Monday 18th May During lockdown I start each day with my small team of parliamentary assistants going through the emails and messages that we receive from Chelmsford constituents. This morning there are lots of questions about the proposals for school opening. It is important that we start to get children back to school, especially the youngest children who are missing out on the vital months of developing the early communication and social skills that are the building blocks of educations, which set them up for life. However, safety is vital, and it is crucial that the proposed school opening happens only if the science advice shows that the school reopening can be done in way that does not significantly risk increasing the spread of the coronavirus. The plans for “phased” re-opening include advice to every school to keep pupils in small groups so that a protective bubble is created around them.
At the Department for Education I catch up with each of the lead officials working on issues that affect vulnerable children. A major concern is those children at risk of abuse or neglect during lock down. We are planning a huge summit on “Hidden Harms” this Thursday to be hosted by the Prime Minister, this will bring together those who work to tackle domestic abuse, online harms, people trafficking, grooming and gangs. Participants will include victims, charities, refuges, police, social workers, legal experts, court officials and many more.
I catch up with the boss of Edenred, the company that is delivering the Free School Meals vouchers. There is good news that they system is now working much better, and over 6 million weekly meals vouchers have now been delivered. We discuss further improvements. Then a long conversation with the Home Office minister looking after Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children, we are seeing increased numbers of children being trafficked across the channel on small boats. This is putting huge pressure on local children’s services especially in Kent and nearby.
I join the House of Commons on-line to vote on the new Immigration Bill.
Tuesday 19th May Over recent weeks, I’ve been prioritising emails and messages from local residents with individual and urgent concerns. However, I’m keen to make sure messages about other campaigns are not forgotten. I spend most of the day with my parliament assistants going though these, as we want to make sure that they are all responded to before the House of Commons goes into recess next week. At the Department for Education, I’m delighted to get approval for two projects that I’ve been working on to help vulnerable children. This includes increasing funding for the Family Fund which gives grants to over 75,000 families of children with special educational needs and disabilities and more funding for the Adoption Support fund which helps adoptive families. I work on plans for Thursday – which is going to be an exceptionally busy day. We vote online for the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 20th May After team meeting, I spend the morning preparing for an MPs surgery which I am holding tomorrow. MPs from across the country are going to be dialling in to ask questions on children’s issues. Usually these surgeries are held face to face, but this will be a digital first for me.
I join colleagues online for PMQs, and then for the first speeches on the important Trade Bill. I meet with the group leading work on setting up Family Hubs across the country. Our own Family Hub in Chelmsford has helped thousands of people since it was set up a couple of years ago. It gives direct support and advice on a huge range of different issues. I’m keen to see this replicated in other areas and we received welcome funding for a research project in the last budget. I meet the head of one of Chelmsford’s busy primary schools. It is good to hear how they have been supporting children at this time, both with online learning and remaining open for children of key workers and vulnerable children. We discuss the plans for the June reopening, he is keen to get children back into school and has put a huge amount of thought into safety.
We vote on the Trade Bill, and then parliament adjourns for the recess. The remote voting has been okay during this period, but there have been many technical challenges. MPs agree that when we return on 2 June there will no longer be remote voting, and the House of Commons will follow a socially distanced model from within Parliament. This will involve the usual system of pairing which will enable some MPs to continue to work from home, and others to be in the Chamber.
Thursday 21st May Spend the morning in my MP’s surgery taking questions on a huge range of different issues affecting vulnerable children. It’s helpful to hear the feedback from colleagues and to be able to reassure them with advice and information. I join other colleagues for the Inter-Ministerial meeting on Food. This task force has been focusing on getting support out to those suffering food poverty at this time. Then another Inter-Ministerial meeting, this one chaired by the Chancellor of the Dutchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. I present a summary of the work that is being done for vulnerable children. This involves many different government departments, so this meeting is a crucial opportunity for me, as Children’s Minister, to make sure each different department is focused on the areas that we need them to continue working on.
Then “to” 10 Downing Street where the Prime Minister is Hidden Harms summit. During the afternoon we focus on safeguarding, law enforcement and supporting victims. There are real concerns that domestic abuse and other hidden crimes are rising in lockdown, but time and time again we hear how those on the front line and those making national decisions are working together, innovating and tackling issues at an unprecedented rate. There are a number of helpful suggestions for next steps and it is great to see the focus on this from all across government and public services. The summit goes on into the early evening, it’s a long day but very productive.
Friday 22nd May I join the safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins for our weekly catch-up. Our “Operation Encompass” project is making progress, this links police to teachers and lets them know when there have been domestic violence incidents. I catch up with my officials for another stock-take on covid related issues and join Essex MPs for a helpful meeting with our Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, Roger Hirst. As the commissioner elections have been delayed into next year, Roger needs to prepare an extension to the usual four-year policing plan. We have an extremely helpful discussion, especially keeping focus on tackling drugs, violent crime, business crime, and dangerous driving. After another busy week I close down my virtual ministerial red box which is always full of questions to answer and difficult decisions to make. I’m looking forward to a long weekend in lockdown.