19 JUN 2019

Intervention in debate on Colombia peace process

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

One of the groups of victims at that point included people who had suffered sexual violence in conflict. I know the British embassy in Bogotá had started a human rights programme. Has the hon. Lady assessed how successful that has been in dealing with people who had suffered sexual violence in conflict?

Jo Stevens

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It is something on which I hope the Minister will be able to elaborate in his response to the debate, because the UK and Colombia are friends. We wield enormous influence over what goes on in Colombia, and that is one of the programmes that I hope will continue, so that we can ensure that that particular group of victims does not suffer further.


19 JUN 2019

Intervention on transport infrastructure

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

Does my hon. Friend agree that bus services are key to a multi-modal approach? At the moment, the attitude of county councils around the country is to try to take away subsidy for bus ​services, which has left the vulnerable unable to get about. What does she want to do in that respect for Redditch?

Rachel Maclean

I thank my hon. Friend for making that good point. I will come on to bus services, but I certainly agree with him. We all know that local authorities' budgets are under pressure, which means that they find it difficult to maintain services that are loss-making but are vital to constituents in remote rural areas. That is especially true for elderly and vulnerable people, who rely on those services to take part in day-to-day activities, with all the benefits for an independent life that they bring. I thank him for making that point, and I am glad he agrees with me. I will come on to bus services directly, so his intervention was timely.


19 JUN 2019

Speech on teaching migration

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary.

It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), but I will take a slightly different approach to her on this issue. Before I do so, however, I should declare an interest; I am a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and I state that now because I will use examples from the Royal Geographical Society as I continue.

The point I want to make is essentially this: what the hon. Lady has described as "history" is really "geography". I know that we could argue for ages about the difference between the two, but I agree that what she has described is appropriate for teaching. I just think that it should be taught under a geographical syllabus rather than under a historical one. I will also give some examples of what the Royal Geographical Society already offers, which schools are already taking up to take forward the teaching of these issues.

The first example is an international one, which is material that is made available to answer the question, "Why has unprecedented migration occurred in the Mediterranean in recent years?" The sort of material that the RGS has produced is related to the work of Professor Heaven Crawley, who has done a lot of work with 500 migrants; that is the actual physical work of interviewing them and talking to them. They have shared their experience of what has driven them to migrate, and of how they went about migrating. That is a valuable lesson to be learned from migrants. Professor Crawley has concentrated a lot on the UK, so let me turn to some of the things on offer from the UK.​

One of them is about migration and the skills and job market. What it sets out to do is to get students thinking about who is migrating, about the impacts that migration has made, and about how the current financial crisis may affect patterns and volumes of migration. That brings the course right up to date, to include a lot of the political aspects of migration, because geography is about the current politics and sociology of the situation.

I will give another example. Our Migration Story has made available to schools a series of courses that answer the question, "How has our local area been shaped by migration?" That includes a lot of the historical background that the hon. Lady mentioned, and the sort of questions that it asks include, "How might migrant groups change the local area?" It also asks, "What evidence is there to show how migrant groups have changed the local area over time?" And it goes on to ask, "How has that changed over time and how can we identify the different parts of it?"

Our Migration Story also looks at the background of migrants, including the fact that many of them have come from a small number of countries over the years, although that number is now increasing. So, comparisons can be made between the two—that is, between the UK and other countries.

Another example that I think will appeal to Opposition Members is "Migrants on the margins". That too is produced by the Royal Geographical Society and includes a range of posters, podcasts, animations, videos, factsheets and lesson plans for teachers. It has been funded by the global learning programme, and provides the context for the idea of migrants on the margins, covering things such as how cities are changing, the causes of migration and why people move. The materials being produced by the Royal Geographical Society are very good and should not go unnoticed.

Jim Shannon

Does the Royal Geographical Society take cognisance of the persecution of those with religious beliefs across the world, in particular Christians, and of how they have migrated because of that? Is that part of the background that the society uses? If it is not, may I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he proposes, as a member of the society, that it should be?

John Howell

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I have not seen in any of the material any detailed work on that, but I suspect that it is included as part of the thinking that goes on to produce the result. The subject that he identifies is valuable in teaching, in understanding not just how things have happened historically but how they are still happening to Christian groups around the world. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point.

