Ipsden Village website, Ipsden Parish Council website John Howell
Newsletter from John Howell MP
October 2020


The last few months have been particularly busy and now with a short recess I have the opportunity to send an update on some key issues and things that I have been doing in my work. Much has been going on and here I have chosen just a few items to share. For information on other issues that I have been working on of late please do visit my website www.johnhowell.org.uk.
Let me start with a couple of current issues.

Free School Meals

I appreciate the strength of feeling regarding free school meals. No one is concerned for families that are struggling more than me. However, we are already supporting the most vulnerable children and I am pleased that we have put social justice at the centre of our policies. We are the only Government to have provided free school meals whilst schools were largely closed. Between March and September £380 million worth of food vouchers were redeemed. However, now schools have reopened, those eligible can once again receive meals in their schools. We have also extended free school meals to all those aged 4-7 automatically through the universal infant free school meals entitlement scheme. Our original extension of free school meals was in response to the lockdown caused by the pandemic. However, in many cases school staff had to be brought in over this period to provide meals often with extra staff to distribute food to children’s households. We also offered food vouchers on the assumption that they would be used solely for this purpose.

We have provided a robust safety net, which can help the most vulnerable families cope with the extra pressures over school holidays. For the last 3 years the Government have supported disadvantaged children through our Holiday Activities and Food programme. This summer, the £9 million programme supported around 50,000 children across 17 local authority areas with free healthy meals as well as enriching activities. This year alone each organisation involved delivered at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August. The Government know that the long summer break is the time when families most welcome support, but more importantly it is when children will most benefit from engaging activities, so they return to school ready to learn in September. This year we also provided a further £11.8 million to extend our successful Breakfast Club programme, supporting schools in disadvantaged areas.

Our support packages are focused on all aspects of living, including food, childcare and continued support for those who need it most. We have increased our overall support in key benefits such as Universal Credit which has been boosted this year as part of a £9.3 billion increase to the welfare system. This means the average household has seen an annual increase of £1,040 which is more than £20 a week. Councils have been given a further £63 million to help those families most in need. As a result of this increased Government funding, 20 local councils have said they will continue to give vulnerable families food vouchers and support these families on an individual basis. Others are implementing their own local schemes.

I did not come into politics to make life harder for people, However, we must also ensure the policies we introduce are having the intended impacts and reaching those who need them most. As the pandemic continues to evolve, we remain open to additional support measures based on the needs of families who require extra support at the time. This Labour motion did not help the overall situation and the use of the term ‘Tory scum’ by a Labour front bencher is disgraceful.

Oxfordshire and Covid Restrictions.
I want to comment on the recent press speculation that Conservative MPs blocked the move to increase Oxfordshire to Tier 2 of the Coronavirus rankings. No one blocked this, least of all Conservative MPs. The advice to wait a week and not to go with local recommendations from the Oxfordshire Director of Public Health was provided by the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.

Our view – and it is only that – is that the Director of Public Health in Oxfordshire had not made a sufficiently strong case to impose the levels of restriction on residents and their businesses implied by Tier 2. The CMO and the Joint Biosecurity Centre took the view that the Oxfordshire Director of Public Health was being premature.

We do not live in a society where decisions of this magnitude are taken by unelected officials. Politicians have the duty of assessing this advice in a broader context to include impact on the economy and most importantly impact on mental health. It is not a case of simply falling into line but of using our critical faculties to assess the information as we would any data. You can read the joint statement from me and my Conservative colleagues at https://www.johnhowell.org.uk/news/john-comments-local-covid-restrictions

I welcome the Government’s tier system which I think provides a middle way of protecting ourselves. I fully appreciate the fear that some people have of contracting the virus and the implications that it could have on their health. I also fully appreciate the concerns of those who feel that other medical needs are not being met, of those who are suffering from mental health issues exacerbated by the situation, and those who see their jobs or business at increasing risk as time goes on.

