It was an enormous privilege to be appointed Attorney General for England and Wales by the Prime Minister. It is a role that has existed in Parliament since at least 1243. Before I was first elected as your MP in 2015, I worked in the Government Legal Department for seventeen years. I provided advice on military, prisons and national security matters and represented the Government in court. It is great to be returning to the law in my new role, and to be working with the many excellent professionals across the Law Officers’ Departments once again.
It has been another busy month in the constituency. As always, it was a pleasure to visit Glory Farm Primary School. I was given a brilliant tour of the school by Headteacher Jane MacLachlan and the senior leadership team, and enjoyed meeting every year group. It was great to see building work well underway for their brand-new classrooms. I look forward to visiting again once the work is complete!
I was also pleased to visit HMP Bullingdon last week to meet Governor Laura Sapwell and discuss future plans for the facility. I was encouraged by the progress which has been made during her tenure. I was particularly interested to discuss recent work to improve the access of prisoners to education and job support, acknowledging the specific needs of prisoners to facilitate reform, and reintegration on release.
It was great to see so many constituents at one of my regular advice surgeries, this time held at Garth House. I enjoyed speaking to those who had booked appointments, including 11-year-old Grace who wanted to speak to me about how we can all do our bit to protect the environment by picking up litter and avoiding single-use plastics. Surgeries are a great way to raise issues with me in person. If you have any concerns you would like to discuss, please do get in touch.
Earlier in the month, I caught up with Superintendent Emma Garside, our local police commander in Cherwell, at Bicester Police Station. Emma told me that the most concerning crimes locally include drug dealing, violent crime and anti-social behaviour. She was keen to share the real progress that has been made in these areas recently. I was particularly pleased to hear that there has been a significant reduction in reports of anti-social behaviour in Bicester in recent months. I am grateful to Emma for meeting me and will continue our regular conversations to make sure that constituents’ concerns on local policing matters are always heard.
Over the past few weeks, I have also launched some new campaigns on important local problems. I know many of my constituents share my concerns about the discharge of sewage into rivers, including the River Cherwell. Last month, I wrote to the Chief Executive of Thames Water, Sarah Bentley, to find out about what is being done to safeguard our River Cherwell and limit sewage discharge into it. I asked her for a meeting to discuss the issue in more detail and understand what work Thames Water is doing to deliver on the new duties placed on water companies. I will post updates on this issue on my website and social media.
Access to high-speed broadband and reliable mobile coverage is another issue that has been raised consistently with me in recent months. While Banbury and Bicester broadly benefit from strong broadband and reliable mobile coverage, there are many in surrounding villages who have been left behind by the rollout of gigabit-capable broadband and are frustrated by mobile not-spots.
Our area has the lowest rate of gigabit-capable broadband coverage in Oxfordshire, and one of the lowest in the South East, with coverage 20 percent below the national average. It is absolutely vital that residents have access to a reliable broadband service. We must also work towards achieving universal mobile coverage in line with the Government’s Shared Rural Network programme.
My Digital Connectivity Survey is now live on my website. To help me build a comprehensive picture of where mobile and broadband coverage is weak in North Oxfordshire, please visit www.victoriaprentis.com/digital-connectivity. Paper copies can also be requested by getting in touch with my office. Your experiences will help inform my findings, which will be shared with providers and colleagues in Government.
I was honoured to have been appointed Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) by the Prime Minister last month. We know we will face enormous challenges this winter. I chaired the cross-government taskforce for feeding the vulnerable during the pandemic, where I saw first-hand the importance of targeted support. I look forward to working with the new Secretary of State, Chloe Smith, and colleagues across government to ensure that we deliver support to those who need it.
I know how much concern there is with rising costs. It is obviously a difficult time for everybody. I am therefore really pleased with the action that the Government has taken to give people greater certainty with their energy bills. The Energy Price Guarantee now applies and will discount the unit cost for gas and electricity use. A typical household will pay no more than £2,500 per year for each of the next two years. Constituents can visit the dedicated Government cost of living webpage at www.gov.uk/cost-of-living to find out more about the available support.
Last month I held a meeting with Oxfordshire County Council to discuss our local SEND service. I was able to discuss some concerns raised with me by constituents about communication, the allocation of funding, staffing and the process for applications directly with Council representatives. I was reassured that significant funding has been allocated to the service recently by the Council, and that senior leadership are working to address shortcomings in the service. It is vital that we see improvements made in Oxfordshire. I will be monitoring progress very closely.
