Firstly, those concerned about my loss of voice will be pleased to hear it has returned. If nothing else, it permitted me to fully participate in what I was doing last week, as it contained a number of speaking engagements.
Down at Westminster, foremost amongst these was chairing the initial consultative committee of ‘special educational needs’ experts in the field of speech and language therapy to consider how we can improve the new Children & Families Bill. No doubt this sounds extremely niche. However, this will affect how the vast numbers of children currently with some form of particular need are given the support they need. My interest stems from having benefitted from speech therapy myself as a child, and wanting to ensure many others also benefit. The Green Paper promised lots in terms of a ‘local offer’ that would encapsulate a range of needs, but also stretch provision to age 25, and incorporate the needs of those in higher education, and even those in that infamous ‘NEET’ group who are struggling to find their place in the world – many of whom probably have had some sort of communication delay. It is a complex, thorny thicket to ensure that the Bill meets both expectations and needs, hence the group of experts convened to ensure that Parliamentarians are well-briefed on where the Bill can be improved.
Additionally, I attended the launch of Epilepsy Action’s triennial report into epilepsy care in the UK. Once again, regular readers will know I have epilepsy myself, and am a Vice-President of the Charity, so take special interest. I was surprised to discover Blackpool is not aiming to draft any particular strategy for epilepsy care in the area it covers – something I will be taking up with the CCG. Of course, having a plan and providing high levels of care are not necessarily the same thing, but it is important for care provision to be planned on the basis of the best available evidence.
I had a relatively early trip home on the Wednesday evening as I was looking forward to meeting the Minister for the Disabled, Esther McVey, on her Ministerial visit to Blackpool to meet with key local stakeholders concerned with disability issues. A widespread discussion was held, in which I know the Minister was able to hear at first hand why Blackpool plays a leading role in developing national strategy for tackling disability hate crime, as well as hearing some of the wider concerns about disability policy affecting local people. It’s a shame she didn’t have longer, as it would have been good to have met with more from the local disability community as well as the specialist workers, but time is always short on Ministerial visits, so I shall have to keep making myself available! If nothing else, it gave me a few free hours to speak with local traders in Bispham Village to let them know about one of my consultation meetings that is coming up soon. It’s always good to hear from the local businesses themselves.
The following day I was invited to meet with the local Blackpool Business Leadership Group to reinforce my belief that the best anti-poverty programme on the Fylde is one that sees sustainable private sector employment, creating new jobs and new wealth, as part of a wider economic region. We had a good Q&A session covering what my views were on a range of issues from flooding to what I thought of the Government’s ‘alcohol minimum pricing’ plans (on balance ‘in favour’ given the cost to the public purse of alcohol to the town, but disliking the notion of moralising about alcohol, and hoping that it may lead to more innovation in the town centre economy) and the fate, ill or otherwise, of Mary Portas’ proposals for town centres and the government’s response.
I also was pleased to be able to go and see the former Blackpool lifeboat; the Samuel Fletcher that local campaigner Bruce Allen is trying to save on behalf of the people of Blackpool. In the first half of the century, the lifeboats played a central part in Blackpool’s story as a town – indeed they still do today. But the parades of the boat through the town around the turn of the century were guaranteed to turn out crowds. Fascinating histories of lifeboats and the role they played in the town’s development can and will be written. With the help of export restorers, the lifeboat can be put at the service of the town once more, and I wish the project well.
Finally, before departing for my surgery at the City Learning Centre in Grange Park, I went to see Fylde Coast Women’s Aid which is based in the constituency. I had an excellent presentation on the work they do, including the provision they have in Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre for those who need emergency accommodation, and we had a useful discussion about the difficulties of highlighting such a difficult issue. One key point that emerged is that we should never get ourselves of thinking that domestic violence is something which can happen behind any door, and any family, including many we might not expect. A timely and sobering thought on which to end the letter this week.