Monday 14th September Early start to the day talking to former colleagues from my time as a Member of the European Parliament about the current situation regarding the UK/EU negotiations and the vote that is due to happen on the Internal Market Bill in the House of Commons tonight. Tensions between negotiators are very high and I have been asked to explain some of the UK’s concerns to try to help calm the situation down.
The Internal Market Bill is important to make sure goods can still move easily around the UK market on a single set of rules after the end of this year when we are no longer bound by EU Market rules. However, there are concerns about the way the first draft of this Bill was worded and whether certain powers could lead to a direct conflict with the Withdrawal Agreement Treaty that we have recently agreed with the EU and hence lead to the UK breaking international law. I do not support breaking of international laws, but I also see how important much of this Bill is.
I explain that the UK is concerned about a recent suggestion from the EU that if we do not get agreement on the free trade agreement then the EU might refuse to list UK as a “Third Country” for food imports. This may lead to it being impossible to send food from England, Wales and Scotland into Northern Ireland which is clearly not acceptable. My former colleagues are concerned about the heated exchanges that have taken place, they listen closely and I am encouraged to hear that they think agreement on the Free Trade Negotiation is still possible provided everyone comes back to the talks to focus on resolving the outstanding issues.
I spend the day in the Department for Education in meetings, the time to complete our bids for the spending review is drawing closer and there is huge devil in the detail. In the evening in the House of Commons it is clear that there is lots of concern from colleagues about the controversial parts of the Internal Markets Bill, but the Government is listening and considering amendments. When the vote comes, I support the motion, this allows for the Bill to keep progressing and for amendments to be made before any final decision is reached. It is very late when we finish voting.
Tuesday 15th September I host large online round table meeting with many different organisations representing children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. I have been very focused on supporting these children through the pandemic and it is important that they get back to school and get the specialist support they need. However, there are also some very complex individual situations and conditions. Feedback from families is extremely helpful and I am able to give clear guidance on many specific concerns and take back some of the other questions for further work.
Wednesday 16th September I join ministers from across many Government Departments for a huge piece of work that we are doing as a task force on mental health. We know that many children and young people have found that the pandemic has impacted on their mental health and wellbeing. I update the task force on the support, advice and training that we are giving schools in order for them to help give well-being support to pupils and students. It is very uplifting to hear colleagues from many different areas give their support and backing to further projects to help young people’s mental health. Lengthy meetings in the Department on school food, children in care and our plans for the term ahead. Back in to the House of Commons where we hear that the Government has now agreed to amend the Internal Market Bill, narrowing down the circumstances when the controversial clauses might be used and introducing a parliamentary lock so that they could only be used if supported by a vote in parliament. We vote on further suggestions of amendments, but unfortunately the electronic voting system that we have been using during Covid has developed a fault, so we have to line up and file through the chamber one at a time to vote. It is very late when we finish for the evening.
Thursday 17th September Early call with the Minister for Local Government discussing our spending review bids. Much of the work to support children in care and children needing social workers is delivered by local authorities and I am keen to expand the funding for early help. We know that early help for families can be vital in preventing the breakdowns that can otherwise lead to children being brought into the care system.
I join an online meeting of the Great Eastern Main Line group to discuss our rail services and future investment. I remind colleagues how important Beaulieu Station is in order to add capacity all across the line, and press for a part time season ticket so that people who want to do a mix of working from home and office can have flexible rail prices.
I then head off to Reading where I visit one of the 18 Violence Reduction Units in the country. These projects have been set up in the areas where knife crime is most acute. They bring together police, health, schools and community groups to focus on getting early intervention into those young people most likely to be drawn into crime in order to prevent the situation escalating. We meet at Reading football stadium where they run a project to train and teach young people who have dropped out of school or are on the edge of dropping out. The mentors tell about many of the children they have helped and some of the young people talk to me about their own stories, some of which are deeply frightening. It is clear that this project is lifesaving.
On the way back I speak again with contacts across Europe, the talks are still tense, and I feed back to our team.
Friday 18th September It is ages since I had an eye test so I booked myself into Spec Savers in Chelmsford High Street. I am hugely impressed by the care and thought that has gone into social distancing and making sure the store is safe. Thank you!
Then over to meet with CHESS Homeless. CHESS has been caring for rough sleepers in Chelmsford for many years and is extremely successful in helping people to overcome drug and alcohol addictions and rebuild their lives. CHESS also runs the Winter Project which provides a safe, warm place to sleep in the coldest months. However, this year they can’t run the project due to Covid so they are working on increasing their usual accommodation from 32 beds to 64 beds in different centres across Chelmsford. Much of the funding for the actual accommodation will come from government via Housing Benefit, but they will also need funding for support workers and staff in order for the accommodation to be safe. Please do make a donation if you can, we know this winter is going to be very hard.
For the first time in six months I meet face to face with my parliamentary assistants. We are only a small team and have helped with over 6,000 individual inquiries from Chelmsford constituents since the beginning of the pandemic. I could not have done this without them, and it is wonderful to see them.
At Boswells School the Headteacher and Deputy Head tell me that the start to the new term has gone well, though it is obviously challenging for everyone to have to try to stay in small groups and they can’t use parts of the school as normal. This is going to get more difficult when the weather changes. They make extremely helpful suggestions about plans for the year ahead which I promise to relay back to the school’s minister. I am hugely grateful to all our teachers who are working so hard.
I finish the week with a very uplifting conversation with the Vice Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University. The number of students studying to become nurses, midwifes and paramedics in Chelmsford has increased this year, and students studying to become doctors is up from 100 to 120. Most students will have a mix of face to face learning in small groups and online learning. The six-person rule is being followed very closely and all students have signed a community pledge to respect social distancing both on and off campus. ARU ranks fifth in all the country for the proportion of students that move on to employment or further study. Well done.