I have thoroughly enjoyed getting out and about in Bicester recently. A highlight was visiting British electric vehicle manufacturer Arrival's Microfactory in Launton. My visit coincided with the launch of the first Van assembled using autonomous mobile robots instead of a traditional assembly line. It is amazing to see such cutting-edge manufacturing taking place right here in Bicester, reinforcing Oxfordshire’s credentials as a world-leading centre for R & D.
Another fascinating visit was to Smiths Bletchington’s Dewars Farm Quarry in Ardley. I was very interested to tour this limestone quarry, as well as seeing restored areas being returned to agricultural use. The company employs over 100 people across 5 sites, producing a combined total of up to 2 million tonnes of aggregate a year. With such a professional operation, it is no surprise that the quarry was named BAA Quarry of the Year 2022.
I continue to enjoy a very busy diary and my team and I have been working hard to support and signpost constituents. If there is a local issue that I can help with, please do get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. It may seem a little early, but I have just launched my annual Christmas card competition for primary school-age children. This year’s theme is “Angels” and entries should be sent to my constituency office (Orchard House, Deddington, Banbury, OX15 0TD) by Monday 31 October. The winner will have their design printed on the front of my Christmas card and will be invited to Westminster for tea with me. I can’t wait to see the designs!
I have really enjoyed getting out and about in Bicester this past month.
It was good to welcome the new CEO of East West Rail, Beth West, to London Road, where she was able to see for herself how busy the crossing is. I reiterated how important London Road is for residents of Bicester and the surrounding area as a key route through the town.
After visiting the crossing, I chaired a roundtable discussion between EWR and a cross-party group of Bicester town, district and county councillors. The councillors and I made clear that it is vital EWR do not cut the town in half by simply closing the crossing without a proper solution in place. Beth gave welcome assurances that EWR are committed to working with the local community to find a viable solution which avoids that outcome.
The London Road crossing has been an issue which I have worked on since I was first elected. While we were all in agreement that Beth’s assurances are a welcome step in the right direction, we must now get some concrete plans on the table. I will continue to hold EWR to account until a proper solution is found for Bicester once and for all.
Before schools broke up for the summer holidays, it was lovely to drop into King’s Meadow Primary School to read the year 5 pupils a chapter of The Whale Watchers. Authored by Dougie Poynter, this informative book has been produced by Bicester-based business BRITA with input from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. It was great to see the pupils so engaged with the book and the importance of protecting the environment against plastic pollution, which can have such an impact on marine wildlife.
I was also pleased to join the Bicester Autism Group for one of their coffee mornings. This brilliant voluntary group is made up of parents and carers who have family members with additional needs. They support one another with regular informal events including coffee mornings, pub nights and family sessions. Everyone is welcome, whether they have a diagnosis or not, to join and share their experiences.
We discussed the difficulties facing both parents and children with additional needs, focusing on the provision of education and social care services within Oxfordshire. I spoke to a number of parents about their experiences of accessing and using local services. I have since asked the Chief Executive of Oxfordshire County Council for a meeting to discuss this important issue.
I was pleased to hold one of my constituency advice surgeries at the brilliant FLTR Coffee in Langford last fortnight. As always, you can get in touch with my office if you have any problems that need resolving.
I hope you have all enjoyed the fabulous weather. It has been an extremely busy and interesting few weeks in Westminster, with the leadership election now well underway.
It is clearly an important time for both the Conservative Party and the country. We have a really strong field of candidates standing. With voting taking place over the summer, we are all hoping that a new Prime Minister will be in place in September.
It is important that the Government continues to function in the meantime. In Defra, we remain focused on protecting and strengthening our food security at this difficult time.
I was pleased to welcome students to my office to undertake work experience earlier this month. It was good to be able to host groups in-person once again with the students getting the opportunity to see Parliament in action. One of the highlights of working as an MP is being able to sit down and speak with enthusiastic and passionate young people. For those who are interested in future opportunities, please email me at email@example.com.
My office continues to receive lots of casework emails from constituents. Much of my team’s work recently has been focused directly on supporting constituents with visa, passport and DVLA applications. I know that many are frustrated by delays, but the situation is starting to improve.