The request to take the whole County into Tier 2 restrictions with a hint of wanting to look towards Tier 3 restrictions is, of course, one for the Government based on the detailed advice that they have from medical and scientific experts. It is important to remember that officials advise and politicians have to decide taking a whole range of factors into consideration. Indeed, there was a difference of opinion between the local advice and that from Government advisors represented by the Chief Medical Officer and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, It was the latter who advised that the data should be re-examined in a weeks’ time.

Taking decisions on this sort of area is complex and whichever way a decision goes there is much at stake for those affected by them. In the early days there was much cross Party co-operation which benefitted us all. It is clear that across the country, but particularly in Oxfordshire, this pandemic is being turned into a Party political issue which I think is entirely wrong.

We have also written to the Liberal-Democrats who are saying we should simply have backed the Oxfordshire Director of Health and that we have put the lives of our constituents at risk by blocking a move to Tier 2 restrictions. The letter points out that the meeting we had with the County Council was the first time we were given sight of evidence, including infection rates for our own areas. We were shown no assessments of the potential economic impact of a move to Tier 2. Given this lack of information and no clear exit strategy, alongside our concerns about the mental wellbeing of our constituents we felt we were not in a position to support a move to Tier 2.

We are all concerned about the rise in rates in our constituencies. It is clear to us that it is more important than ever that people follow the Tier 1 guidelines. The mental and physical wellbeing of all our constituents remains at the heart of our approach as we work closely with the Government, local leaders and public health officials going forward.

Condemnation of Turkey
At the Council of Europe, I am one of the chief reporters for the Council on monitoring Turkey’s adherence to the three goals of the Council – human rights, the rule of law and democracy. I have condemned new crackdowns on political opposition and civil dissent in recent months in Turkey and I have urged the Turkish authorities to “take meaningful steps” to improve standards in the field of democracy, rule of law and human rights.
This was set out in my report debated by the Council of Europe on 22nd October. Turkish investigations and prosecutions targeted local politicians, members and former members of parliament, members of opposition political parties and lawyers. Continued undue pressure has also been exerted on journalists, civil society activists and other groups.

The parliamentarians who debated the report said that they remained confident of the ability of the Turkish people and authorities to address and redress the deficiencies in the field of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, provided there is a strong and genuine political will to do so. I was also able to point to Turkey’s vibrant civil and political society, which is genuinely committed to democracy.

Sharing Local Good News
With much economic doom and gloom around it has been a pleasure in recent times to celebrate some good business news. In Henley I was delighted to be invited to the preview of the new shop Wild & Rust which is an extension of the online business which is already well established. https://www.wildandrust.co.uk/. The shop was beautifully set out with some great products and is a great addition to the retail offer in Henley. I was also pleased to be invited to join the celebration of the reopening of The Crown pub in Benson. The pub which is now owned by the Hook Norton Brewery has undergone extensive refurbishment. It is always a good news story when a business reopens. Our pubs are important to our communities and it is great to see what has been done in The Crown. In addition to the bar and restaurant The Crown has a beer garden and six en-suite bedrooms. In Thame Martin and Co, a new estate agent opened and it was good to talk to the owner about the housing market.

Also in Thame it was good to celebrate with volunteers when the Thame Museum was able to reopen. During the enforced closure they had been hard at work decorating and making changes to some of their displays.
The Internal Market Bill
Without a Bill such as this, we are looking at a quicker break-up of the United Kingdom than even the SNP imagined. After the transition period is over, current legal underpinnings for free trade in goods and services between the four parts of the UK will simply fall away. As the Secretary of State for Business has made clear, it is quite likely that a car built in England would cost considerably more in Northern Ireland than in England. It is quite likely that it would not be as easy for a farmer in Wales to sell his or her lamb in Scotland. The UK operates as a single market and it is essential to keep it this way if we wish to retain a single country. The EU has very little interest in keeping the UK together. I do not want to see the break-up of the UK and will do all I can to stop this happening.

