Monday 16th November It is very, very quiet in the House of Commons with most staff working from home and many MPs taking part virtually, including the Prime Minister who is self-isolating having been contacted by NHS track and trace. I’m wearing one purple and one blue sock as its “Odd Socks Day” when children across the country celebrate diversity as part of Anti-Bullying Week.
Its lovely to start the week on a happy note. Our Children and Families Wellbeing Service run from Chelmsford’s family hub have been helping young people across Mid-Essex with mental health support during Covid. They have been entered for an NHS awards scheme and are the winners for the whole of the East of England. I join the team as they hear the news and there are happy faces all across the Zoom screen.
Over at the Education Department for a packed afternoon of meetings including a round table with Children’s charities and a catch-up meeting on our review of special educational needs and disabilities. I’m concerned about the number of children who have been taken off school registers for home education since the beginning of the pandemic. For some families and children this can work well, but for others there are concerns about the safety and well-being of the child. We discuss ways to better ensure that children at risk of harm are still supported even if they are not attending school, and how to encourage them back into school as we know that this helps to protect them from harm.
MPs are debating the latest Covid measures and cases. It is very late when I finish work for the evening.
Tuesday 17th November There is a challenging situation in Kent, where over the summer and autumn, children have arrived on boats. Unaccompanied asylum seeking children have often faced deep trauma and need support from social services, but this puts pressure on the children’s services in the local area. I join the Immigration Minister and the leader of Kent County Council to discuss ways we can improve the support from other local areas. I catch up with the Head of Ofsted especially about support for children with SEND and then meet parent carers of disabled children to talk about our review.
Wednesday 18th November A detailed meeting with the Head of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, discussing the pressures on social workers across the country and the work that is being doing to make sure our Covid Winter Food Fund gets to the families and children that need extra support at this time. Then a round table with other ministers who are keen to support Family Hubs, these often bring together lots of different services that support families, from health visitors to domestic abuse assistance, mental health and housing advice. The one in Chelmsford has helped many local families and I’m keen to see more across the country.
As part of Anti-Bullying Week I join the Diana Awards charity for a huge round table with children, students, schools and others. Over the past three years over 35,000 children and young people have trained as anti-bullying ambassadors and worked within their schools to reduce bullying and change culture. A new piece of research shows they have been extremely successful. It is good to meet some of them and thank them for their work. A detailed catch up with the Health Minister especially on the new Autism Strategy that she is leading. I join other ministers for another meeting with the Head of Ofsted. They are shortly to publish their annual review which will highlight many of the pressures children and families have faced. At the end of the meeting I ask how we compare to other countries at this time. It is heartening to hear that even though things are extra-ordinarily tough, the work that is being done by schools and children’s services across the country is better than most of our European neighbours and now one is doing better than the UK at making sure children get access to education and support.
Thursday 19th November Such a busy day of online meetings. I join researchers from across the country who are specialists in children’s policy to launch a massive new study “Children of the 2020s” this will follow a cohort of children from the age of 9 months and will help give evidence on how best to support education and development from the very earliest of ages. Then to another meeting this time with those interested in family policy. We are going to set up a new National Centre for Family Hubs which will enable local areas to share best practice, enable hubs to grow across the country and thus give better support to vulnerable families. I check in with the Home Office Minister for safeguarding, we’re extending our project led by Barnardo’s which is supporting thousands of young people, then a massive catch up with all teams from the department who are leading on Covid response, a thoughtful hour on the training programme that I am doing on leading large projects, a call with a Chelmsford Headteacher who is doing great work and evening zoom call catching up with local Conservative Association members. Lots of great ideas.
Friday 20th November My constituency day starts with a BBC Radio Essex interview and then a very uplifting call with the Little Edi’s charity. They have been supporting around 50 households in Chelmsford during the pandemic with food and other essentials. Many of their volunteers are young people and it is great to hear about the work they are doing and how it also helps inspire others. I promise to put them in touch with the team at Essex County Council so that they can get some financial support from the Government’s Winter Food Fund.
I join Kemi Badenoch the MP for Saffron Waldon and North Chelmsford for a meeting with the Essex mental health provider, EPUT. There has been an extremely sad incident when a patient left the Lindon Centre and later died. We discuss the support for the family and the measures that have been put in place to prevent other cases.
There is a new boss at the bus company, First Bus Essex. We have a long talk about the current situation on our buses and it is good to hear that they are running well, abet with fewer passengers than pre-pandemic. I am pleased to hear that there is a renewed focus on reliability and the company is keen to make sure that as more passengers return the service does not return to the situation we had before where too many busses were often delayed.
The last meeting of the day is a zoom call with the owners of flats in some of the blocks across Chelmsford that are affected by the post-Grenfell cladding issue. This was such a terrible tragedy and the good news is that the cladding that was used on the Grenfell Tower is no longer being used and has been removed from nearly all other residential buildings. However, there is still an issue with some buildings with other types of cladding and flat-owners need to get an “ESW1” from on fire safety before they can buy or sell their properties. This has led to delays for people wanting to move and great stress for residents. We talk through the various complicated issues involved and agree a range of actions. I am keen to make sure that Chelmsford residents are not overlooked because other larger cities sometimes get more attention.