I know from correspondence that many families continue to face challenges with the cost of living. It is important that we ensure that government support reaches those who need it most. I’m pleased that many will have received their first cost of living payment of £326 last week. There is a really useful government webpage which constituents can use to identify what support they may be eligible for. You can access the site at https://costoflivingsupport.campaign.gov.uk/.
In July we mark Sarcoma awareness month. Sarcomas are uncommon cancers of the soft tissues and bone and can occur anywhere in the body. My team met the brilliant Helen Stradling of Sarcoma UK recently. Helen was the first specialist nurse for the Oxford Sarcoma Service and now uses her expertise to support Sarcoma UK’s Support Line service on 0808 801 0401.
It was good to have an introductory call with the new CEO of the East West Rail Company, Beth West, recently. I wrote to Beth shortly after she took up her post to underline the importance of securing a viable solution for the London Road level crossing in Bicester.
I welcomed Beth’s assurances that EWR are working hard to produce a satisfactory solution which does not cut Bicester in half. Simply closing the crossing without ensuring adequate access for Bicester residents from the south would be a totally unacceptable outcome.
I also used this opportunity to reiterate local concerns about the recent disruption caused by EWR construction activity in and around Bicester. I'm meeting her later this month to discuss further.
I have separately been made aware of an unacceptable number of heavy construction vehicles using unsuitable routes through villages to access construction sites. I have written to the EWR Alliance to raise these concerns as a matter of urgency.
I think we all enjoyed Her Majesty The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations enormously. In her Accession Day message, Her Majesty said that she had hoped that the Jubilee would afford people from across the country an opportunity to come together with friends, family, neighbours and communities. We were all able to do just that.
I was delighted to begin the weekend at St Edburg’s Church with a fantastic performance of Music for a Royal Occasion. Musical Director Hilary Davan Wetton led the brilliant classical ensemble Alina Orchestra who performed Handel’s Water Music and other pieces by Elgar, Boyce and Walton.
I was thrilled to see Janet Ray who was named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Janet founded the Bicester Food Bank in 2006 and ran it until just last year. What began as a one-day-a-week project based in a Church, transformed into a community-based service with widespread support. Janet is a true unsung hero and Bicester are very lucky to have her - I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.
It was great to see so many turn out later that evening for the beacon lighting at Bicester Heritage. Miranda Markham, Deputy Lieutenant, lit the beacon at 9:45pm in tandem with beacons across the country. This was followed by a brilliant firework display on the airfield.
Beacon chains, once used as a tool for communication of threat, have now become a symbol of unity. In 1897, beacons were lit to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and in 1977, 2002 and 2012, beacons commemorated the Silver, Golden and Diamond Jubilees of Queen Elizabeth. This was just the same.
I was six during the Silver Jubilee and remember it very vividly. At my primary school near Banbury we had races and games and ate lots of cake and ice cream. I also learnt the words to the National Anthem. It was so good to see children from across the constituency building similar memories to my own.
I was really impressed by the variety of events held over this extravaganza weekend, from street parties and village fêtes to family fun days and ‘Big Lunches’. It was a true celebration of Queen, country and community.
It has been wonderful to see North Oxfordshire pull together in recent months in response to the devastating war in Ukraine. Our community has really played its part by organising donations, appeals, and collections to support humanitarian efforts. It was great to attend a charity concert in Steeple Aston Church earlier this month where I was able to meet so many Ukrainians who have recently arrived, as well as their host families.
As a family, we were really pleased to welcome Vika to our home in March. She is staying with us until it is safe for her to return to Ukraine and help rebuild her country. We are all doing our best to support her, as is our wider area. Vika has been overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness local people have shown since her arrival, and she feels very welcome in our community.
Last month, I wrote to the new CEO of the East West Rail Company, Beth West, welcoming her to her new post. I used this opportunity to reiterate the importance of finding a viable solution for the London Road crossing which retains accessibility from the south of Bicester.
It is vital that EWR are transparent about the options which are actively being considered. Simply closing the crossing to vehicles in its entirety without ensuring adequate access to the station and town centre from the south of the town is unacceptable. A number of constituents have raised their concerns with me about the impact of current EWR construction activity, including the closure of the Bicester Road bridge once again. Such disruption must be kept to a minimum as this project progresses.
The proposed Strategic Rail Freight Interchange at Ardley continues to be at the forefront of my mind. I cannot see that this is a suitable location for such a development but am continuing to engage with the developers to see what mitigation measures are proposed. A public consultation was recently launched and runs until Saturday 4 July. As part of this, Oxfordshire Railfreight Limited are holding four public exhibitions, as well as two webinar sessions. You can read more about the proposals here: www.oxsrfi.co.uk. I would strongly encourage everybody affected by the plans to respond to the consultation.
