Last week I spoke in a backbench debate on education on the Government’s plan for assessments. I welcomed the reopening of schools on the 8th March.
In terms of SEND students, many have struggled with online learning. As I know from my own experience, many people with dyslexia and dyspraxia value examinations because they do not learn in the same way as their peers. Being unconventional learners, they have the opportunity to surprise people in exams because they can consolidate their knowledge in their own way. I believe that when teachers are deciding whether their pupils should do tests or not, the pupils should feed into that decision as they may want their attainment to be reflected by in-class assessment. I would like to see more clarity from the Government on whether schools will make these decisions for all their pupils collectively or whether different methods can be used for pupils with different needs.
I also noted that in terms of the impacts school closures, the most disadvantaged have been the hardest hit. This especially applies to pupils from the Roma community in Ipswich who do not have English as their first language. Lots of schools in Ipswich were making tremendous progress with these pupils before the pandemic but unfortunately rates of participation in online learning has been lower amongst this group than the average and as a result there are concerns that progress has gone backwards. Therefore, when we talk about ensuring pupils catch up, an element of that is providing resources to schools to help these kids get back to where they were.
I also expressed my excitement about the FE white paper and my desire to see Suffolk included in the Trailblazer Schemes for the new skills improvement plans. I have spoken to so many businesses recently who tell me about the jobs they have coming down the pipeline who want to be able to capitalise on a local skills base.
On the Education Select Committee last week, I wanted to tackle the issue of the unequal schools funding formula which puts pupils in more deprived areas of our town at a disadvantage compared to their peers in other areas of the country.
There is serious funding inequality when it comes to schools in more deprived pockets within largely prosperous counties. The money these pupils receive per head, as is the case within Ipswich, can be multiple times lower than their counterparts from less prosperous counties and this needs to change.
My calls for further explanation of this was joined by David Simmons MP who cited the fact that a child with pupil premium (the extra grant given by the Government per student from the most-disadvantaged backgrounds) in Shropshire, gets less money than a child without the pupil premium in Birmingham. This is almost certainly the case for a child in Ipswich as compared to Birmingham as well. It is completely unacceptable that a child from a low-income background in Ipswich should receive any less funding than a child from a low-income background in any other part of the country. And they certainly should not be receiving less funding per head than more well-off pupils in other parts of the country.
Another issue is the funding of SEND in Suffolk. Funding for special school places in Suffolk are also unacceptably lower than neighbouring areas. In Norfolk, a specialist placement for a child with autism is funded at £27,000 per year, but in Suffolk that number is £19,500. I believe that this disparity must be addressed. I wrote the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson about this funding disparity in January and I will be writing to him to push all of the points raised on this issue at the Education Committee.
It is very clear to me that when it comes to funding our schools, there needs to a formula in place that is sensitive to the specific needs of each child.
Today I spoke in the debate on the Fire Safety Bill in support of the McPartland Smith Amendment to which I was an early signatory. This amendment was designed to protect leaseholders from unfair costs of rectifying the issue of unsafe insulation within their buildings. Unfortunately this amendment was not accepted and we didn’t have the opportunity to vote upon it. However the Minister did seem to be open to compromise though which was welcome.
I have previously welcomed the support that Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced. The £3.5 billion fund to remove unsafe cladding from buildings over 18m will benefit many of my constituents. This is on top of the already existing £1.6 billion Fire Safety Fund. My first surgery appointment after my election involved me meeting with St Francis Tower leaseholders and I’m glad that since that meeting there has been progress and they no longer have uncertainty hanging over them.
But I made it clear again today that, while this is a good start, this support doesn’t touch a number of my constituents affected by unsafe insulation. Many of those in Ipswich who have come to me since my election still have this uncertainty hanging over their lives which is unacceptable.
The Minister stated that the Building Safety Bill that will be brought forward shortly will be an opportunity for Government legislation to pick up on the issues raised by the amendment that I signed. I plan to work closely with Government to try and make sure this is the case.
I made a promise to my constituents that I would leave no leaseholder behind, yet sadly there are still a significant number of leaseholders who do feel left behind and this needs to be addressed. I’ve worked closely with Minister’s over the past couple of days to try and secure the assurances I need on behalf of my constituents but we’re not currently where we need to be which is why I was prepared to vote for the amendment today.
