Monday 28th September There is unrest in the House of Commons. It is clear that Covid is on the rise again, especially in the North and many backbench MPs want to have a greater say in what actions are being taken to supress it. On Wednesday we will be voting on whether to extend the Coronavirus Act which gives Government powers to enforce extra controls, a tricky week ahead.
Before heading into Westminster, I meet with the Head of Corum, an organisation that supports adoptive families. He tells me about a survey they have done of over 1,000 children in care asking for their views. In the Department for Education I meet the new policy advisor for families. We discuss Family Hubs, the one in Chelmsford provides excellent support for families and children so I would like to see more of these across the country.
In the evening I join MPs quizzing Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary. He talks about how different lock-down measures are having an impact, but is still concerned for the months ahead. He listens closely to colleagues as they explain their own local circumstances. MPs debate Coronavirus late into the evening but there are no votes today. Steps 11,595
Tuesday 29th September My colleague the Skills Minister is on the radio announcing a huge initiative to help people of all ages come back to college if they don’t have A levels of other qualifications. It is great news and something I have wanted to see happen for many years, but the interviewer hardly lets her discuss the new policy, turning instead to grill her on local lockdowns.
I join ministers to discuss the situation at universities, there have been Covid outbreaks, but not as many as the media would portray. I’m pleased to hear that all universities are to get a testing centre which will help us in Chelmsford.
I speak to a journalist who is writing a about the Care Leavers Internship Scheme. Care leavers are often some of the most vulnerable young people in our country but this year the scheme which will give the opportunity of a first paid job to up to 550 people, more than double previous years. I’m keen to promote the project as the deadline for applications is drawing near.
In the House of Commons I listen to the Education Secretary take questions from MPs, attend two virtual round table events firstly with students who are care leavers, and then with heads of Alternative Provision settings for those who are not attending mainstream schools – another very vulnerable group of children.
We vote on amendments to the Internal Market Bill which has been controversial because of the clash with the EU Withdrawal Agreement- but it is also an important Bill to hold together the UKs own market for businesses and consumers now we have left the EU. I am glad that a compromise has been found that the challenging clauses cannot be used without further votes in Parliament and the vast majority of MPs on the Government benches support the Bill. The numerous votes carry us deep into the evening as each one requires us to snake in lengthy queues across the vast Westminster Hall which dates back to Norman times. It is a good time to talk to colleagues though and I have helpful chats about school food and other initiatives. Steps 16,396
Wednesday 30th September Into the Department for another discussion about the Spending Review, we have now sent all our “bids” into Treasury and so the negotiations between departments have begun. This is important as it will set the priorities for spending for the next three years.
After PMQs I head off to join an online meeting to launch a new report into Kinship Carers, these are relatives, often grandparents, who are bringing up children when their parents cannot. The report makes a lot of sensible suggestions for how we could support them more.
The Head of our local hospitals takes time to brief Essex MPs via zoom. It’s good to hear that the hospitals are now seeing more non-urgent cases and that the new mental health support helpline has answered over 20,000 calls from patients. Chelmsford residents have asked me many health related questions, such as access to flu jabs, this year so it is good to have a chance to get some answers.
At the 1922 Committee we hear that the Government has now agreed that any new major change in coronavirus restrictions will only be introduced across the country if it is been debated and voted on by MPs first, on this basis MPs now agree to support the extension of the Coronavirus Bill. More long snaking queues as we vote on both that Bill and measures to enable more homes to be delivered. Steps 16,601
Thursday 1st October A busy day in the Department for Education, starting with joining a training session for the Wellbeing in Education Return programme. This special project will enable teachers all across the country to get training from local experts in order to support both staff and pupils in wellbeing this year. I’m extremely moved by the quality and commitment of those who have offered to become local trainers as we discuss difficult issues such as bereavement, anxiety and stress. It makes me so proud of all the work we have done to set this project up.
I chair the weekly stocktake on vulnerable children and am pleased to hear that so many are back at school safely, join the Home Office Minister for an update about the challenging situation with arrivals of many unaccompanied asylum seeking children, and meet the leaders of the Safer Internet Centre who are doing so much to make the internet and social media safer for children.
Driving home I hear the news that one Scottish MP has been in the House of Commons knowing she had Covid symptoms and then returned home on the train even after receiving a positive test. I am furious. So many, many people to have put at risk when they are all trying to keep working safely and protect others. Steps 15,792
Friday 2nd October Start the day with a constituency surgery, this time via phone to some residents who have very difficult issues that need support. Then a useful catch-up with Chelmsford City Council officers and leaders to discuss the new Housing White Paper. Many new homes have been built in Chelmsford recently and most local people do support the need for more homes but increasing the numbers even more significantly would be a huge and probably impossible challenge to deliver. I agree to speak to ministers about this. I take a long lunch break to drive my youngest back for the beginning of his University term, it will be so different this year. Fortunately, the rain lets off for a few minutes as we unload his belongings into his new room.
Then into the office where we have set up a virtual TV studio on my laptop in order to take part in the Sunday Politics program. I catch up with the Chief Executive of Essex Cricket and ask if it would be possible for me to meet their sponsors, this is a diverse group of mostly local businesses and I am interested to hear their thoughts about the economy and the impact the virus is having locally on jobs. I meet with Cllr John Spence who has done amazing work steering adult social services and care homes through this time before ending the day online at the Chelmsford Conservative Association meeting to select candidates for next year’s local elections. Steps 6,470
Saturday 3rd October Its party conference time - and what a different experience from normal as this year it is all taking place online. The day is spent zooming into various meetings to discuss support for vulnerable children, including a detailed session run by Save the Children, and then working through a long ministerial red-box with lots of questions, queries and suggestions of how to resolve some of the challenges ahead. Steps – very few!