In recent weeks, I have also been contacted by many constituents about the volume of proposed developments currently being considered around Bicester and the surrounding villages. A multitude of planning applications for housing and industrial developments, stretching from Ardley and Baynards Green to Chesterton and Wendlebury, are causing significant concern about the possible impact on local communities and infrastructure.
It is clear to me that many of these exceed or are contrary to the vision established by the Cherwell Local Plan. I therefore intend to work closely with Council officers, local Councillors and also my colleagues in Government to see what more can be done to ensure that local development is guided by our agreed policies and the consent of the local community, rather than speculative, opportunistic proposals.
On this, I was really pleased to see that the Government has used the Queen’s Speech to commit to improving the planning system to give communities a louder voice. I look forward to seeing the Levelling Up & Regeneration Bill progress through this Parliament.
Although it was saddening to see the Queen miss the State Opening owing to mobility issues, it will be very exciting to celebrate Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee next week, marking 70 years of magnificent service to our nation.
We are all finding events in Ukraine extremely distressing. The situation remains deeply concerning and is changing by the day. As a family, we have many friends in Kyiv and have been in touch with them about the tragic events unfolding over the past few weeks.
I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of people locally. It is a times like this when communities really pull together. It is brilliant to see the Polish community in Banbury set up a collection for food, bedding and other necessary supplies for Ukrainians who have sought refuge on the border. Likewise, the John Paul Centre attached to the Catholic Church and K2 Recruitment in Bicester have organised their own collections. There will be many more opportunities to help I suspect and I will advertise those local ones where I can.
This situation is undoubtedly developing rapidly. My team and I are working hard to support constituents with loved ones caught up in the conflict where we can. It’s clearly taking time to create these the new Visa schemes, however measures are being introduced to make the process quicker and simpler. I have been involved in discussions at all levels with the Home Office and have been relaying constituents’ concerns directly with the Home Secretary. I will continue to do this.
After nearly two years of living under restrictions, there was always going to be a certain point when the government would set out how we would move to the next phase of living with Covid. Last month, we heard just that. As expected, our response has moved from one of restrictions to taking back personal responsibility.
I know that some constituents who are most vulnerable are finding this difficult, so I am glad that the government has committed to continuing protecting those most at risk with targeted vaccines and treatments. The future path of the pandemic remains uncertain which is why it is so important that our resilience to manage and respond to any new waves or variants is maintained.
I continue to make my ministerial colleagues aware of constituents concerns with living costs during this challenging time. With reduced variety of supply globally and much higher than anticipated demand as the world returns to life after lockdown, high wholesale gas prices have subsequently driven an increase in wholesale power prices. Households will need to be accustomed to these higher costs. In the short- and medium-term, it is important that the government continues to listen and ensures that policies in place do help those who need it most. Looking to the future, we must work towards ending our reliance on fossil fuels, and investing further in green renewable energies and technologies.
The latest data on Covid is encouraging and it does seem that there is light at the end tunnel. I look forward to hearing the Prime Minister set out the government’s strategy for how we will live with the virus going forward, in particular how those more at risk are considered.
We will now be able to focus on other aspects of public health. It is good to see that plans for a Bicester Health Hub have been given the green light by Cherwell District Council. Montgomery House Surgery and the Alchester Medical Group will co-exist on one large site where they will benefit from more joined-up thinking, develop expertise and share resources. The new hub will be purpose-fit, providing a flexible, integrated and sustainable model of healthcare provision that will serve our growing population for many years to come.
It’s really good to be back out visiting our local schools. It is one of the most rewarding parts of being an MP and I'm always surprised by how deeply children care about politics. I recently called into Fritwell Church of England Primary to catch up with headteacher Jonathan Hart. While it has understandably been a difficult time for our primary schools, I was pleased to hear that school life is steadily returning to normal at Fritwell. While I was there, pupils were enjoying one of their regular forest school sessions. It is so important that our children are able to experience nature and learn about the environment around them.
