Today I spoke in Business Questions asking for a debate to be held in Government time on the issue of social media usage in prisons.
The issue of social media use in prison needs to be dealt with for the sake of victims and their families. The actions of the killers who brutally murdered 17-year-old Tavis Spencer Aitkens in Ipswich in 2018 show why something must be done. Every single one of these at some stage has posted on various social media platforms from behind bars.
Two of them are repeat offenders who have posted things such as their birthday celebrations on Facebook and snapchats to their friends from prison. One of these posts from Callum Plaats read ‘two years in, light work’.
The affect this is having on the family of Tavis is tremendous. No victims of violent crime or their family should have to be faced with criminals essentially breaking free from their prison walls to virtually torment them.
The fact that the same people are posting time and again proves that current in-house slap-on-the-wrist punishments do not work. I made clear today my view that future approaches need to involve sentences being looked at in order to actually deter these crimes from happening again.
This is why I have asked the Government for a debate on the the issue of social media use in prison which will include proposals about how we punish this crime going forward, particularly in terms of increased sentencing.
The Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, recognised how troubling and horribly sad this is for Tavis’ family and how it must so much rub salt into the wound. He explained that the Government continues to roll out its £100 million spending programme on prisons security during the pandemic which is funding mobile phone blocking technologies and portable detection equipment as well as on next generation body scanners.
In 2019 the Digital Media Investigations Unit worked with social media companies to remove nearly 400 illegal posts and accounts and by June 2020 had removed 220 accounts.
I appreciate what the Leader of the House said in terms of the advances they are making but ultimately, he didn’t address my question about sentencing which in my view is key to effectively deterring prisoners from committing this crime.
Jacob Rees-Mogg acknowledged that this won’t be much comfort to Tavis’ family and accepted that more needs to be done. I will be challenging him and the Government on what they mean when they say more needs to be done, to make sure there is a concrete solution to this problem
Yesterday I led a Westminster Hall debate on the impact of Covid-19 on Education. I did this as part of my role on the petitions committee, where petitions which receive over 100,000 signatures are debated in Parliament.
This has been a topic of central focus throughout this year on the Education Select Committee, and in my role on the APPG for Dyspraxia. I have been fortunate to have been in regular contact with teachers and schools in Ipswich over the course of this pandemic to get a sense for how the pandemic has affected students.
I wanted to raise a number of points on behalf of the petitioners, but I also wanted to thank teachers for the incredible work they have been doing this year.
There is an important point that we shouldn’t make assumptions or generalisations about how students have been affected during this pandemic. Every single child has been affected differently by this pandemic and if we want to ensure that students who have lost out on learning over this year make it up, we need to ensure that catch-up is tailored to individual students and their needs.
It is also clear that the pandemic has taken its toll on student’s mental health. I really believe that we must be careful of the words we use for the sake of student’s mental health. Some of the words used by the media, for example, refer to a ‘lost generation’. We shouldn’t belittle the scale of the challenge, but we need to be positive about the future, and be sensitive to student’s anxieties that they will be able to achieve their full potential.
I also wanted to address SEND students who have been incredibly affected, particularly those who do not have an EHCP plan and so could not go into school for additional support but rather had to undertake online learning. These are unconventional thinkers who often need to be able to ask teachers for points of clarification or explanation on tasks and who might require more tailored learning to reach their potential. I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard about the new tutoring system, that a lot of SEND specialists have contributed to the programme. This is positive.
This is relevant to those students who do not speak English as their first language as well. We have a large Roma community in Ipswich who are not first language English speakers and lots of schools in our town were making tremendous progress with these pupils before the pandemic. Unfortunately, over the school closures there are concerns from headteachers that this has gone backwards so it is vital that these students are given the resources and attention to get back to where they were.
Some students also prefer to sit exams because they might be unconventional learners who consolidate their knowledge during revision and they rely on the opportunity to prove themselves in exams. With exams cancelled, this year has been hard on these pupils, and I believe that it is crucial that they are given a voice when it comes to how their attainment is assessed.
It is important that headteachers and teachers who know students best are given as much flexibility as possible to decide how best to assess student’s attainment, whether it is in mock exams, in class assessments, or coursework. It is also vital that the students themselves are able to feed into this decision to ensure that they get the opportunity to reach the grades they deserve.
On the whole, I think this is a really good budget for Ipswich. Clearly there are two items that are specific to Ipswich and the local area that stand out. Firstly, the £25 million that was announced for the Ipswich Town Deal that will fund 11 projects across the Town. These projects have now been confirmed having previously gone out for public consultation and I look forward to working closely with Dr Dan Poulter and other members of the Town Deal Board to turn these projects into a reality and a positive legacy for the Town.
Having Freeport East confirmed as one of the first freeports in the country was also great news. All in all, around 6,000 of my constituents are either directly or indirectly employed by the Port of Felixstowe and I’m very excited about what the implications of the Port being a freeport could mean for skills, jobs and investment in the area.
More generally however, I was also very pleased to see the significant amount of new support for businesses. Particularly the hospitality sector that has been so badly impacted by the pandemic. The recovery grants and the positive news regarding VAT, business rates and duties may well end up being a lifeline for many.
I signed a few letters ahead of the budget with other MPs. I signed one calling for the £20 increase in Universal Credit to be extended for as long as the pandemic and its effects go on for. I’m pleased it was confirmed today that the increase has been extended for 6 months. I also signed a letter calling for fuel duty to be frozen. I’m pleased that it was confirmed today that it has been frozen for a record 10th consecutive year.
I also believe that the decision to extend the furlough scheme until the autumn is wise. Hopefully by the time it ends, the economy will have had a good few months to really kick off following the end of the restrictions and we can safeguard as many of those jobs as possible.
Clearly, over the coming years the Chancellor is going to have to make a number of tough decisions to repay the huge debts we’ve incurred fighting this pandemic. He made a start today in outlining some of the ways he plans to do this. However, I was pleased that in outlining his approach to increasing Corporation Tax over time he is acutely sensitive to the need to not hit smaller businesses.
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.