Monday 1st June A last day working from home before the House of Commons meets again. Some colleagues would like to continue with the online voting system that we used last month but the system had many challenges.
I feel strongly that a physical voting system such as that used in the House of Commons is preferable to an electronic vote. During my 8 years as a MEP I used electronic voting, this allowed many votes to happen rapidly, often many hundreds of votes in one session. Often MEPs didn’t think hard about the consequences of each amendment and this led to inconsistent legislation.
The physical voting system in Westminster takes time but having to put one foot in front of the other and actually march through the “Aye” or “No” lobbies means parliamentarians focus much more clearly on each vote. In Westminster the issue under consideration is debated in the Chamber right up to the minute the voting bell rings. This means Ministers can respond to the points raised in the debate which gives individual MPs the ability to use the debate to influence and affect policy.
It is also the first day back at school, preschool and nurseries for many children. We have prioritised our youngest children for this first cautious step in a phased reopening. This is because we know that the social and communication skills that young children develop are so crucial and are the building blocks that set them up for life.
I join other Ministers on virtual meeting to discuss further plans to provide food assistance to those that are vulnerable, and meet the Children’s Commissioner to discuss plans to help children from disadvantaged groups catch up with lost education.
Tuesday 2nd June The streets are very empty as I drive through London. As Children’s Minister I’m aware that many children have found lockdown hard, and at the Department for Education I record a “virtual assembly” with the TV presenters Ant and Dec. The NSPCC will be airing this on Friday.
At the House of Commons MPs meet for the first vote. We form a long queue, two meters apart. I am lucky to be standing beside the Foreign Secretary and we use the time to discuss the troubling situation in Hong Kong and the US. Parliament has changed dramatically, with one-way systems in the corridors, and many hand sanitisers. Only a small number of MPs will be in the chamber at any one time and the rest of us work socially isolated in our individual offices.
In between votes I “meet” the Head of Social Work England, a new organisation celebrating its 6 month anniversary. They are doing a huge amount to support social workers. I catch up with officials about the review we are doing on those with special educational needs and disabilities, and get an update on the issues affecting children in the Domestic Abuse Bill that is going through Parliament.
In the evening I receive a call from our local police with the very, very sad news that a young man was stabbed in Chelmsford this afternoon. The people of Chelmsford have shown enormous resilience and community spirit over the past weeks. With so many people doing so much good at this difficult time, it is extraordinary painful to know that there are some who still perpetrate violence.
It is late and silent when I walk through London to my socially isolated lodgings and I struggle to sleep. My thoughts are with the victim’s family and friends, and my prayers are for him and the medical staff fighting for his life.
Wednesday 3rd June Another quiet walk into the Department for Education where we have the weekly catch up with all ministers and then a very helpful call with the leaders of nurseries, pre-schools and other early years settings. I’m keen to hear their views on how the first few days of wider opening have gone. Then back into my House of Commons office for another series of online meetings, including with the Health Minister responsible for mental health as we are working on a package of support for teachers and students.
Mid-afternoon suddenly the silence breaks, it is clear that a mass crowd has gathered outside in a loud protests. I know many people, including me, have been shocked by the abhorrent images of the scenes leading up to the death of George Floyd in America. There must be no place for racism in our country or our communities. But I am worried that mass protests risk spreading the virus again.
Happy news, a record three Chelmsford Charities have won a Queen’s Awards for Voluntary Services. They are Chelmsford City Mencap, Chess Homeless and Kids Inspire. So well deserved and I write to congratulate them.
I work late into the evening until after the protest has dissipated, but on my walk back tonight the streets are busier. The air has turned cooler and the atmosphere feels ominously threatening.
Thursday 4th June A long discussion with the Treasury Minister where I reinforce the importance of our food programs for vulnerable children. Then back into the House of Commons. It has been agreed that a new proxy voting system will be set up so that those MPs not able to come into Parliament for health or other reasons will be able to vote. This makes sense and means work can continue.
I catch up with the President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Jenny Coles. She and her team have been doing an awesome job supporting local services all across the country. I then join a conference call with leaders of Local Authorities to brief them on children’s issues and take questions – its only after the call ends that I am told 500 people were listening – yikes!
Then meet with Essex MPs and the Head of Essex Police, who have been doing an exceptional job. We have a detailed debrief on the work of the Essex Resilience Forum which has been providing food to the shielded and getting PPE distributed across the county. I join the board meeting for the Department of Education which brings independent advice and scrutiny of our work.
Good news, the project I’ve been working on get support for young people in Alternative Provision has been approved. These are the group most at risk of becoming long term unemployed. Our project will mean the Year 11s due to leave Alternative Provision this summer will continue to be supported through next year.
I’m relieved when the bell rings at the end of the day. All Parliamentary businesses has been agreed without more votes and I drive out of London.
Friday 5th June Whilst the “virtual assembly” is online I am on the phone with the Home Office Minister and officers. We are launching projects with Barnardo’s and others to help prevent young people being drawn back into gangs. Then a round of local calls in Chelmsford, including with the Chief Executive of Essex Cricket, and a local family lawyer who helpfully gives me her experience of our current divorce laws and explains why reforms are needed to support families. I speak with local representatives of our nursing unions to hear about issues raised by nurses. They have been doing an excellent job and it is very good to hear that Broomfield has been especially supportive of their nursing teams.
Then a series of phone calls with leaders of some of the largest nursery school chains to hear how this week has gone and to discuss support for those who are due to join reception in September.