Last week was Children’s Mental Health Week, a time to reflect on the importance of young people’s wellbeing. On Friday, I visited the fantastic Nai’s House in Bicester founded by Gem Barrett. Set in Garth Park, they run a blended youth and wellbeing service for those under the age of 30. A brilliant team of volunteers provide a safe space, tailored one-to-one support, counselling, holistic treatments and activities. I enjoyed talking to Gem about her experiences and her vision for the future of Nai’s House.
Earlier in the month, I made a trip to the wonderful Heyford Park Farmer’s and Open Market. I popped in to the Heyford Park Pantry, which is a brilliant, charitable organisation run by local volunteers. They provide a fantastic, low-cost food service for people in the community which aims to reduce food waste.
We will shortly all be able to do our bit to tackle food waste. From March 1, Cherwell households will be required to split food waste from garden waste which will then be collected weekly. The reason for this is that it will then go to an anaerobic digestion plant where it will turn food waste into two valuable resources: bio-fertilisers that farmers will be able to use on their fields to grow food and green electricity to power local homes and businesses.
For the eighth year in a row, Oxfordshire has come out on top of the nationwide table for recycling, reusing and composting. A total of 58.8 per cent of all household waste was composted, compared to 45.5 per cent nationally. This is a really good start.
I’d like to wish all of my constituents a happy and healthy 2022.
Over the Christmas holidays, my team and I worked hard to support those who have contacted my office. Lots were getting in touch with me with COVID-related concerns, including local vaccination and testing provision. It is good to hear from local public health officials that our vaccine programme has accelerated in the past few weeks with record doses being administered. We now have one of the highest vaccine coverage rates in the country and there continues to be ample capacity across the system. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those involved for working with us on this issue.
A fair amount of my time recently has been spent supporting constituents with DVLA renewals, UK Visas and Immigration matters, and Personal Independence Payments (PIP) applications. I was pleased to speak to local residents at my constituency surgery last week. We discussed everything from planning and loan charges to parking and healthcare provision. I always enjoy speaking to constituents and if you have any problems that need resolving, please do get in touch with my office by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org. It is often quicker to resolve problems virtually or on the phone during the Parliamentary week; don't wait for a surgery.
January can be a challenging time for many businesses in hospitality and leisure as sales slow after the Christmas period. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has caused added uncertainty for business owners. I have been signposting those who have got in touch to the additional support made available by the Chancellor last month. One-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises will be awarded to businesses in hospitality and leisure. The cost of Statutory Sick Pay for Covid-related absences for small and medium-sized employers will also be covered.
As the weather gets colder and more time is spent inside, it is important that everyone is able to keep warm and well. Vulnerable households can receive financial support through the Winter Fuel Payment and Cold Weather Payments. Additionally, most energy providers offer a Warm Home Discount to those eligible. Residents who need any energy-related advice can get in touch with Better Housing Better Health, a longstanding and local service in Oxfordshire, on 0800 107 0044.
The New Year can bring great optimism, but it can equally be a lonely and difficult time for some. People can reach out to the Bicester Community Support Service on 01865 897 105 should they need support. They provide a range of activities and services to help people to stay healthy, independent and engaged.
For older residents, a friendly chat on the phone can make all the difference. Age UK Oxfordshire’s Phone Friends telephone service is a brilliant way for those who are isolated to stay connected. 20,000 phone calls are made each year to over 400 isolated people in our community. Constituents can get in touch by ringing 0345 450 1276.
Before Christmas, I had the pleasure of calling in to David and Lesley Thompson’s coffee morning in Launton. The morning was organised to raise funds and awareness for the Bicester Good Neighbour Scheme. This fantastic voluntary organisation arranges free support and friendship for older people in Bicester and nearby villages. The group are always looking for more volunteers. If you have time and are interested in volunteering, do call them on 07849 799 530.
The past 23 months have been an incredibly challenging time for us all. But, it has shown us how important community really is. Thank to you all of my constituents who continue to care and support their friends and neighbours. It is wonderful to read constituents’ emails when they share these positive community stories with me and I hope this spirit of kindness continues.
2021 has been the year of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout: a medical achievement we should all be very proud of. Thanks to the efforts of so many, it has helped restore some sense of normality to our lives. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the NHS, the Armed Forces, and all those who have worked around the clock to deploy this vaccine across the UK. When I have the time, I have been enjoying reading the book “Vaxxers” by Professor Sarah Gilbert and Dr Catherine Green which tells the story of the cutting-edge science and hard work behind the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. It really is remarkable science.