The stated aim of the Bill is to provide continuity for businesses and improve competitiveness and the business environment across the UK. Trade in goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is subject to the Northern Ireland Protocol in the EU Withdrawal Agreement, so the Bill introduces special provisions to avoid discrimination in goods travelling from Northern Ireland and to ensure that they can gain unfettered access to the rest of the UK. The two essential tenets of the Bill allow goods or services which can legally be sold in one part of the UK to be sold in any part of the UK, and, to prevent parts of the UK treating goods coming from other parts of the UK less favourably than local goods.

The Bill runs into problems in terms of its relationship with the Withdrawal Agreement because it reduces the ability of the UK authorities to introduce checks, controls or administrative processes for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain after transition and allows the UK to decide how to regulate exit procedures for goods from Northern Ireland. It also introduces measures to deal with State aid. These powers, the Bill claims, are legally effective notwithstanding any incompatibility or inconsistency with “any relevant international or domestic law”. It does this by relying on Section 38 of the Withdrawal Agreement which states that “nothing in this Act derogates from the sovereignty of the Parliament of the United Kingdom”. The Bill therefore sets up a situation where UK domestic law has priority over international law.

The legal position has become unclear as a result of claims by some lawyers, the EU Commission and some politicians that this breaches our duty to uphold international law in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement. I am by no means convinced that this is the right legal interpretation and I note the differences in opinion between many in the legal profession. Beyond this, however, there is politics. Some have argued that the UK will find it difficult to conclude other treaties although it should be noted that this occurs at a time when we have just agreed a new trade treaty with Japan. Others argue it makes it difficult for the UK to uphold law and order. For some too this fits in to a view where the EU can do no wrong and must be right in every action it takes. They ignore the question of whether the EU has itself broken the Withdrawal Agreement by not negotiating in good faith. I also do not believe the deliberately emotive language of ripping up the entire Withdrawal Agreement helps the situation. Of course, two ‘wrongs’ (in the alleged actions of the EU Commission and the alleged implications of this Bill) do not make a right. In this case the wrong, it is being argued, that is done to the UK will have a long-term effect on the UK as an economy and as a country. Many have also argued that the real breach comes about not when the Bill is passed but when it is first used and that the EU Commission has jumped the gun by demanding that clauses be withdrawn.

From my own point of view, I do not see this issue as creating a constitutional crisis although I accept that it may be that it is unlikely to be solved without access to the Courts and to the dispute resolution committees set up under the Withdrawal Agreement. I do not regard the issue as black and white and quite frankly I share the frustration that is shown by the Government for the way in which the EU Commission has handled the negotiations particularly on fishing rights and State aid. What is more I regard the integrity of the UK as an important concept and one I will protect. I still believe a trade agreement is possible to achieve and I do not see this as an attempt to stop one happening.
A note from John Howell - 10th July 2020

To all Town and Parish Councils and Parish Meetings in the Henley Constituency
 
Dear All
To say that these last few months have presented challenges would not only be an understatement but has perhaps been said too many times already! None the less I wanted to write to you all again to thank you for the tremendous support that you have given to your communities under difficult conditions and in difficult circumstances.
 
I have been bowled over by the resourcefulness of communities, the way in which people have adapted to the circumstances, the support that has been given to the vulnerable, and the resilience shown over so many weeks.
 
When the Coronavirus crisis first hit us we were all shocked and worried. We had not seen anything like it before and thus we had no experience to fall back on. I think it has gone on longer than many people imagined at first and for some of the initial community spirit has become jaded by weariness and frustrations. I know that many people are still worried about their health and others are frustrated and worried about their livelihoods whether in business or in employment.
 
As lockdown progressively eases I have no doubt that there will be new challenges and problems. The risk of a second wave of the virus is constant and we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. Any yet we must do what we can to return to normal, whatever that will be going forward. I am aware of many concerns over the risks not of the virus but of the vacuum created with life on hold. These include concerns over missed education, missed health treatments, mental health and well-being issues and so much more. It was always going to be easier to go into lockdown than to come out and we need to move forward with care for one another.
 
So again, my sincere thanks to you all for everything that you have done and continue to do, each in your own way as your community has needed.
 