The last Royal Geographical Society project is a complex one, but it starts from the position that although migration to Britain in the past has been overwhelmingly the story of a small number of nations, recent immigrants have come from a larger number and the numbers of immigrants who were born in the Caribbean and, indeed, in Ireland—traditionally key migrant groups—have fallen and the numbers of others have risen in their place.

In summary, why do I think that this is more part of geography? We have seen the historical context in all the modules put forward by the Royal Geographical Society, ​ but migration is about place. It is about spatial relationships and it is also about social science, and I think that the issues about place and spatial relationships are more appropriate to a geographical course, given that those modules are already being offered.


19 JUN 2019

Speech on Intl Humanitarian Law

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, and a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I thoroughly agreed with much of her speech, and I will comment on some of the things she said.

As the right hon. Lady pointed out, we are trying to deal with the effect of the Geneva convention and the protocols aimed at protecting civilians in conflict, but I was fascinated to read a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that seemed to take that one stage further. I was actually quite shocked by the report, but it may reflect the reality of the situation. It stated that there is a level of harm to civilians that is acceptable. It set that out by reference to three key principles, including proportionality and precaution, but the idea was that there is a level of civilian casualties that is, as the report described it, acceptable "collateral damage".

The idea that a civilian building can have a military use as well as a civilian use brings me to my first point, which is related to the situation in Gaza. What do Israeli forces do when Hamas deliberately sets up its rockets in hospitals and schools? Do they simply turn away and do nothing, or do they accept, following the doctrine I have just set out, that they can take retaliatory action, in the full knowledge that there will be collateral damage—that real people will be killed? That is the first issue, which I raise to show that this whole business is not as simple as it should be.

The second area I want to deal with is Africa. In the past 20 years, there have been armed conflicts in Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Djibouti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda—that is probably not an exhaustive ​ list—but where are the African participants in the IHL debate, and where are the African participants at the UN trying to take this forward?

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP)

The hon. Gentleman is making a lot of sense, especially in what he says about collateral damage. War is war. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people are caught up in it. Surely, the message must be that the sanctions that are applied to countries that carry it out need to be enforced. Rather than condemning, we should do something about it.

John Howell

I agree. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, which I may come to if I get that far in my speech.

Between 1990 and 2007, 88% of conflict deaths internationally happened in Africa. That may have changed subsequently, with a rise in the middle east, but it is significant that 88% of deaths happened in a continent that does not really participate in the IHL debate. Of course, that is mixed up with genocide—I think Rwanda was in that list of countries, and of course we saw a massive genocide there—but the idea of genocide developed at the same time as the fourth Geneva convention, so there is an opportunity to try to revise IHL to incorporate that and to recognise that things have developed in parallel over the years.

On the middle east, the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley mentioned Yemen. We debated Yemen recently in the main Chamber, so I will not cover it now, except to reinforce the points she made. However, I do not blame the Saudis alone; Iran has a lot to answer for with respect to its funding of the Houthis. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said

"there are no good people in this conflict."—[Official Report, 23 May 2019; Vol. 660, c. 849.]

That is very true.

The last area I want to comment on is Europe. Europe is not exempt from violations of IHL. In my intervention on the right hon. Lady, I mentioned a prime example of defiance of IHL in the Russian-occupied area of Ukraine. That needs to be stated time and again. We in the Council of Europe need assistance from the Foreign Office so we can take a stand against the Russians and ensure, at the very least, that they give back the Ukrainian sailors they took. In the occupied bits of Ukraine, the Russians have attacked the Donetsk water filtration system, as I mentioned, which goes against everything the right hon. Lady said about trying to protect that for the benefit of individuals, and they have attacked 42 schools. Those were not schools where the Ukrainians were hiding rockets. This is not a Gaza situation. That was a deliberate attack on 42 schools, which we need to acknowledge.

What do we do about all this? First, we need to encourage more work by academics across Africa. I am aware that there is some activity in South Africa, but we need to encourage more Africans to carry out research and projects, which the Department for International Development may need to help fund. Above all, we need to ensure that the Geneva convention is enforceable. At the moment, it is characterised by a huge amount of non-compliance. We sit back and cross our arms and say how terrible that all is, but we do very little about it. We need to do something about it if we are to stop it happening.​

Lastly, we need to boost the amount of UN peacekeeping. Peacekeeping plays a vital role, and having peacekeepers on the ground is a good way of tackling this problem. I would love to see us argue for more peacekeeping, and more effective peacekeeping, throughout the world, wherever we can play our part.


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.


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