Despite the huge progress in vaccine deployment, I know that many constituents will share my disappointment that we are now having to deal with the emergence of a new variant and the challenges it has brought us. Getting a booster jab is more important than ever. Not only does it offer you protection, but it also protects friends and family and offers us the best chance to continue living without the restrictions we all had to deal with earlier on in the pandemic. It is a setback, but one we can all manage by getting our booster. Please get your jab for your own sake and for others in your community. I know the majority of my constituents are contacting my office to share they’ve had their jabs and I am so grateful to hear this.
In the spirit of the pandemic, we all have a part to play in fighting coronavirus and easing the pressure on our NHS. While I fully appreciate the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives, and that many constituents are tired of living with restrictions, we have a duty to protect our communities.
For my own part, I have been doing what I can to ensure that booster provision is accessible for all my constituents across North Oxfordshire. I organised a recent meeting with my Oxfordshire Conservative colleagues and our public health officials to discuss local vaccine and testing provision. I was reassured to hear that a working strategy is in place to meet what is estimated to be a 2.5x expansion in capacity, with an aim to deliver approximately 230,000 vaccines across the county in three weeks. I remain in contact with our public health officials and will continue to monitor the situation over the holiday period.
On a lighter note, it has been brilliant to see our town and village centres busy once again ahead of Christmas. I have been busy writing Christmas cards to hundreds of people including family, friends, and parliamentary colleagues. Each year, I use the design created by the winner of my card competition which is open to all primary aged school children across North Oxfordshire. I always get really excited receiving all of the entries through the post. Although, it is always so hard to pick a winner!
After much deliberation, the winning card this year was designed by Isabelle from Bure Park Primary School. Her creative and colourful design depicting a festive Houses of Parliament really caught my eye. A huge well done also to my Runner Ups, including Lucy, Mollie-Mae, and Macie who submitted some brilliant designs.
May I take this opportunity to wish you all Happy Holidays, have a lovely Christmas, and here’s to a brighter 2022.
The news that Sir David Amess MP had been killed was devastating to us all. David died doing what he loved most; helping his constituents. He served the people of Essex for 38 years and was a wonderful champion of Southend.
When I got the news that David had been attacked, I was in the middle of my own surgery in Bicester Sainsbury’s. I can’t imagine doing my job without regular and fairly open access to my constituents. I’ll continue to think about how to manage this best and take advice where appropriate.
Only the evening before, I was at The Red Cow at Chesterton as part of my really successful Pub Tour. I always enjoy speaking to constituents in their local pub. We discussed everything from the Great Wolf development and the proposed Siemens development, to local care homes and women’s safety.
This month I’ve had some really good visits in Bicester. I visited Skills Beyond School who are a leading education specialist organisation. I first met Director Jock and Marketing Coordinator Hannah back in the summer at the Banbury temporary job centre. Hannah is currently employed on the Government’s brilliant Kickstart Scheme. It is a way for businesses of all sizes to provide a 6-month fully funded job opportunity for young people aged 16 to 24. It was great to catch up again and I particularly enjoyed discussing their work on prisoner education and rehabilitation.
I was pleased that all pupils were able to return to schools for the new academic year. During a visit to Bicester School this month, I spoke with students about the impact of lockdowns on their mental wellbeing. The pandemic has been particularly tough on our young people and their development. I understand concerns about knowledge gaps for Year 11 students which is why I welcome that a £3 billion academic catch-up programme has been put together by the Department for Education.
I also enjoyed visiting St Mary’s Catholic Primary School. I met children in the reception class and also those in Years 5 and 6, who all told me they were glad to be back at school. I was so impressed with their knowledge of an MP’s role, and they all asked such fantastic questions.
As I write this, the approval of the Heyford Park Pharmacy has just been announced. This is a well-deserved victory for the local community who have campaigned tirelessly. The pharmacy will become an important point of local primary care, serving the growing community of Heyford Park. Residents will be able to pick up their prescriptions closer to home, rather than having to make trips to Bicester or Deddington. The plans also include for the pharmacy to offer seasonal flu jabs, as well as some GP consultations and nursing appointments on-site. The pharmacy should open sometime next year.
September has been a particularly busy month. Just as schools have returned after a summer break, MPs have also returned to Parliament after summer recess. I was delighted to be appointed Minister of State at Defra by the Prime Minister during the recent reshuffle. It is a great honour to be in this role at such an important time for UK agriculture, fisheries and food.
