It has been good to have a break from Parliament over the past few weeks, but this does not mean that work has stopped. It has also been good to see life returning to Chelmsford High Street, a whopping 98,000 meals were eaten in our local restaurants and cafes during August so thank you to everyone who took part in the Eat Out Help Out scheme.
A highlight of my August was spending a day with Essex Police and the British Transport Police, including Dylan the drug sniffer dog at Chelmsford station. These joint operations to target county lines drugs gangs have been hugely successful. Another day was spent visiting Chelmsford Prison to hear how they have been managing during Covid, interestingly the reductions in group movements around the site and strict controls have reduced tensions for both staff and inmates. I also enjoyed visiting some of the holiday activities and food projects that the Government has been running for vulnerable children.
I am also hugely grateful to the senior leadership team at St John Payne for showing me the measures they put in place to protect staff and pupils before term started. Thank you to everyone who contacted me about exam results, it has been uplifting to help a number of students who have secured their university places. Some are being offered deferred places, and I know the Government is working on plans to give these students meaningful experiences and CV building opportunities.
Tuesday 1st September Back to Westminster and straight back into the thick of it with lines of police guarding Parliament Square for a week of demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion. I spend most of the day in the Department for Education, catching up with the school food team who are already planning holiday activities for next year and working on our reforms of the system for those with special educational needs and disabilities. I head over to the House of Commons for a ministerial statement by the Education Secretary and we have late votes on the new Fisheries Bill that will replace our membership of the Common Fisheries Policy which has been such a disaster for the marine environment. This is going to be a long parliamentary term with no break until Christmas, I’ve promised that I will try to pace myself, but it is well past midnight when I shut down the computer.
Wednesday 2nd September Back into the Department for meetings with Ministers and the new Permanent Secretary. We are focused on the return to school, but much work is also going into plans for the term ahead, how to manage local lockdowns and next year’s exams. Over the summer I’ve been working on the Civil Service Care Leavers Internship program, which is about to open for applications. Care leavers are amongst the most vulnerable young people in our country and do not have the support of a loving family as they start their working life. The internship program offers them a paid role within senior government departments and agencies across the country and gives them the chance of a first step of a career. My job has been to encourage other departments to open up roles and co-ordinate the work. I’m over the moon that nearly 500 places are being offered, more than double last year.
I spend the afternoon with three other ministers being questioned by the Women and Equalities Select Committee on how the Government has supported people with disabilities during Covid and finish writing a long open letter to children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families on the return to school and the support that is being put in place for them.
The Prime Minister comes to speak to MPs in a meeting of the 1922 committee, enthusiastic about the re-opening for schools and optimistic that if innovators can create a new simple Covid home test more people will be able to return to normality.
Thursday 3rd September Back to back meetings all day. Preparing for the questions that I will be answering in the House of Commons on Monday and getting into the detailed plans for our bids in the upcoming spending review. This will set the framework for all Government spending over the next 3 years and we know Treasury have lots of demands, so it is vital to get this right.
Friday 4th September Not a good start to the day as my car battery is flat – thank goodness for the AA. At Great Baddow High School I have an excellent catch up with the Headteacher who now has 1,500 pupils back on site. Two of the year thirteen students, Charlotte and Josh, tell me about their concerns for the year ahead. They are deeply thoughtful and make some extremely helpful recommendations on how to support both their year group and younger students too. In the office I’m joined by leaders of a large number of our local charities for a big online catch-up. They discuss the ways they have adapted services during the pandemic and continued to support those in need. We talk about more changes we could make to tackle some of the issues ahead, and we put together a to-do list. It would help many of our local charities if they had more younger volunteers, please do get in touch if you can help out.
I have a socially distanced surgery to help some residents who have complex problems that need sorting and finish the week meeting the company that owns the Bond Street development and many of our High Street shops. The good news is that footfall is increasing, and shoppers are spending more. Chelmsford has fared better than many other centres. However, some stores have closed and we talk about the impact of the ban on evictions on rent. I get home to a huge pile of work that has arrived for the weekend – so much for pacing myself!