As you will have noticed I’ve been carrying out a number of surveys over the past month or so and I wanted to share the results of the latest survey. Like the last survey around 1,000 Ipswich residents took part and though I would hardly describe the survey as scientific, its still useful to get a bit of a snapshot of what my constituents are thinking regarding some of the key issues of the day. I shared the survey on my social media platforms and promoted to all those living in the Town and encouraged them to take part.
Here are the results:
- Do you agree with the Prime Minister’s plan to start the phased reopening of schools on 8th March?
- No, 8th March is too early to start reopening: 42%
- Yes, I agree with the plan: 48%
- Schools should reopen now: 10%
- Should all teaching staff be prioritised for the vaccine?
- Yes: 77%
- No: 23%
- Do you believe that any other key workers should be prioritised for the vaccine?
- All key workers should be: 70%
- Police: 17%
- Retail workers: 3%
- Do you believe University students should have to pay full tuition fees for the academic year 2020-2021?
- Partial refund: 70%
- Full refund: 21%
- Full fees: 9%
- Have you been satisfied with the vaccine roll out?
- Yes: 77%
- No: 12%
- Don’t know: 11%
- Do you believe that the temporary increase in Universal Credit should be extended beyond March?
- It should be extended for as long as the pandemic goes on for: 57%
- The increase should be made permanent: 21%
- No: 22%
I have to say that mostly these results correspond with my position on the key issues. I support the temporary extension of the Universal Credit increase beyond March but I’m wary about making it permanent. It’s clear at the moment many people are having to turn to the welfare state often for the first time in their lives due to the economic disruption caused by the pandemic and the support should be there for them. I also know that the effects of this pandemic will extend even beyond the current lockdowns and so I believe that adequate support should exist to keep everyone on their feet until the economy has fully recovered. However I also think that it would be wrong to commit to making the uplift permanent at this stage when we are still assessing what the impact of the pandemic will be on our public finances in the medium to long term.
I have to say, I also largely agree with the majority on the plan to reopen schools. Most people believe that schools should reopen on the 8th March. Any later than that, and I fear that our children will fall too far behind. Especially those with special educational needs who need in-person learning. Not only am I concerned for pupil’s level of attainment, but also their mental health. We need to get students back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.
The fact of the matter is that if all key workers are prioritised, I do fear that we would end up taking away vaccines from those most vulnerable to the virus, due to the sheer number of key workers that there are across the country. It is for this reason that I think we should keep the exception only for teachers. The huge societal importance of getting our schools fully open again asap as well as the exposure of teaching staff to the virus mean that there is a special case prioritisation, in my view.
In terms of university tuition fees, I have made the point before that I really do think students should not be paying full fees while they are unable to use the facilities and do not have access to the full university education that they would otherwise have had outside this pandemic. It is not fair on them at all. I am glad to see that the overwhelming majority of respondents agreed with this position.
Finally, I’m not surprised that the overwhelming majority of participants in the survey have been impressed with the vaccine roll out. Huge thank you to all those NHS workers and volunteers who have made this possible at the local level. We will never forget.
For my column this month, I wanted to take a look at how well Ipswich compares to other similar towns in terms of Government funding. I also wanted to compare our rates of council tax and how it is spent.
It is vital that our town receives a fair funding deal over the course of this pandemic and as such I have been receiving data from the House of Commons Library to keep an eye on the situation.
In general terms over the course of the last ten years I am happy to report that Ipswich Borough Council has been receiving funding from the Government in line with the amount that is spent on other councils of a similar size and type across the country. To confirm this, I looked at the data from five local authorities which are most similar to Ipswich. These are Gloucester, Lincoln, Chesterfield, Nuneaton and Bedworth, and Scarborough.
All of these are lower tier Borough Councils within rural counties. They are all also Large Town local authorities with similar levels of deprivation to Ipswich. Encouraging data on the amount of additional funding provided by the Government over the course of this year tells a similar story. Millions of pounds of extra funding has been provided to Ipswich Borough Council by the Government to ensure that our local businesses and public services are able to cope during this pandemic.