Throughout the pandemic, I have held regular surgeries with my constituents via Zoom. I am very excited that this week I will be holding my first in-person surgery in eighteen-months at Banbury Sainsbury’s. I am also looking forward to a further surgery in Bicester next week. Appointments are not necessary - just turn up! For those interested, please email my office for further details.
You can also meet me for a chat in a local pub. I have always felt strongly about the importance of pubs to our local community and the wider economy. That is why I launched my Pub Tour when I was first elected. This week I am stopping by at The Brasenose Arms in Cropredy. I have lots of future dates planned so keep an eye out on my website and social media if you would like to meet me. What better place to have a chat than a pub?
I’m so pleased to have been able to get out and about more now that restrictions have eased, meeting more constituents in-person. In the past six-months, the country has made a tremendous amount of progress down the road to recovery, carefully and cautiously moving closer to our ‘new normal’. As the weather gets colder and with winter approaching, it is vital we do all we can to protect our progress and further bolster our collective defences against coronavirus.
Locally, over 225,000 vaccine doses have been administered, with over 76 per cent of those aged 16 and above now fully vaccinated. We know that vaccinations are our best possible line of defence against this virus. It is vital that people continue to come forward to get the jab: it protects us all and saves lives. I want us all to see the full return of all our freedoms – as so many of us do. To achieve this, we must continue to be vigilant.
Our local response in the constituency to the situation in Afghanistan has been overwhelming. Communities in North Oxfordshire have come together with generous donations and offers of support to help those in need. New arrivals under the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme have been welcomed with open arms. Cherwell District Council have already identified 10 properties to house eligible Afghan families. These people did so much to support UK Forces in Afghanistan and now I hope our constituency can support them. I am pleased that a bespoke, local package of support has been organised to help with language skills, access to healthcare and education, voluntary sector support and advice, and employment.
I know that veterans have found the situation in Afghanistan extremely distressing. We are forever grateful to our 23,000 veterans in Oxfordshire for their courage and commitment and are proud of what they achieved. I am really pleased to see the Government’s commitment to enhancing health and wellbeing for veterans through Operation Courage. It is important we recognise our own collective responsibility in offering the best support we can during these challenging times, and I am aware of the impact of these recent months on veterans, serving members of our Forces, and their families. Our Armed Forces and veterans represent the very best of us, and their sacrifice will never be forgotten.
The summer has flown by: it only seems like yesterday that students were breaking up from school. I was so pleased to see how well pupils did in their A-Levels and GCSEs last month. I know how difficult the past 18-months has been for them all. I’d like to thank every parent, teacher, tutor, school and college leader for their efforts to support learning in these unprecedented times.
I’ve been keen to keep in touch with schools throughout the pandemic and am looking forward to getting out and visiting them again in the new term. Over the summer holidays, I enjoyed taking part in a National Citizens Service programme at Wykham Park Academy. It was great to see students participating and developing their critical thinking skills. I also hosted pupils from a number of local schools for a virtual work experience session, where they got to catch a glimpse of a typical day in the life of an MP. I always enjoy speaking to students who are enthusiastic about local issues.
This year’s UK Parliament Week will run from 1 to 7 November. It is an opportunity for young people to learn more about Parliament, take action and make an impact on local issues. Last year, North Oxfordshire was the most engaged constituency in the country. More schools, groups and young people signed up to take part in the activities locally than in any other constituency. It was brilliant to see so many actively involved and I hope we can carry that momentum through to this year.
As part of Parliament Week 2021, I will be hosting my seventh annual democracy challenge, sponsored by Cherwell District Council. This debating competition is always a lot of fun and something I look forward to. Despite last year’s challenge taking place virtually, all the teams did a brilliant job. I’m always impressed by local pupils’ awareness of issues and debating skills. I will be writing to all schools this month with further details and hope that lots of teams will take part.
With schools returning in the coming days, all 16 and 17-year-olds in England have now been invited for a jab. It is important that teenagers come forward as soon as possible. Vaccination is still the best possible line of defence against coronavirus. I understand that safety precautions will still be in place inside schools this term to help manage the risks as best we can. As we learn to live with COVID, it is vital that we minimise disruption to young people’s education.
I hope that the autumn term gets off to a great start and wish pupils, parents and teachers the very best.
Earlier this month, the country moved to Step 4 in the roadmap which marked the start of a new phase of continued caution, managing the risks we are aware of and taking responsibility for our choices.
