By The Rt Hon Mark Francois Member of Parliament for Rayleigh and Wickford – Another busy year as your MP.
2023 proved to be yet another busy year as your Member of Parliament.
Using new software, it was estimated that we received just under 40,000 emails over the 12-month period. Some of those were spam, but the vast majority were from constituents who required assistance.
Alongside this, I held 22 regular constituency surgeries, taking my collective total of surgeries I have held as your local MP to over 485. Additionally, below, I have listed just some of the issues and local campaigns that I was closely involved with last year.
Last summer, the issues caused by the discovery of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in a number of schools nationwide caused understandable worry for many residents. Having already experienced this issue at King Edmund school, in Ashingdon, I understand how concerning this is for staff, parents and pupils alike.
Therefore, when it was announced by the Department for Education (DfE) that Hockley Primary School, Bromfords School, in Wickford and Wyburns School, in Rayleigh would also have to unexpectedly close, wholly, or partially, on the grounds of safety, I sought to do everything I could to support the Headteachers and schools.
This included meetings with the Education Secretary Gillian Keegan MP, Baroness Barran, Minister for the School System, the previous Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb MP; and officials at the DfE.
I am pleased to say that thanks to the tireless efforts from all parties involved, face-to-face learning was largely continued through this difficult period. In the case of Wyburns, I recently paid a visit to their temporary home, and it was clear that the pupils are settling in well to their new surroundings, but they ultimately want their old school back, so I am working hard with Ministers and Essex County Council to try and make that prospect a reality soon into the New Year.
Turning to an issue, which I know many local residents feel very strongly about – roadworks. That is why, last year, I published my Roadworks (Regulation) Bill to try and tackle this issue head-on.
The aim of the Bill would be to give local highway authorities much stronger powers to control the granting of permits to anyone who wanted to dig up the highway network, mandate highway authorities to take all practicable steps to “deconflict” roadworks in their areas, whilst also materially increasing the fines for roadworks that overrun.
I was delighted that the then Roads Minister, Richard Holden MP, endorsed the campaign stating that the Bill “had hit the nail on the head with its detailed proposals.” The AA have also endorsed the campaign stating that they “fully support the objectives of the Bill.” Having had positive feedback from the Department for Transport (DfT), they have promised to come back with a further update, and I hope I can report back with some good news, shortly.
One Bill that I was delighted to see get onto the statute book was the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. For several years, I and several other Essex MPs campaigned hard in Parliament for the “Irish Option”, (named after a change in the law in Ireland, some two decades ago), which would make acts of deliberate trespass a criminal, rather than civil offence.
These changes were finally adopted in this Bill, and I subsequently met with the new Rochford and Castle Point District Commander, Chief Inspector Paul Hogben in October last year to discuss this legislation.
During this meeting, Chief Inspector Hogben confirmed that this seems to have had a strong deterrent effect, on the minority of Travellers who sought to deliberately flout the law and compared to last year, unauthorised encampments appear to be down markedly across the County, something which I was very pleased to hear.
As a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, I was also delighted to support the second reading of the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports Bill), something that was also very close the heart of my great friend Sir David Amess. Indeed, during the second reading on the Bill, I said the following: “Our great friend Sir David Amess, who was a Conservative MP and a patron of the excellent Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, was passionate about this cause.
“Does my right hon. Friend, the former Secretary of State for DEFRA, agree that it would be a great tribute to him if all of us, in all parts of this House, could pass this very important Bill into law?”
In addition, I was pleased that the Minister for Farming, Mark Spencer MP, has agreed to meet with me and David’s excellent successor, Anna Firth MP, to discuss the Farm Animal Welfare Committee’s Report 2015 report on Farrowing Crates and the issue more widely.
One issue that I also felt strongly about was the planned proposals to close railway ticket offices.
These plans proved highly unpopular in my constituency, and I therefore campaigned actively against these proposals. Indeed, during a debate in Westminster, I said the following to the Railway Minister, Huw Merriman MP: “In all seriousness, I offer him and the Government some genuine advice: look around.
“The proposals are completely unloved. They are not popular even among Conservative Back Benchers — quite, quite the opposite. I urge the Minister to accept that a mistake has been made.
“It may not have been his mistake, but I say to him: take the hint, drop it, get rid of it and retreat gracefully. Do not press forward with this. The House of Commons does not want it and nor do our constituents.”
I was therefore delighted that common sense prevailed, and that the Government decided to listen and drop the proposals, not least for the benefit of my constituents, who felt very strongly about this issue.
Looking forward, I am delighted my campaign for a new Special Needs School in South Essex, continues to make steady progress.
In recent years, as part of my constituency casework and surgeries, I have been approached by an increasing number of parents who have been experiencing real practical difficulties, in finding suitable school places for their children, who have special needs.
Put simply, we do not have enough special needs places, particularly in the south of the County to deal with ever-increasing demand.
I have therefore been working closely with Essex County Council’s Education Team to discuss how to make this campaign a reality. In addition, I hope to be meeting with Education Ministers very shortly and I look forward to hopefully providing a substantive update, in the near future.
As ever, if you are a constituent and you would like to discuss a particular issue with me, please do make an appointment at one of my regular constituency surgeries. To make an appointment, please telephone the constituency office on: 01268 742 044.
Finally, may I take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy New Year.
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