Parliament hasn't been meeting while the party conferences have been taking place. Last week, I was in Brighton attending Labour's conference. This week, the Conservatives held their conference here in Manchester.
You won't have failed to notice the difference between the two events. Labour's conference was exciting, packed out for the main speeches, and full to bursting at the fringe meetings I attended, on everything from tackling homelessness to the impact of Brexit. Major announcements on public sector pay, a national education service, and a cap on credit card interest were received enthusiastically.
The Conservatives by contrast had what is widely agreed to have been a disastrous conference, with row upon row of empty seats, Boris Johnson's disloyal and outrageous shenanigans, and Theresa May's speech meltdown.
The announcements made by the Prime Minister really don't bear scrutiny. She boasted the Tories introduced a National Living Wage, currently set at £7.50 for those over 25. What she didn't say is that it's not the same as the independently assessed real LIVING wage across the UK of £8.45 an hour.
She also told us that there are more women in work than ever before. Of course, it's good that more people who want to work can do so. But having a job isn't necessarily a route out of poverty. There was nothing in her speech about the disgraceful increase in in-work poverty over the past few years. She conveniently overlooked the cuts and welfare reforms that are making women worse off.
As for her statement that Conservatives “have always taken on vested interests when they are working against the interests of the people" - well, she must have forgotten that her party has slashed tax credits, abolished the education maintenance allowance, closed hundreds of Sure Start centres, and removed housing benefit for 18-21 year olds. Instead, as fast as Mrs May announced new policies to her conference, they were criticised for being pale imitations of Labour, such as her plans to make energy bills affordable, or for doing more harm than good, like the £10bn for the discredited Help to Buy scheme, which risks pushing prices even higher in an already unaffordable property market. Her new affordable housebuilding plans will scarcely scratch the surface of the housing shortage in places like Trafford.
But her most risible statement was surely when she said "I rely on the NHS. I believe in the NHS. And … we believe in ensuring that a world class NHS will be there for generations to come”. Everyone knows the funding pressures faced by the NHS thanks to the Tories. If Mrs May is really serious about a strong NHS, she needs to start by scrapping the 1% cap on nurses' and health workers' pay rises, and making sure they're paid fairly.
Away from the conferences and away from parliament, I've had the chance to do some really interesting things. Last week, I visited Styal women's prison to hear how prison staff and community-based offender managers are working 'through the gate' together, and some of the pressures they face. This was a very informative visit, in which I was able to speak to staff and offenders about their experiences and views. I'm hoping we will be able to debate some of the issues they raised in parliament soon.
And I was also very pleased to participate in a 'Citizens' Assembly' on what sort of Brexit people think we should aim for, which brought together 23 Remain and 25 Leave voters, alongside 3 people who did not vote in the EU referendum, for two weekends of discussion and debate. After hearing from experts - and politicians! - the majority view is for a 'soft Brexit', which protects the closest possible trading relationships with our EU neighbours. You can read more at http://ukandeu.ac.uk/the-citizens-assembly-on-brexit-how-did-it-work. Meantime, I'll be returning to parliament on Monday to make sure those views are heard.