Letter from Westminster
June 27th 2014
Last weekend saw the Hampshire Civic Service combined with a commemoration of the start of the First World War in a very moving service in Winchester Cathedral. There was particular emphasis on not just the fallen in the Great War, but all those who have served in the Armed Forces since. It was particularly good to see the role of Cadets in all the Services celebrated, and the presentation of two lanterns by Hampshire Cadets, which will remain in the Cathedral for the next four years, was very poignant.
My Sunday was a busy one, as I had spent the earlier part of the afternoon participating in the 17th Annual Peace Walk in Southampton. This event, which is organised by the Southampton Council of Faiths, is an opportunity for all faiths to come together and visit the many places of worship there are in the City. This year was slightly different as the walk included a visit to the Greek Orthodox Church and went all the way to St Mary’s Church. Unfortunately I could not make it that far as I had to head off to the Cathedral.
On Monday and Tuesday this week I was with the Education Select Committee in Hull, looking at why a very high proportion of their primary schools have converted to academies. In the rest of the country approximately 13% of primary schools are academies, but in Hull it is 50%. I have no doubt that much of the drive to convert came from a particularly ambitious group of Head Teachers, who expressed their commitment to their schools with an enormous amount of enthusiasm. The evidence session we had in the Sirius Academy was interesting, but paled into insignificance in comparison to the BBC School Report Question Time which we filmed with pupils from all the local schools immediately afterwards.
I have also been supporting the Mountbatten School enrichment programme, with a day of mock interviews for Year 10 pupils held at Richard Taunton College. I took part in this event last year, when it was hosted by Eastleigh College, and was equally impressed this year with the engaging and articulate students. With the summer holidays nearly upon us I am again this year hosting a number of local students for work shadowing placements, and I still hold the view that this sort of enrichment programme is absolutely invaluable.
June 20th 2014
My week began with a wonderful visit to King’s Somborne Primary School and some of the most in depth questions I have ever had from any school pupils. The Year 6 pupils were great at cutting straight through any waffle and I really enjoyed the proper grilling I received there. There were questions on Trojan Horse plots, should Ministers publically disagree and the situation in Syria amongst others. It is refreshing to discuss these matters with young people who are taking such an interest in current affairs.
As a member of the Education Select Committee I always enjoy the opportunity to chat informally with members of the teaching profession during these visits, and one of the current inquiries the Committee is running on PSHE is an issue which particularly interests me.
In my position as Chair of the APPG on Body Image, I have long advocated the compulsory inclusion of lessons promoting a positive body image and greater self confidence at every age. Too many young boys and girls feel negative about themselves and the way they look, even when in Primary School.
Part of that work led me to travel to Glasgow this week to take part in a seminar on “lookism”. There is increasing evidence that people are discriminated against both at school and in the work place simply for the way they look, and our increasingly celebrity fixated culture is, in my view, making that situation worse. It was interesting this week to hear the Health Secretary talk about “banning” cosmetic surgery on the NHS. Living as close as we do to the excellent burns unit at Salisbury District Hospital I think it is critically important we get the correct definitions of what constitutes cosmetic. There is, in my view, a vast chasm between essential reconstructive work and cosmetic surgery, and I have been privileged over the last few months to meet the phenomenally inspiring James Partridge of the organisation “Changing Faces”, whose brilliant book is a must read.
This Friday I am meeting again with the Environment Agency to talk flooding and related matters. I am determined that we have to have funding and concrete action to address the problems we faced during the winter in Romsey and some of the surrounding villages. It is a point I keep making to Ministers and will keep doing so until there are plans in place to assist the area.
June 13th 2014
This week in Westminster we have had the most marvellous celebration of the historic County of Hampshire and its produce, with the first ever Hampshire Day. It was a real privilege to work with Hampshire Fare and some of the finest local producers we have in the County, including Little Bee Bakery, Flack Manor Brewery, Leckford Estate (who kindly transported all the produce to Westminster), Parsonage Farm Charcuterie and the many others from outside the Test Valley who took part.
I always knew that Hampshire produced great wine, beer, meat, fish etc but it was a fantastic opportunity to showcase it to the rest of the country and we had MPs from Scotland to Cornwall pop in to sample all that is brilliant from our County. I cannot pretend it was not hard work, it was exhausting, but there was a real buzz in the room all day, and many colleagues were incredibly complimentary about the range and quality of the produce.
I was astonished when I was first elected that there had never been a regional day celebrating Hampshire in Parliament previously, and eventually decided, with the inspiration of Melissa O’Dwyer from Little Bee Bakery in Romsey, that I needed to bite the bullet and organise one. It certainly would not have been possible without the support of Hampshire Fare, and the enthusiasm of all our great producers.
As GCSE season draws to a close the Education Select Committee has moved on to an inquiry into 15-19 exams and the proposed changes which come in from September 2015. I am looking forward to this inquiry, as one of the first “guinea pigs” for the new GCSEs way back in 1988 I know how important it is to get examinations right. Not only do they need to be academically rigorous, but there also needs to be the right balance when it comes to the depth and breadth of subjects. I do not pretend that is easy, and it does feel as if there is an enormous amount of change arriving all at once. It is imperative that schools and teachers are given enough time to prepare for the new qualifications and that the first generation of pupils sitting the exams have confidence in them. As a member of the select committee it gives me the ideal opportunity to scrutinise the policies and keep pressing Ministers to make sure the right decisions are made for this new generation of exam candidates.
June 6th 2014
Parliament resumed this week with the glittering state occasion that is Her Majesty’s Loyal Address to both Houses of Parliament. Despite the suggestions this was a Queen’s Speech light on detail and likely to be very short, there was much included to be welcomed. I spoke earlier in the day with Karen Bradley, the Minister for Modern Day Slavery, who will be leading the Bill through Parliament over the coming months. Many constituents have been in touch on this issue and I am sure readers will recall the case back in February when 13 people were rescued from a house in Southampton and taken to safety by the Red Cross.
I am hoping Karen will be able to come to Romsey over the Summer to meet local residents who have been in touch on this issue and outline the provisions of the Bill, which will be the first one of its kind in Europe. The Bill will simplify existing legislation and toughen sentences for slave drivers and is intended to disrupt and imprison the criminal gangs behind much of the modern slave trade.
B-eat, the eating disorder charity, celebrate their 25th Anniversary this year, and I was pleased to be able to host a reception for them in the House of Commons. The event marked the outstanding work of B-eat’s many volunteers, without whom the charity simply could not function, and it was very appropriate that it took place during Volunteers’ Week, which this year runs from 1st-7th June. The focus of Volunteers’ Week is to say thank you to all those who give up their time and energy to support organisations across the country, and I am always very conscious of the incredible work done by local residents who do so much. Whether it is the volunteer car drivers of Romsey Good Neighbours, or the helpers at Romsey Opportunity Group or the many many other voluntary groups in and around the town, I am always impressed by the massive community spirit we have here.
A final comment on the Queen’s Speech, I was delighted to hear there will be direct elections to the National Park Authorities but more circumspect about the proposed changes to the planning system. I remain very conscious that here in Southern Test Valley there is a real need to protect the countryside and the important gaps between settlements, a point I will continue to make to the Minister.