Monday 7th December This week it is one year on from the General Election – and what a year. I start the week by recording a video on the year, reminding myself of the election promises to deliver more police, doctors and nurses, fairer funding for Chelmsford school, better infrastructure and tackling climate change, all of which have continued despite Covid. There are so many people to thank especially NHS and care staff, teachers and those who support children, the police and so many volunteers who have stepped in to help others.
Walking to the Department for Education, I am struck that the streets are still so empty despite the end of the national lockdown. Two police horses and a cyclist are waiting at a traffic light with the riders wearing matching high vis jackets, I wonder how long it will be before we return to the normal bustle.
I’ve embarked on a virtual tour of special schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities, especially those in high Covid areas, a chance to thank staff and listen to their concerns. From my desk in Westminster, I visit Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire where children tell me of their experiences during the pandemic. I meet a group of Educational Psychologists from across the country who share their thoughts on reforming the special educational needs system and call the new Children’s Commissioner to congratulate her, she is so excited to be taking on this important role.
In the House of Commons, we are voting on the Internal Market Bill, I join MPs to discuss this. There is concern about the state of the negotiations regarding the Irish border, and the controversial clauses which are needed to protect trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK if no agreement is reached. The Chief Whip explains that these clauses will only remain if talks fail, this is a safety net.
Tuesday 8th December It’s V Day – and the morning news is full of pictures of the first people to receive the vaccine, there is a light ahead!
I join a working group of Universities and care leavers who are working on how to encourage more young people who have grown up in care to apply to University. Then over to County Hall where I have been asked to speak at a conference on “early intervention”. After months of “giving” speeches into my laptop camera it feels very strange to be actually standing at a podium. I am a huge supporter of getting early help to families and children in need of support as it can stop problems escalating, so it is good to update the (virtual) audience about our plans for a new national centre for family hubs.
I join representatives of pre-schools, childminders and nurseries. We have put unprecedented funding into early education but there are concerns about sustainability of businesses as fewer children are attending than normal. A Whatsapp message appears – agreement has been made on the Irish border negotiations – the controversial clauses of the Bill are dropped. Phew.
Wednesday 9th December In the Education Department we discuss the Government’s Plan for Jobs and how our work on skills, education, apprenticeships and childcare feeds into this crucial agenda. Work is happening to get more Covid testing for school pupils. I speak at a Westminster Hall debate on education of children with special needs, have a catch up with the head of the mental health charity Mind, and speak at another conference, this time on children’s rights.
Cases of Covid have been growing rapidly in the South and East of Essex, there is concern that the who county might be put into Tier 3, which is so hard for those working in hospitality. Councillor John Spence talks me through the detail in each part of the county, I speak to the Health Minister who agrees to set up a call for MPs tomorrow.
In the evening there is a parliamentary reception arranged by Guide Dogs. Usually this is a wonderful event with blind people from all over the country coming together to meet MPs, but this year it’s on Zoom. We hear from children, young people and their families about the work the charity does to support them, and I give an update on how we have been supporting online learning for those with special needs. It feels a bit low to be only able to talk online, so I flick through some old photos and change my zoom background to show some of the super guide dogs that I have met in recent years.
Thursday 10th December The Health Minister arranges for East of England MPs to be briefed on Covid. Essex MPs have been busily studying the Covid case rate, we don’t think it makes sense to move areas into Tier 3 just before the Christmas break, and to club all of Essex together when the case rates are so different. The Minister listens and promises to take this to the Health Secretary.
I join another super special school, this time in County Durham where all their pupils except one who is clinically extremely vulnerable are back at school. I meet with adoption agencies, and then adoptive families who tell me about the online choir they have enjoyed this year and the mutual support it has given them. Our national campaign to encourage more people to come forward as adoptive parents is going well – such good news for the children waiting for loving homes. The Health Secretary announces that students in parts of Essex with high Covid levels should get tests before attending school next week, it is hoped that this will help bring the virus down.
Friday 11th December In Chelmsford I pop over to Age Concern. During lockdown they have started a “meals on wheels” service which is delivering steaming hot lunches to up to fifty elderly people each weekday. For some of the people the chat at the doorstep with the volunteer drivers is the only face to face contact they have each day. I am so impressed by the chef and all the volunteers who have made this happen. It is wonderful to meet them and thank them. If you want to support the charity they now have a page on the Essex Lottery website.
I pop into the covered market to stock up on cheese, fruit and other goodies for Christmas as my student children have started to return home. It is good to see the stalls are busy. The headteacher at Moulsham High School is full of praise for staff and students who have worked so hard, and kept cases of Covid under control. The Chief Constable for Essex Police and our Police Commissioner, Roger Hirst, briefs MPs on crime rates. Its good news as crime has been falling, and more good news that they have taken down a significant county lines gang in Chelmsford. I end the week with an online constituency surgery and by writing to the Health Secretary urging him not to put all of Essex into Tier 3 as one block.