I think the numbers are interesting. Over the course of this pandemic Ipswich Borough Council has been given, at the very least, £33,569,871 in additional funding from the Government. This figure is drawn from the four tranches of the Emergency funding allocation; the Next Steps Accommodation Programme; the Reopening High Streets grant fund; Small business Grant Fund; and the Council Tax Hardship Fund. The figure also includes the £1,244,250 which was given to Ipswich Borough Council as part of the Local Authority Discretionary grant fund which they have been using to provide further support in cases where there is an extra need.
The largest portion of this support comes from the Small Business Grant Fund which has been used to keep our retail and hospitality businesses afloat with over £26 million. This is Government money that is specifically designed to support our hospitality sector and we are glad that this has allowed Ipswich Borough Council to set up a scheme to support our brilliant pubs and restaurants. I have said before on a number of occasions, that having spoken to the hospitality industry in Ipswich, I would like to see this funding increase and I am hoping for the extension of business rates holidays and tax holidays well into the future.
It is important to remember as well that this figure does not reflect the total amount of additional funding that has gone to Ipswich over this pandemic. Government money also finds its way into our town via Suffolk County Council to support local improvements, but here we have a good depiction of the direct funding which comes straight from the Government to people and businesses in Ipswich. The £2 million support from the Covid Winter Grant Scheme has targeted those most in need and continues to make a real difference across Suffolk.
At the end of February, the Labour Party brought an Opposition Day motion in Parliament on the issue of council tax. What they termed ‘The Prime Minister’s Council Tax hike’ was a reference to the decision announced as part of the offer to give councils the ability to increase council tax by 2% (with an additional 3% social care precept) if they chose to. They don’t have to and have the flexibility to defer this increase for a year.
The Labour Party’s position in the debate was yet another contradiction, given that their leadership in local government, including the Mayor of London, are calling for higher rises, and “Captain Hindsight” Keir Starmer has previously called for the introduction of new local taxes. The ten local authorities with the worst council tax collection rates according the data we have from 2019-20 are all Labour-run. These were Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Salford, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Preston, Nottingham, Tameside and Kingston upon Hull.
Not only this, but Labour councils across the country have spent irresponsibly with countless and needless steps into the world of commercial property investing. The worst culprits for this are Nottingham and Croydon which has officially declared itself bankrupt. Yet in London, Sadiq Khan has still found the money to increase his PR budget to £13 million whilst also raising his share of Council Tax by 10%.
It is no surprise then that many have questioned why Ipswich Borough Council are spending £22.5 million on office blocks in Peterborough. This being spent during the pandemic, when working from home has opened up a whole new debate on ways of working, would appear to make this a questionable investment. It might be different if this money was actually invested within Ipswich, supporting a worthwhile project that could be a significant benefit to the town but this obviously isn’t. Even if things go well, it is anticipated that it will take 10 years of office rents for Ipswich to make its money back. I continue to hope that our labour run Borough Council focusses its attention less on risky business ventures outside of our town and more on spending money on local initiatives.
I continue to lobby the Government at every available opportunity to make sure that Ipswich is not left behind with Government funding and their levelling up agenda. On the whole I am happy to see a Conservative Government back local businesses with emergency funds during the pandemic, supporting those that need it most. I want to see this continue and to go deeper so that nobody is left behind and every Ipswich business has the opportunity to emerge from this pandemic. It is clear that across the country when it comes to keeping Council Tax low, not wasting taxpayers money or exposing them to risky investments, it is Conservative councils that can be trusted.
GROOMING GANGS DEBATE: The appalling crimes committed by those involved in grooming gangs have destroyed the lives of thousands of young predominantly white working-class girls and if the lessons are to be learnt to avoid further pain and suffering then the facts need to be fully established and cultural sensitivities and political correctness cannot be allowed to get in the way of this.
Yesterday I led the Grooming Gangs debate in the House of Commons Chamber following two petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people calling for the issue to be debated.
Ahead of the debate I touched base with the petition creator and some of the victims of this appalling crime. It’s clear that many of the victims believe that they were targeted specifically because of their ethnic background.
