs considerably more public buy-in before it goes ahead.
I understand that Highways England are currently looking at possible 'corridors' for the road. They will decide which in the summer – no date has yet been given. Once the actual corridor is chosen work will begin to determine the route but this is unlikely to take place before the mid to late 2020s.
I would also encourage you to make your views known to the Leader of the County Council, Ian Hudspeth (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive of the Oxfordshire Local Economic Partnership (email@example.com). Although both say that they have not decided on a preferred route, both have influence on this through their work as part of the Oxfordshire Growth Board. It is important that they are aware of the views of our local communities. I understand too that other councils along the route have already engaged in public consultation.
I attach a letter and an email I have received from NHS Property Services about the parking at Townlands Memorial Hospital. They provide useful information about:
The email gives the details of who at NHS Property Services people should complain to.
I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about the right of the Windrush children who came to the UK between 1948 and 1971 to remain here.
We're not aware of any evidence that anyone has been wrongly deported. There have been a very small number of cases of former Commonwealth citizens who have the right to be here being subject to removal action and detention. This is not acceptable and should not happen again.
The Home Office is setting up a new dedicated team that will work across Government to help individuals identify and gather evidence to confirm their existing right to be in the UK. The team will include a dedicated contact point and aim to resolve cases within 2 weeks once the evidence has been put together. We recognise that some of these people may struggle to evidence when they arrived and how long they have been in the UK, so this dedicated team will work with other departments and any other relevant bodies to help people provide the evidence they need. They won't need to just rely on formal records. Any information they can provide, from schools they attended to places of work, family or former addresses will help build this picture.
No one should be left out of pocket as they go through this process.
Any thoughts that the UK is going to engage in a bombing campaign of the civilian population of Syria have been proved to be very wide of the mark. Theresa May took the decision to undertake a small, limited and targeted strike against the chemical weapons facilities of Syria. The decision has been supported by the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, the Prime Minister of Denmark, the Spanish Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister of Australia, the NATO Secretary General, the ...Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Prime Minister of Canada, the President of the EU Council and the Chancellor of Germany, amongst others. It was also spported by many Labour MPs. They have taken this view because I believe the evidence is very clear that the Assad regime was responsible for "the foaming at the mouth, the floppy bodies of children, and the particular terror those weapons deliberately inspire".
The UK has been operating in Syria with humanitarian assistance and will continue to do so, as far as it is possible. It is making a real difference, providing life-saving and life-changing humanitarian support to the people of Syria, and those who have fled to neighbouring countries. Since 2012, across Syria and the region, UK aid has delivered over 26 million food rations that feed a person for a month, 10.3 million medical consultations, 9.8 million relief packages, and over 8 million vaccines. In 2016/17 alone, UK aid reached over 5 million people with clean water. We are te second largest aid donor in the country. That shows a real concern for the humanitarian situation amongst Syrians.
I disagree with claims that more bombing of the type we undertook would increase the suffering of the Syrian people. I believe the limited and targeted nature of this bombing avoided this but still achieved our objective. We cannot sit by and accept the use of these vile chemical weapons simply because they run the risk of a confrontation with Russia. The lack of humanitarian concern that this implies would be surprising in the extreme. How many more children have to gasp for life in the face of these chemical weapons particularly as the regime prepares for an attack on Idlib. It also suggests that we live in a world where the Russians always have the whip hand.
The view that Theresa May should have sought the permission of Parliament first is more complex. This to some extent is an issue of judgement. Having listened to the Statement that the Prime Minister gave in the House, I believe the need to act with speed and to alleviate further humanitarian suffering were paramount. These happen to be the circumstances in which a Prime Minister is encouraged to act and I believe it was appropriate. It is sad to observe that the political and diplomatic route had failed. Attempts to involve the UN were frustrated by Russian vetoes, preventing any meaningful dialogue.
I have had discussion with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that he is aware of the local issues and have also put these concerns in writing to him. I am of the firm opinion that the route should utilise existing roads wherever possible rather than carve a new path through Green Belt land or damage other areas of environmental interest. I do not agree with the idea that a southern route should be chosen to bring Aylesbury into the equation. Houses there would be a comuter belt for London rather than support the corridor.
I have also raised concerns about the transparency of the work on this project. A project of this magnitude should have ready access to as much information as possible in the public domain. I accept that some competitive data needs to remain private but feel that the lack of information is adding to speculation. I have asked the Secretary of State to intervene so that as much information as possible can be immediately put into the public domain with explanation as to what is being held back and why. I have also asked him to ensure that there is full public consultation before a route is decided and not just on the preferred option.
Iain Stewart MP has been appointed Government Champion for the Oxford-Cambridge Arc (as it is known at present) and I am in regular contact with him to try to make sure that we keep abreast of developments. I have arranged for him to visit the constituency shortly to meet with Parish Councils.
I would also encourage people to make their views known to the Leader of the County Council, Ian Hudspeth (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Nigel Tipple, Chief Executive of the Oxfordshire Local Economic Partnership (email@example.com). Although both of them have written to me to say they are not supporting a southern route, both organisations have influence on this through their work as part of the Oxfordshire Growth Board and it is believed that they favour a southern route. It is important that they are aware of the views of our local communities rather than simply passing the responsibility to Highways England.
I have held important meetings with Henley town council and with Thame town council separately on the question of revising or up-dating the Neighbourhood Plans. We have covered issues such as the purpose of Neighbourhood Plans, what work will be involved, how this relates to SODC and whether a Referendum would be required on any revisions.
Progress on the situation with parking fines at Townlands Memorial Hospital
I have had a letter back from NHS Property Services in reply to one of mine in which they say "the current situation is unacceptable and urgent changes are expected to improve the experience of patients." They also say that they have "interceded to ensure all those users who have been incorrectly or harshly issued with penalty notices have had them rescinded."
A good first step and I will shortly be posting here the name and address for people to write to seek the rescinding of their fines.
Smart Parking has treated people in an appalling way which is unacceptable.