Please feel free to contact me going forward if you have any particular concerns not addressed through the usual channels of communication.
 
With best wishes
John
HENLEY MP John Howell is reserving judgement on claims that the Prime Minister's political strategist Dominic Cummings breached the coronavirus lockdown.

Mr Cummings, who lives in London, has been facing calls to resign after it emerged on Friday that he visited his parents in Durham in late March and early April, seemingly against Government rules in place at the time.

PM Boris Johnson's office has confirmed he did so despite showing symptoms of covid-19 but says he and his wife, who also appeared to have the disease, wanted to be near family in case they needed care for their son and they self-isolated in a nearby property.

Opponents say this went against official advice that people should not leave their homes to visit other family members and should instead seek help from neighbours or community support groups.

A number of Cabinet ministers have expressed support for Mr Cummings and say he did nothing wrong, including health secretary Matt Hancock and Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who accused opponents of “trying to score political points”. They say there were exceptions to the rules, one of which was emergency childcare.

But since then, eyewitnesses claim to have seen Mr Cummings in the north-east a second time although No 10 denies this. A number of Conservative MPs are now calling for his dismissal.

Mr Howell said he had received a small number of complaints from constituents on email and Twitter but would await further information before jumping to conclusions.

He said: “I fully understand why this is an issue which causes concern but it also raises a number of questions, particularly from the stories which have appeared in the Guardian and Daily Mirror.

“I don't know the full details of his visit to a location near his child's grandparents and, quite frankly, I don't intend to play judge, jury and executioner as many on social media are asking of me.

“I do not know whether his wife needed special medical attention, for example, nor anything else about his domestic life. There is advice which allows moving children in certain circumstances.

“Mr Cummings is not a prominent member of the Conservative Party but an assistant to the Prime Minister. A formal investigation into this matter would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut but I'm confident the full details will emerge soon.”

25th May 2020
A Newsletter from John Howell MP
April 2020

I have set out below a number of issues on which I have been working in relation to Covid-19. There are many other issues that have arisen including benefits and repatriation to the UK. But in this newsletter, we do not have time to cover them. It highlights those areas on which I and my team are particularly active.

Boris Johnson
First, I am sure you would like to join me in wishing Boris Johnson an early recovery from his coronavirus and to offer him our thoughts and prayers.

Coronavirus and how my team and I are working
As we work together to fight COVID-19, I know that it is so very worrying for many people. I have been inundated with emails raising many different questions on the situation and, with the help of my dedicated team - all of whom are working remotely – we are trying to answer as best we are able. COVID-19 queries are dominating our work and due to the urgency of most of these we are giving them priority. If you have emailed on another issue, please bear with us. We are dealing first with urgent COVID-19 casework.

The Government is trying its best in a difficult and unprecedented situation to keep the country going and to keep the economy afloat. There is no perfect system that it can put in place and there will always be apparent gaps in what it is doing. But both it and I try hard to raise the issue of people caught in a gap when we come across them. You should also remember that the Government has done nothing that is not backed by the evidence put forward by the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Science Officer, their teams and other leading international virologists and epidemiologists. We are working to a scientifically-led, step-by-step action plan–taking the right measures at the right time. We know this will not be a short battle, but we will come through this together.

In Westminster, Ministers have been working flat out to bring forward measures to try to keep us all safe and help people in so many different situations. If you still have a question please feel free to email me but please do look at the Government advice first (https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus) to see if your question has already been answered. This will help me and my team to respond as quickly as we can on outstanding concerns and individual problems.

Although Parliament is now in recess, mechanisms have been put in place for MPs to question the Government on COVID-19 issues and concerns on a daily basis and feedback is circulated. Along with everyone else we are also using social media to talk to colleagues.

