Sunday 19th April Like everyone across the country I am adapting to working from home. As the new Children’s Minister I am finding my days incredibly busy with many online meetings, involving the often-challenging decisions that need to be taken.
The Sunday evening Downing Street briefing is from the Education Secretary. I know he will be announcing many of the projects that we have been working on over recent weeks. I am so pleased when he announces further support so that no young person due to leave care at this time will need to leave their current setting, and that the government scheme to provide laptops or tablets to those that do not have any devices for online learning will also include vulnerable children with a social worker. This is so important for helping to keep them safe as well as in education.
Monday 20th April My routine for each day now starts with a long catch-up with my parliamentary and constituency assistants who are now all dedicated to helping the individual Chelmsford residents who contact me about case work. We go through each email one by one and discuss how best to advise. Over the past few weeks we have helped thousands of people with individual inquiries, including giving many advice on how to access the many government support schemes that have been set up.
I join the weekly meeting to catch up with all education ministers and the department heads and the by-weekly meeting that I have with each of the leads in the areas I cover, including children in care, those with special educational needs and disabilities, early years and school food. These “stocktake” meetings have been invaluable at helping us to understand what is happening on the ground across the country and get support to those areas that need it most.
My email box is full of messages from pre-schools, nurseries and other Early Years providers, some of them were trying to access the furlough scheme for all their staff whilst also receiving government funding for part of their normal income. This is not permitted by the treasury rules of the furlough and we have had to clarify exactly how much they can claim under the different schemes. It is extremely challenging for so many businesses.
I “meet” the Chair of the Council for Disabled Children, a wise owl. In order to make sure local authorities can give their very best support to all the vulnerable at this time we need to make some changes to the law regarding support for children with disabilities and special needs. It is a sensitive area. Where-ever we need to make these difficult decisions, we incorporate the feedback from experts and stakeholders across the country before taking action.
Tuesday 21st April After catching up with my constituency team I spend the day in detailed briefings on each area of my responsibilities as I need to answer questions from the Education Select Committee tomorrow. A huge amount is happening on the ground. Good news is that our Free School Meal voucher system is now working better and that social workers, foster carers and those working in children’s homes are now top of the list for PPE and testing.
Wednesday 22nd April I drive to London to give evidence to the Select Committee from my office in the Department for Education. Although this is happening on-line, I want to make sure that I have the latest information and the ability to be passed digital updates from officials in case there are any unexpected questions. Entering the Department is deeply eerie. The eight floor building is usually buzzing, but now everyone is working from home and only a tiny handful of people are present.
At the Select Committee meeting I answer questions for two hours on a huge range of different issues. None of us have ever faced a challenge like this pandemic and I especially want to explain the work we are doing to make sure that those children most a risk of harm are still either attending school or in contact with social workers across the country. We have set up support for Local Authorities and are in constant contact with what is happening across the country as well as working with the NSPCC and many other organisations to get advice and support to children and young people.
I join one of the many cross department inter-ministerial meetings that are taking place. We discuss which non-shielded cohorts of people may need extra support. As children’s minister I make sure colleagues remember to focus on the vulnerable young as well as other groups. So I raise issues such as children’s homes, children with special needs and foster families. Before leaving London, I hold an online round table for representatives for foster carers, such important people at the best of times but especially now.
Thursday 23rd April At the by-weekly stock-take I get the good news that attendance of vulnerable children at school is increasing and that the free-school meal voucher system is now delivering hundreds of thousands of vouchers a day and coping with higher demand.
I attend another Inter-ministerial Group. There is some concern that in some parts of the country some key workers, including NHS staff are having problems accessing childcare, so I update colleagues on what we are doing to improve this. I do a TV interview for Channel 5 answering questions on childcare, vulnerable children and what we are thinking about when schools might reopen. I “meet” my new opposition shadow minister, who also wants to discuss the same questions. I know many people want to know what the future might hold and when the lockdown can relax, but it is so important that we work with the scientists to understand how these decisions might impact the virus.
I spend some time making phone calls to Chelmsford constituents with particularly challenging issues. Even though I can’t hold my usual surgeries I will continue to help individual cases via phone or digitally.
I join the weekly clap for our carers. As a doctor’s wife I see how incredible pressure they have been under. Thank you everyone for all you are doing to support them.
Friday 24th April I’ve set up a weekly call with the Home Office minister covering domestic abuse and harms. We discuss the work to make sure that those suffering domestic abuse are protected, and our work with the NSPCC to get advice to those worried about children that may be vulnerable. The close work between police and social workers is vital and this continual dialogue between departments has been a huge help. I meet with the Children’s Commissioner as we are working closely on issues affecting the most vulnerable.
I join the Inter-Ministerial Group on Food, where I have been working with Defra team on planning support for the vulnerable. I update other ministers on how the Free School Meal program is doing in this first full week of “term”, and explain how we want to make sure that any new families that would become entitled to the meals don’t need to wait a long time before getting vouchers.
I ring the head of the Students Union at Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford to discuss some issues students are facing. I have very helpful catch-ups with two of the larger banks. We discuss the support they are giving to small and mediums sized businesses and some of the issues employers are facing. They have done a huge amount of work and it is very helpful to exchange thoughts about the issues people are raising with me, and the issues that they are seeing on the ground.
I have a final look at some constituency cases. As far as I can see all those Chelmsford residents who contacted me because they were stuck overseas are now back at home – good news. Those who have contacted us needing urgent support have now been put in touch with the Essex Welfare Service and are getting help. The new emergency dental service will help some of those who have had urgent tooth problems, and many of the small businesses have now received grants. This is a totally unprecedented time – and I cannot thank people enough for all they are doing.