Parliament has reconvened after the short conference recess. As promised in my last column, I spoke this week during the debate on the Agriculture Bill. I wanted to ensure that the needs of our local farmers were represented and included in the policies which will replace EU law and the Common Agricultural Policy when we leave the EU next year. This is the first time, since 1947, that Parliament has had the opportunity and power to set the framework and shape the future farming and agricultural landscape. It is an exciting challenge. We must get it right, which will mean more scrutiny in the months to come.
It is lost on me why MPs come back for two weeks in September, only to break again for three weeks for each political party to hold its own party conference. I am not sure this is a good look for constituents. I would personally prefer us to work more conventional hours stretched across the year rather than sit in bursts and cramming matters in so I miss the last train home to East Sussex. Perhaps a party conference lasting one day, and only having a speech from the party leader, rather than from those auditioning, would be considered as progress.
I am afraid that I cannot report back on the party conference because I did not attend. Instead, I spent my week visiting twenty constituency schools where I spoke to pupils in assemblies and in the classroom about the role of an MP, how politics and democracy has evolved over the years. I also explained the local, national and international campaigns I am running on their behalf. Given this was a mix of history and citizenship, a requirement for schools to deliver, I prepared a presentation and made sure there was plenty of time for the pupils to ask questions as we went along.
What a fantastic collection of local schools we have. Our headteachers, teachers and staff are clearly driven to help every pupil achieve their individual potential. They embed a real sense of community and duty in their schools and pupils. This ethos embodies all that is great about our part of the country.
It is not just my position as the son of a teacher which causes me to have such respect for the teaching profession. There are challenges facing our schools yet the staff remain fully focussed on motivating their pupils. In my talks, I was explaining to the pupils about my campaign to deliver fairness for our county. In East Sussex, and despite a recent welcome increase by 5%, a secondary pupil is now funded to the tune of £4,300 per year. We have secured a commitment to raise it again to £4,600. However, the unfairness is that other parts of the UK get more. In Hackney, it can be almost £7,000. This is before we assess individual pupil needs. Every pupil should receive an equal amount of money and not be subject to a postcode lottery. The centre should also fund schools if it increases costs on them.
Other issues raised by staff were around the manner in which funds for pupils are paid a year behind (meaning a lack of incentive for schools to expand), a lack of primary capacity in Bexhill schools (and some time before the new school will be delivered on the link road) and the challenges in replacing aging buildings. With the pupils, I discussed Leaving the EU, lowering the voting age, better mental health services, transport costs and provision, bringing the Bayeux Tapestry to Battle and the challenge in finding part-time work for teenagers when the age limit keeps rising.
Despite the challenges outlined, the question I get asked most regularly by young pupils is ‘Have you ever met the Queen?’ I was talking to the Schools Minister during PMQs and he was able to reassure me that this is not just a curiosity in East Sussex. It is his most frequently asked question when visiting schools across the nation.