Monday 29 June I arrive in Westminster ready for what looks like a long week ahead. Usually the last vote in the House of Commons must come by 10 pm on Mondays, 7 pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 5pm on Thursdays. The late Monday and early Thursday are timed to enable MPs to travel to and from their constituencies. However, this week on Wednesday and Thursday we are debating and voting on the Finance Bill. This is the bill that agrees all the detailed funding commitments announced in the budget and it is the one bit of Parliamentary business that can go “beyond the moment of interruption” ie late votes. MPs have been known to debate and vote through the night on Finance Bill amendments.
This week we are also planning to make our announcement about schools reopening in September. It is vital to get young people back into schools, they are our future and education is crucial to their future. Now the spread of the virus is much, much lower the scientists and medical experts are content to let schools reopen. However, schools parents and children will been detailed guidance on how to operate safely and every page of guidance needs to be reviewed and commented on by many, many stakeholders, medical officers and ministers.
In the Department for Education, as well as working on the guidance, I meet with the head of the NSPCC to discuss children at risk of harm, and catch up with the officials working on Early Years policy and school food. Then head back to the Commons where MPs are debating the Immigration Bill.
Votes are all finished by 9pm but, unusually, the Health Secretary has come to make a late night statement. He explains about the spike of the virus in Leicester and that the city is going to have to go back into lockdown. A worrying reminder that the pandemic is still very much with us.
Tuesday 30 June Still working on the school’s guidance with many questions from the Special Schools for those with special educational needs and disabilities. I start the day going through these in detail as I am very keen that those with disabilities should not be put at a disadvantage.
I meet with the independent expert who has just completed a deep review of youth offender institutions and the team working on extra support for young people’s mental health and well-being before walking back to the House of Commons.
Using zoom I catch up with a group of Chelmsford residents who are taking part in a virtual mass lobby on environment issues, but the wi-fi keeps failing. So frustrating.
In the early evening I join over 800 teachers and parents from maintained nursery schools to answer their questions – isn’t technology amazing. We finalise the last piece of the guidance for our Thursday package, this is on holiday clubs and out of school clubs. I want to get these reopened over the summer holidays, but the latest draft says that clubs can only take children from one school. This would be dreadful for the specialist sports and arts clubs that often run across July and August. I ask for it to be changed. The guidance now needs to go through the final clearance process with scientists and Public Health England.
Wednesday 1 July I meet the Police Minister to discuss new plans for to tackle those most at risk of harm and reducing youth violence and chair the weekly “stocktake” with all those leading work on vulnerable children during the pandemic.
We get the thumbs up for the school’s guidance. The formal announcement will be tomorrow but I make phone calls to thank the head of the National Children’s Bureau, the Council for Disabled Children, and the National Chairs of the Parent Carer Forums for disabled children. They have all been key stakeholders who have helped us on the detailed work and I want to give them a heads-up of what has been approved, especially on the advice that we are giving on keeping schools safe. They are hugely supportive.
Through the afternoon and evening MPs debate amendments to the Finance Bill. Every two hours or so the bell rings for votes, and we queue and vote. There is huge relief when the discussion on the last amendments is finished. Its only 9pm, we vote and are finished by 10. Everyone is tired.
Thursday 2 July I am in the Chamber of the House of Commons for the Announcement on schools reopening. It’s a big moment, and the Education Secretary takes questions for over an hour. Over the past few weeks there have been many questions about schools reopening, so it is very good when nearly every MP speaks in support of the proposals. I spend the day speaking with many other stakeholders including the head of Barnardo’s, the NSPCC, the Children’s Society, organisations representing nurseries, pre-schools and childminders, and the Children’s Commissioner. All of whom support the decision.
Friday 3 July A busy day “zooming” around Chelmsford. Great to catch up with the head teacher of Boswell’s and the head of Chelmsford College. The boss at Teledyne e2v gives me a hugely positive update on the progress that the company has been making, they are providing cutting edge equipment for the massive international space program, Copernicus. This will send large satellites into a very high orbit above the earth and enable us to much better monitor the word’s atmosphere and weather systems.
I have a much better call with the Chelmsford Climate Change campaigners as this time the technology works for all. We discuss a huge range of topics including ways to encourage more cycling in Chelmsford, improving infrastructure for electric vehicles, and the Government plans to increase investment in making homes more energy efficient.
The week finishes with the Annual General Meeting of the Chelmsford Conservative Association. This is usually a very social affair in March, but it was postponed during Lockdown and is now held by Zoom. It is lovely to see everyone, listen to feedback and answer questions.
Saturday 4 July Today is the first day of pubs reopening, but it is also the first time we can visit people in their own home. I head down to Somerset to see my elderly mum whom I have not been able to visit during the Lockdown. It is so good to see her smile.