Monday 9th November It’s the first Monday of this new lockdown and the roads are noticeably quieter as I drive towards Westminster. In the Department for Education I’m finalising a long open letter that will go to children with special educational needs and disabilities as well as their parents and carers. Many families have had difficult time during the pandemic, but these families have faced additional challenges. There are lots of questions brought about by the latest lockdown and I want to help by giving some answers.
The day is packed with internal meetings before I head into the House of Commons where the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is giving a statement on our new winter support package for children and families. It is a huge package of support for food and essentials for those who need help most. We are also announcing the national roll-out of our Holiday Activities and Food Scheme across the country from Easter. I’m very excited by this as the pilot schemes that we have run for the past three years have been hugely helpful for vulnerable children. I’ve been working towards the full national scheme ever since becoming children’s minister in February.
Tuesday 10th November I meet with the new Chief Executive of Northamptonshire Children’s Trust. This is a part of the country where children’s services have been really struggling for many years and establishing the new trust will give the opportunity for a fresh start and much better outcomes. It’s been a lot of work setting it all up and the team on the ground are very positive for the future.
We have difficult decisions to make at the Family Justice Board, this brings together all those who are involved in the family court system including judges and social workers. There are delays to court hearings which have been exacerbated by Covid. Even though courts are now sitting longer there are still some children waiting for a very long time for their case to be heard, which is especially concerning in areas like adoption hearings. We go through ways to help make sure that the most urgent cases get priority and so that cases are better prepared before coming to court, so they don’t need to come back again and again.
An uplifting meeting with the Care Leavers Covenant Board. This brings together ministers from across Government to look at what we can all do to support young people who grew up in care. Our civil service internship programme has been hugely successful this year with more than double the opportunities of previous years. For the next challenge I would like to see more public sector organisations and private businesses joining in as well.
Wednesday 11th November Great news for families of University students with new detailed plans for the return home for Christmas, including tests before students travel to make sure that the risk of bringing Covid home is minimised. There is a good mood at the Education Department as the University Minister has been working hard on this for weeks.
Just before 11am we all stop for a Service of Remembrance and hold the two minutes silence for the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day. Wreaths are laid at the memorial to those from the Department who lost their lives in wars. It is very moving, especially given it is usually such a packed service with hundreds of people present but this year it is such a small gathering as most are working from home.
I join a call on new amendments to the Domestic Abuse Bill which would limit former partners from repeatedly taking their ex’s to court when there is no new evidence. It is a sensitive issue but have seen how this coercive behaviour has torn some of my Chelmsford constituents to pieces and had such a negative impact on children.
In the House of Commons MPs are discussing Remembrance and paying tribute to the Armed Forces, with many moving speeches.
Thursday 12th November Another day packed full of zoom meetings, including a very helpful catch up with disabilities charities and parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. They tell me that the open letter has been a great support.
I catch up with the minister responsible of building regulations. Some of the apartment blocks in Chelmsford are caught up in the situation regarding cladding post the terrible Grenfell Tower tragedy. This means flat owners are stuck, unable to sell their homes and worried about their safety. It’s a complex issue to solve and it is good to discuss it with those working to find solutions. I agree to set up an online meeting for constituents who have contacted me about this. Whilst I have the minister on the line, I also ask him if he can get a bit more speed into resolving the low-level letter box issues. Our posties do so much for us, and low-level letter boxes are a nightmare for bad backs.
I check the weekly update on Covid cases across Essex, which look as if they may have stabilised, but the data always lags a few days behind reality. Hospital admissions and sadly deaths have continued to rise.
Friday 13th November Usually the House of Commons has a “Sitting Friday” about once a month. These are days when private members bills are discussed, and ministers take turns to cover the debates. Today was meant to be my shift on the rota. However, MPs have voted to postpone these non-urgent sitting days during this lockdown in order to reduce contact, so I find myself with a very welcome spare day. I catch up with the Headteacher at KEGS. There are challenges of social distancing, and teachers are working hard to juggle face to face classes with on-line teaching for those who are self-isolating, but he tells me that the mood is good. Over 800 pupils took part in the 11-plus entrance exams this month, all in a Covid secure way.
Later, I zoom in to meet Andy Sparks, the Principal of Chelmsford College. He also tells me how much the students are achieving, and I’m pleased to hear that interest in apprenticeships is still strong. Last year I ran the first apprenticeship fair in Chelmsford which was very successful, enabling hundreds of people young and old to find out about opportunities for careers and training. I am keen to do this again and am looking at how to do an online fair.
As we talk Andy gets the news of some of his students are reporting Covid symptoms, he will now identify which others need to self-isolate. Interestingly, to date, none of the students at the College have caught Covid from other students or passed it between staff and students. It may be that the recent cases were caught over the half term holiday, or in the flurry of activity just before the new lockdown started. Fingers crossed this doesn’t cause another spike.