Monday 6 July Leave home super early in the morning as I have booked a haircut before starting work for the week. After over 4 months it is such a luxury.
From the House of Commons, I zoom into a long meeting with Network Rail, the Department of Transport, Greater Anglia and other MPs along the Great Eastern Main Line to discuss train improvements and the plans for Beaulieu Station. The timetable is back to 95% "normal" capacity and work has continued on our new trains and on training drivers. The first of the new Bombardier trains which will serve most of the Chelmsford to London route will be with us by the end of the year and the full roll-out of new trains and carriages should be completed by the end of next summer.
Beaulieu Station is a very exciting project, but it is also very complex. It is the largest successful bid from the Housing Infrastructure Fund anywhere in the country. The passing loop at the station will provide the ability for fast trains to overtake stopping services which will mean more trains can run on the entire Norwich to Liverpool Line and along the branch lines. However, both the London bound line and the Norwich bound lines are going to need to be moved and the grade of both tracks needs to be reduced (i.e. lowered). New tracks are going to need to be "spliced" into the mainline, whilst causing minimum disruption to trains. We discuss the design, procurement and consultation phases which must happen before the actual building works start in late 2022/or early 2023. Much work has gone into planning the detailed scheduling of the engineering works which are needed over bank holidays and some weekends in order to complete the final build by 2025. It will take a long time to complete it, but I will keep fighting to get it as soon as we possibly can.
In the Department for Education I record speeches for a conference of directors of children’s services and to trainee social workers. I catch up with the officials responsible for free school meals vouchers. I’m concerned because some MPs have reported some incidents of the vouchers being used to buy alcohol. I think it is a small number of cases but I want to speak to all the supermarkets to see if there is more we can do to ensure children get the food, especially as the first of the summer holiday vouchers are about to be issued which is a very large amount of money.
MPs vote on the final reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill I am delighted when it passes through Parliament. This bill will help protect thousands of victims and their children.
Tuesday 7th July Busy day in the Education Department catching up with the Health Minister who is leading the work on a new autism strategy, discussing support for nurseries and pre-schools, and meeting a wonderful group of head teachers from “alternative provision” schools for those who have been excluded from mainstream schools before making the first of a series of calls to supermarket bosses. MPs have been debating education and support for vulnerable children. I listen back to their speeches and am deeply surprised that not a single back bench opposition member came to take part.
Wednesday 8th July Helpful meeting with other ministers working on the skills package to help young people get jobs and opportunities. We know that the pandemic will have hit the economy hard, and often it is young people who suffer highest levels of unemployment when a recession hits. I listen to PMQs and then the Chancellor Rishi Sunak make his statement. He announces a huge package of support to help protect and create jobs, including our young people’s skills agenda. I am particularly pleased to hear the support for restaurants and bars as this will help many businesses to retain staff in Chelmsford. The news of a £5,000 grant to help people make their homes more energy efficient is very welcome too – I have been campaigning on this for years!
Chair the weekly stocktake with officials working on the coronavirus response in children’s services and lots more calls with supermarket bosses.
Thursday 9th July Last set of calls with supermarket bosses, they have done an amazing job feeding the nation during the lockdown and supporting our free school meal voucher system. They are all going to put clearer messages that the summer vouchers should not be spent on alcohol or other age restricted products.
Catch up with the Home Office Minister working on protecting children and teenagers at risk of harm. Have a deeply inspiring round table with a group of young people with special educational needs and disabilities. They tell me of their experiences during lockdown and make helpful suggestions of what more we could do to reassure young people as they return to school, college and university.
I meet Dame Emma Thompson and a group of young people who are passionate to improved school food. We discuss plans for a new review of the School Food Standards that I am working on. Late evening conversation with the Chief Social Worker about the amendments to children’s rights that we needed to put in place during lockdown. I am planning to re-instate the vast majority of these next week, whilst also making it clear that social workers can continue to do “virtual visits” if there is a local lockdown. Meeting slightly distracted by the (gorgeous) 8 week old puppy, Misty, that my husband seems to have slipped into the house whilst I’ve been in Westminster.
Friday 10th July Superb day of online and face to face meetings in Chelmsford. Starting off with early call with the sponsors of Essex cricket, a very mixed group of businesses who give me their thoughts on the Chancellors announcements and the future outlook for the economy. At Essex County Council they are packing up 2,500 kit-bags of sports equipment to go to vulnerable and disadvantaged children for the summer holiday, so I pop by to help. Long chats with shop owners, and stall keepers along the High Street about how they are doing, it is good news that there are more customers coming back to support them, but sad news that the Boots Opticians in the High Street is going to close. I speak to the Manager, he is devastated for his staff some of whom have worked at that location for many many years. I have a delicious cup of coffee at A-Canteen one of the many local restaurants that has worked so hard to re-open in a safe and socially distanced way. Other representatives of Chelmsford city centre businesses talk to me about their short, medium and longer term plans. Drop into the Cathedral for a quiet moment, beautiful. Catch up with the Head of Beaulieu Park school to find out how they are doing. Hold my first face to face Surgery since lockdown started. It is very socially distanced from either side of a large, but private, room. My team and I have helped over 4,000 Chelmsford residents with individual queries over the past three and a half months, we can do so much via email, online calls and phone calls but sometimes one does need to have a more in-depth discussion. The week ends with a conference call with our Police Commissioner, Roger Hirst, the Police Chief Constable, BJ Harrington and other Essex MPs and the very good news that Essex Police is growing, and crime is going down.