Conversations with the Chief Constable of the Thames Valley
More locally other public bodies have made provision to keep MPs updated on their work in relation to COVID-19 and to question them. I have had full discussions with the Royal Berks. I took part in a conference call between MPs and the Thames Valley Police Chief Constable, John Campbell, in which we were briefed on operational issues and were able to raise questions. From my emails I know that the police use of their new public health powers is a concern to some. The Chief Constable reassured MPs that the overriding approach was to use common sense. The powers will only be used by officers if someone fails to comply after the officer has engaged with them, explained the risks to public health and encouraged voluntary compliance.

The police are also concerned that some people are taking it upon themselves to report people who they believe are flouting the ‘stay at home’ rules. This is creating a large workload for the police as they have to triage all calls. Most of the reports are after the event and can simply hinder the police in their operations.

GP Surgeries
One of the main issues that has been raised is PPE (protective clothing) for medical and caring personnel. We have delivered a large amount of PPE to every single GP practice, dental practice, and community pharmacy has had a PPE delivery. I have been working with Oxford Health Trust to try to get deliveries for Oxfordshire. To find out the quantity and quality of what has been delivered here I have written to GP practices in the constituency to ask for their assessment. I am in the process of assessing the results and taken them back to Government.

Walking on farmland and taking exercise
In this area we are fortunate that we can get out into the countryside for our exercise. However, I am aware that farmers are very concerned at increased pedestrian traffic on footpaths across fields with livestock, especially when people have dogs off leads. People are also leaving gates open leaving it possible for animals to stray. If you are out walking please do spare a thought for our farmers and take care not to worry livestock and to shut gates. It is also appropriate to take gloves with you when you walk so that you can wear them to open and close gates.

On the question of still being able to take exercise as one of the reasons for leaving the house, I was pleased that last weekend Matt Hancock MP made it clear that "we're not planning any changes to those rules imminently. What we are doing is being absolutely clear that the current rules must be followed."

Local Enterprise Partnership
I am particularly concerned that some businesses appear to have fallen into a gap between the two major packages of assistance we have brought forward. I have spoken to the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and agreed a common action plan. I have obviously raised this with Ministers and agreed that the LEP should raise it as well with Business Ministers with whom they are regularly in touch. I have also raised the actions of banks and the way they have been demanding excessive security for loans and have been trying to sell their own products over what the Government is offering.

Neighbourhood Plans
Neighbourhood Plans should still continue as best we can during this period. I recognise there will be delays in progressing these plans due to the social distancing measures currently in place. There is updated planning guidance on further advice on the implications for conducting publicity and consultation, and examinations. However, while this may be very frustrating the updated current planning guidance (current planning guidance) neighbourhood plans awaiting referendums can be given significant weight in decision-making. Grants and technical support will continue to be available during the next financial year, and Locality continues to operate as normal. At the moment, no referendums can take place until 6 May 2021. You may take windfall sites into consideration where they complete the number of houses to be built. For example, a housing requirement of 50 houses could be met through 2 sites allocated for 20 houses each with a windfall allowance of 10 houses.

Parliament after Recess
The House is scheduled to return on 21st April and a great deal of work is underway to allow it to continue to function should the Government advice that people remain at home where possible. The House can be a crowded place especially in the Chamber and the Lobbies. Indeed, we already have some Select Committee work being done using video conferencing and I have taken part in Justice Select Committee evidence sessions which have worked very well.

International work
Just as Parliament has quickly developed systems for remote working so too has the Council of Europe. As a co-rapporteur with Thomas Hammarberg from Sweden for the Monitoring of Turkey I recently took part in a session to review the situation in Turkish prisons where COVID-19 has given rise to an expected sanitary crisis in Turkish detention centre. We have urged the Turkish authorities to ensure that any early or conditional release of prisoners is non-discriminatory and does not exclude prisoners detained on political grounds. You can read more about this work on my website at the following link https://www.johnhowell.org.uk/news/council-europe-monitoring-turkish-prisons

I also raised the question of the work being done in a teleconference with Israel where I spoke to the local equivalent of the Red Cross. This includes gathering plasma from those who have had the virus to try to test for antigens. I was also able to see for myself what they are doing to test people in the country.
John Howell