I have had a number of constituents get in contact with me raising their concerns over the lifting of restrictions. I have explained to them that while there is no perfect time to relax the existing restrictions, moving to Step 4 during the summer means pressures on the NHS are less significant than in the autumn and winter months. I have reassured those with concerns that I will continue to monitor the situation in our area closely.
The lifting of restrictions coincided with the resumption of my pub tour last week. Lots of constituents turned up to the Bell in Lower Heyford and asked me questions on a whole host of issues from the climate change agenda to the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange proposal at Ardley.
I’m proud that we are known for our modern industry here in Bicester as we continue to grow and attract global business. Earlier in the month, I visited Hardide’s new and larger premises in Launton. Hardide is the leading global innovator and provider of advanced tungsten carbide/tungsten metal matrix composite coatings. They coat critical parts used in high-wear applications for major companies in the aerospace, defence, energy and precision engineering sectors. It was great to meet Chief Executive Officer Philip Kirkham who showed me the giant coating reactors in action.
I also enjoyed my visit to Saietta Electric Drive, who deliver axial-flux motor technology to the electric vehicle mass market from scooters to buses, in Upper Heyford. I met Chief Commercial Officer Graham Lenden who explained their plans to bring more engineering jobs to the area and how they intend to make their operation carbon neutral. I got time to test drive the Twizy, powered by Saietta’s proprietary AFT elective motor innovation.
I was delighted to also visit David Wilson Homes’ development site at Kingsmere. I was especially pleased to meet Site Manager Scott Harris to congratulate him on his success in this year’s NHBC Pride in the Job Quality awards. During my visit I was given a tour of The Chelworth and The Avondale show homes which I really enjoyed. It was good to see first-hand the level of skill and workmanship that goes into creating a new development.
With vaccination rollout continuing across North Oxfordshire, I popped in to the Bicester Vaccination Centre to mark its 6-month anniversary. I met Tracey Bishop, new Montgomery House Practice Manager as well as Dr Sara Askew. Nearly 50,000 jabs have been administered there alone which is all down to the tremendous hard work of the many volunteers. I was told that Goss Butchers have been bringing food supplies to keep the volunteers going which is testament to the superb community spirit we have here in Bicester.
Over the past year, emails from constituents have been at their peak. Lots of people have written to me in search of advice to help them through the pandemic. My team and I have been working hard to signpost and support those in need. Alongside coronavirus-related casework, I have continued to deal with issues as varied as housing situations, overdue hospital appointments and benefits-related claims. While cases are not always straightforward, solving problems for constituents is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Member of Parliament.
In recent months I have also heard from many of you with views about local issues. There is a lot going on in Bicester at the moment. This week, the Planning Inspectorate was scheduled to start its hearing on Bicester Sports Association’s plans to extend the Chesterton sports facilities following the sale of the Oxford Road site to Value Retail. It is clear that we need to do more to identify appropriate sites for Bicester’s sports teams; I have held a couple of meetings with clubs and local Councillors to discuss future sporting provision in the town, particularly as we continue to grow. The sale of the Oxford Road site could also impact the Bicester Community Garden, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to pop down there last week to meet local volunteers to discuss their future plans.
Chesterton also remains at the forefront of my mind given the recent decision by the Planning Inspectorate to allow the Great Wolf Lodge appeal. The news came as a shock to us all, particularly after the District Council had rejected the application unanimously and had put considerable resources into the appeal process. Since then, I have had a meeting with representatives from Chesterton Parish Council and the Parishes Against Wolf campaign group. I know that they were looking at whether there might be grounds for a judicial review, but that does not seem likely. Going forward, it is clearly important to understand how we mitigate the impact of the development on Chesterton. I have met Highways representatives from Oxfordshire County Council to discuss just that and also had a virtual meeting with Great Wolf to discuss the situation directly with them. I have encouraged the need for community engagement and discussion going forward.
Initial plans for the possible construction a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange at Ardley have also become public recently. I have significant concerns about the location of the development but will wait to see what mitigation measures are proposed. Preliminary meetings with local parish councils as well as the District and County Council about the plans have proven useful and I am hoping to meet Network Rail in the weeks ahead.
While it all these issues will need to be assessed on their own individual merits and constraints, it is clear that consideration must be given to their collective impact on Bicester and the surrounding villages. I am determined to make sure my constituents’ voices are heard throughout.