A report was published last December into this issue however it was limited in the conclusions it drew and doesn’t really us to get to the bottom of the issue. I therefore welcomed the Minister’s promise that more work will be done and that going forward data relating to the ethnic background of all those found guilty of child sex exploitation (CSE) will be collected. I’m at a loss as to why this wasn’t the case in the past and the lack of such data has made it very hard to drawn clear conclusions and therefore to robustly tackle this issue. Fully understanding whether there are cultural reasons and explanations for the widespread nature of this appalling crime in certain parts of the country, and particularly in Towns such as Rotherham and Rochdale, is clearly incredibly important.
The victims have too often been let down by the establishment. Both at local and national level. Too often those with knowledge have been too scared of speaking out for fear of being branded a racist. This must not be allowed to happen going forward. Clearly it is totally wrong for different communities to be stigmatised and we must always guard against racism, but we cannot sweep difficult issues under the carpet. This doesn’t help the situation and in the long run it can make community relations even more difficult.
If it is the case that certain crimes are disproportionately committed by members from within certain communities, we need to be open and honest about it, simply sweeping it under the carpet and refusing to confront the hard truths won’t help the situation. In my view that really needs to be one of the key lessons.
Opposition debate today on cladding. I was able to get in an intervention on the Housing Minister. I’ve been very active on this issue since I was first contacted by St Francis Tower leaseholders just over 1 year ago and continue to work closely with Ipswich Cladiators to ensure the concerns of Ipswich leaseholders are addressed.
I’m pleased that St Francis Tower leaseholders have secured support from the Building Safety Fund but there are a large number of my constituents in other buildings across Town who still have uncertainty hanging over them. In my intervention I asked about the £30 million “Waking Watch Relief Fund”. I’m pleased that my constituents will be able to bid in to the fund but I share many of their fears that the £30 million set aside will be insufficient to cover every leaseholder effected right across the country.
I am one of 34 Conservative MPs to have signed an amendment to the Fire Safety Bill that would make sure that leaseholders do not have to pay for the cost of remediation work to address fire safety issues in the buildings in which leaseholders live. This is a legally binding amendment to a Government Bill and if passed would have legal “teeth”.
Today I abstained on a non-binding opposition day motion calling for something very similar. I would encourage the opposition to back the legally binding amendment that I’ve signed. It is through backing this amendment that I believe real change will be delivered. The Government have stated that there are some technical issues with the amendment, if this is the case then I encourage the Government to work with the two Conservative MPs leading on this amendment to ensure that it works as intended and provides certainty to leaseholders asap.
It is morally wrong that leaseholders are being asked to pay for defects with the buildings in which they live when they have no responsibility for it whatsoever. I’m will continue to push for more clarity and action for leaseholders over the coming weeks.
I asked the Education Secretary a question yesterday about the quality of remote education. I appreciate that not all online classes will be “live” but I do believe that a good proportion should be.
As always I was keen to ensure that those with special educational needs get the support they need. Pupils with EHCP (Education and Health Care Plans) are eligible to come into school at the moment but many who have special educational needs but don’t have an EHCP plan are not.
A number of teachers and parents have made clear to me how important it is for these pupils to have a certain level of online classes that are live, particularly those with speech and language difficulties. Pupils with special education needs often process information very differently and therefore having a live lesson does provide them with the opportunity to question and make it clear if they’re struggling with a given topic. Ultimately though I do understand why a mixture of live and pre-prepared is likely to be the most common outcome at most schools.
I can also see mental health benefits to a proportion of the classes being live. Tackling loneliness and providing a certain level of human engagement (though remote) with their teachers and classmates.
As you will see I also pay thanks at the start of my question to all teachers in Ipswich who I appreciate are operating in very difficult circumstances. The majority are balancing continuing to teach some classes in person at their school with the children of key workers and vulnerable children with the online classes that they are also having to lead.
I can understand fully why it may be the case that not all online learning providing by schools is live but I am keen that a good proportion is.
None of this is a substitute however for real time lessons which is why I’m keen for all schools to reopen again as soon as it’s safe for them to do so. Ideally after the February half term.