Parliament has questions to education ministers roughly once a month – this month’s session was on Monday. MPs queued up to grill Gavin Williamson and his hapless ministerial team – and it wasn’t just Labour MPs who are worried and were doing the grilling. More and more children are being sent home from school to self-isolate, or because there aren’t enough staff to teach them; promised laptops for children who don’t have access to the necessary digital resources at home haven’t arrived; we still have no idea how the government plans to run exams next summer, or how students will be able to return safely to university after the Christmas holiday; childcare providers say they’re being forced out of business because of lack of support from the government. To each of the concerns raised by MPs, Gavin and his team responded that these matters were a ‘priority’ for the department for education. Well, the Christmas term is nearly over, and the lack of urgent action is astonishing. No wonder MPs from across the House were so agitated.
I can only imagine how stressful and exhausting the situation must be for everyone in education, and the government’s indifference to the crisis is unforgivable. To make matters worse, the chancellor used his spending announcement this week to announce that public sector pay is to be frozen, for all but NHS and care staff and the lowest paid workers. Firefighters, police officers, teaching assistants and many more lose out. Teachers have been working flat out for months, but 80% of secondary teachers and 75% of primary teachers will be denied a pay rise as a result of this announcement.
Not only is this a kick in the teeth for hardworking staff, frozen wage packets mean less spending in local shops and businesses. Meanwhile, the government refuses to commit to maintaining the £20 increase in universal credit after April – a modest but essential boost to hard pressed family budgets – and many of those who’ve lost their jobs or businesses, or seen their working hours cut thanks to covid, are really struggling. Our economy is already performing worse than our European neighbours, and supporting family incomes would both benefit those households and would be one of the best and quickest ways to help stimulate the recovery. As would investing in jobs and retraining, but the programmes announced by the chancellor are painfully slow arriving, and the investment much lower than in other countries. With unemployment rising sharply, the government’s response is deeply inadequate.
This week, we’ve also had the announcement that Greater Manchester will be placed in tier 3 covid restrictions from next week, at least until a review on 16 December. I know how disappointing and upsetting this will be for constituents and local businesses. Although our infection rate has been improving, the number of people in our hospitals remains high – I’m hoping that the fall in the number of positive cases will feed through to lower hospitalisations by the time the restrictions are reviewed, and we’ll be able to move to a lower tier as soon as possible. Meantime, the government has also announced arrangements for 3 households to meet up at Christmas, but please, if you’re thinking of doing so, take note of the advice about how to stay as safe as possible.
More cheerfully, I’m pleased to report the government was outmanoeuvred by the opposition on Tuesday. We have been very concerned that MPs with serious health conditions or who live with vulnerable family members, and who can’t attend parliament in person, aren’t able to participate in debates to represent their constituents – even though we have the technology that would enable them to do so remotely. The government has been utterly unreasonable about this, and tried to bounce through a vote on Tuesday which would have reinforced these unfair arrangements. Labour, helped by other opposition parties, was determined to prevent the vote from happening, and starting soon after 3 pm until 7 pm (with a short pause while an argument took place about whether the despatch boxes needed to be wiped down with sanitiser between frontbench speeches), colleagues kept talking in the chamber until time ran out and the vote couldn’t be taken. Particular congratulations to two colleagues, Lucy Powell MP and Valerie Vaz MP, who between them were on their feet nonstop for around 2 hours. The government has now been forced to schedule a proper debate on the subject next week, and I hope ministers are reconsidering their position.