Monday 8th June Back to Westminster again this week, as Parliament continues to sit. A proxy voting system has been set up so that those who cannot vote in person for health reasons can nominate another member to vote on their behalf. MPs can still take part in debates from home via online screens, but Ministers need to be available in person to answer questions and take debates.
The drive to London is quiet, with the roads still quite empty, but it is hugely frustrating to see some people take this as an excuse for some hairy undertaking and speeding.
It is also sad to see people clearing up the debris left behind by protests at the weekend, tensions are high. I’m glad that most of those demonstrating about racial equality did so peacefully and respected social distancing, but a small minority were intent on violence and disruption.
At the Department for Education I have catch up meetings with the Head of Ofsted. They are doing amazing work and over 200 of their inspectors have gone onto the front line to help children’s social services in local councils across the country. I have a call with Slough Council who are restructuring their children’s services and a detailed meeting with the officials working on long term reforms to improve services for children with special educational needs and disabilities.
In the House of Commons MPs are debating the changes to divorce law. These will mean that couples to go through a legal process of having to find “fault” with each other. Marriage breakdown is such a difficult time, and as a strong believer in marriage I wanted to understand these changes better. Having discussed them with experienced family lawyers in Chelmsford I am reassured that the changes will help remove some of the anger and animosity that all too often occurs, and mean children and other family members can be better supported. The vote happens late in the evening.
Tuesday 9th June Meet with representatives from Kent Council, their children’s services are under pressure due to recent migrant arrivals on small boats. I’ve been working with the Home office to set up a system that will make it easier for other parts of the country to help out. We talk about longer term solutions too.
In the afternoon I head over to the House of Commons where the Education Secretary is taking questions from MPs. I agree with him that we need to get children and young people back to school as soon as possible. This is so important for their mental health and well-being as well as for education. I meet with the boss of Edenred, the company that has been providing the Free School Meals voucher. This is now working well. I work late into the evening preparing my speech for tomorrow.
Wednesday 10th June Today, as Children’s Minister, I’m going to have to speak on behalf of the Government and respond to a debate on vulnerable children. This is the first time I’ve led a debate as a Minister. Over the past few months we have been wrapping networks of support around different groups of the most vulnerable, including children in care, adoptive children, those with disabilities and special needs and care leavers. We’ve had to give social workers some flexibility in cases where they cannot act normally due to the virus. Understandably this has created some questions, and the speech will be my change to answer them. It’s a huge topic and I spend much time preparing.
Before heading over to the House of Commons I meet with other ministers from other departments about the work we are doing on equality, getting a better understanding of where there are inequalities and the strategies we are developing to address them.
Happy moment at Prime Minister’s Questions when the PM announces the Local Authority Welfare Service. I have been working on this with other ministers for a few weeks. It will mean local councils can give grants for food and other essentials to those extremely vulnerable families that are facing the most acute economic hardship at this time.
When my debate comes it is nerve wracking, not only because this is the first time I have done this but also because I want to answer as many questions as possible and the normal support mechanism of being able to get advice passed by expert officials is not available due to social distancing. However, it goes OK and I manage to address most of the queries. I hope this provides reassurance to those children affected. The vote is won by a majority of over 130.
Thursday 11th June I meet with the national leader of the “Virtual School Heads”, these are extra head teachers in every local area to support children in care. Since introducing them six years ago the number of children in care being excluded from school has more than halved. It has been extraordinarily successful, and I would like to see this support offered to more vulnerable children. I meet with officials expert on the Early Years Sector to discuss potential areas for long term improvement and then have my weekly catch up with all the lead officials working on the COVID response on vulnerable children. There is heartening news that many more vulnerable children are coming back to school, which we know is important for their protection.
Friday 12th June A very busy day catching up with Chelmsford constituents, as well as one on one phone calls to residents I spoke via zoom to those organising the protest march in Chelmsford on Saturday. I understand the anger and grief that is felt not just in America but here in the UK in response to the killing of George Floyd. There must be no place for racism in our society. They explained how important it is that we continue to focus on the need to address and remove racism, I agree with them.
I also support the right to protest lawfully, but I do believe that this must be in accordance with the current rules on social distancing, as we must not risk more spread of the coronavirus. I am also shocked by the unacceptable scenes we have seen of violence on the streets in London and elsewhere, so given the risks I would rather that this event was held at a different time in the future. However, the organisers explained that they are doing all they can to make sure the rally and march respects social distancing and remains peaceful. We also had a thoughtful conversation about the need to make sure our history curriculum gives a broad understanding of all elements of history, and so helps promote inclusivity. It was very helpful to hear the recent experiences of young people in Chelmsford.
Useful catch up with Cllr Ray Gooding who is responsible for Essex Schools, one of our head teachers and an impressive call with our local police who have made a series of successful arrests this week for the two violent stabbings that have occurred this month and in January.