Alicia’s First Year in Parliament
There’s probably no easy time to be an MP. Balancing the demanding work of national policy-making with the need to maintain a strong presence in your constituency requires real commitment. But with Brexit, Covid-19 and many other travails to contend with, it’s especially impressive that MP Alicia Kearns still adores the role, 12 months into the job…
You were one of 106 new Conservative MPs to start work at the House of Commons in December 2019, how have you settled into life in Westminster, just over a year later?
It’s been such a difficult year for the entire country, with so many challenges for us all, so I wouldn’t say I’ve managed to settle in quite yet! Parliament has tried its hardest to function normally, but Covid-19 has made that almost impossible. What I’ve tried to do is focus on supporting residents as much as possible, and so we’ve helped tens of thousands of constituents…. I guess this year it wasn’t really a matter of settling in, but working as best you can under the circumstances, and helping as many people as you can.
With Brexit and Covid to contend with, could this perhaps have been the worst possible year for a new MP to start work?
It’s been extremely difficult, no question about it. But every day I receive in my inbox stories of real hardship because of the pandemic. So whilst it’s been a very difficult year, I’m blessed that I have such a strong team around me, family support and that I’ve been able to help make some people’s lives easier. Many people don’t have support right now, so whilst my colleagues tell me it is the toughest year MPs have faced, that is not different to anyone else.
Is there such a thing as a typical day or week in Parliament and if so, what does it entail?
Even without COVID-19, there really is no regular week in parliament, although there is a sort of rhythm to it. You will usually have two or three urgent questions or ministerial statements every day, including departmental questions, where MPs challenge Ministers on various aspects of Government policy. This is followed by debates on various pieces of legislation to try and shape them.
Every Tuesday while the House is sitting, I have the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the afternoon, and on Mondays I sit on the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy.
In these committees I scrutinise the Government’s approach to our national security and foreign affairs and advocate for how we can improve them. I also sit on Bill Committees where we sit twice a week, sometimes for six weeks in a row, scrutinising a new Bill sentence by sentence. I was pleased to secure a plane on the Agriculture Bill Committee so I could review it in detail for our farmers and food producers.
On top of this we have multiple votes every day, and I will have meetings with Ministers, businesses, our Local Councils and organisations on my election commitments. One week I’ll be using all of my energies to help a local business or resident with a particularly difficult case pushing their case with Ministers or relevant organisations, and another I’ll be focused on trying to change a law we have, or pushing a foreign policy issue such as ending the genocide against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
Every week I spend more time responding to constituents in need of urgent support and fighting to win the outcomes or policy changes they need, than anything else. The one thing that stays constant every day, and the most important thing, is making sure my constituents are heard, and that we create policies that can create a more secure and prosperous Great Britain.
The public seems to have been largely satisfied with the Government’s Covid-19 response, what were the biggest challenges?
Make no mistake about it: Covid-19 is the most significant crisis we have faced since the Second World War, on every front. We have faced a threat we could not see or had encountered before, had to create a national testing regime from scratch, invest
in and support vaccine development, deliberately close down much of the economy, create a job and business protection scheme, and as we are seeing currently, stand up a national vaccination programme at lightning speed.
Speaking personally, though, one of my most constant concerns has been what the right measures are to protect communities. When I was elected I did not set out to take away freedoms, nor to shut down businesses and close schools. However, to save lives and to protect our most vulnerable, we have had no choice.
That is enormously hard when you want to protect people’s freedoms and right to live their lives freely. But every death has weighed on my heart, as have residents who have reached out to me seeking help to recover from the loss of a loved one, or who have suffered as a result of the restrictions we’ve had to impose.
At all times my priority has been making sure that no resident of Rutland and Melton was left without access to an intensive care bed if they needed one, and that every possible life was saved.
Holding his nerve to a point with seconds to spare, the Prime Minister brokered – and Parliament voted for – the Brexit deal, how successful is the outcome of that deal?
The Prime Minister deserves a huge amount of credit for being steely throughout the negotiations. A deal would not have been delivered without his holding firm. This is the most impressive deal any nation has achieved with the EU. The EU has demonstrated a failure to understand the referendum outcome, and our desire to be an independent nation that can make its own economic and trade policies. It was attempting to impose significant restrictions.
It is a great success that the Government has already signed over £885 billion in trade deals with 63 countries, and this coming year we’re continuing negotiations with New Zealand, Australia and the US, and starting negotiations with Canada. We have the chance to further our economic and security partnerships with key allies now, and I hope the CPTPP in time.
This deal is a one we can all be rightly proud of, but as a nation we also have work to do. We need to come together now, as one nation no longer divided as remain and leave voters and put the work in to make every success of our new status as an independent nation.
What campaigns have you been involved with closer to home?
I’m working really hard to deliver my election promises, whilst prioritising supporting people through the pandemic. I’m delighted that so far I’ve secured a commitment from our Clinical Commissioning Group that Rutland Memorial will not close, and that instead they will invest in improving services and will consult with residents on Rutland’s healthcare overall in 2021.
I’ve also progressed investigations into whether we should build a new train station in Rutland to better connect us to Corby, Stamford, Peterborough and beyond and successfully fought against new housing targets which would have harmed Rutland.
My campaign to improve the A1 is very much underway, and whilst this will take quite some time, I have secured the support of all necessary stakeholders and founded the A1 MPs Working Group in Parliament.
At the height of the first lockdown businesses across Rutland came to me who were unable to benefit from Government support as they don’t pay business rates.
I fought for them, created a coalition of MPs, and as a result the Government announced a £674 million national discretionary grant programme. That made a huge difference to so many in Rutland and was part of the £144 million in economic support Rutland and Melton residents and businesses have received during the pandemic.
I’ve also fought consistently for our pubs, including in Parliament leading the battle with certain landlords who treated our Publicans appallingly. Crucially as we moved to a tiering model I made sure that Rutland was respected as its own county and wasn’t tiered with Leicestershire. I’m also really pleased to have and to have secured an exemption for children under five, so parents with young or severely disabled children are able to meet other adults and their children in outdoor spaces during lockdown.
So what does 2021 have in store locally, but perhaps for the UK as a whole?
2021 is going to be a time of rebuilding: getting us all back on our feet and getting our communities back together. Across Rutland we’ve all worked so hard throughout the pandemic to keep rates down, for so many at great personal cost, and my first priority is to make sure the recovery is as swift and widespread as possible.
The vaccination programme is moving at incredible pace, as I write this over 3.2 million people have been vaccinated in just six weeks across our country. I’d like to thank our local Primary Care Network, CCG and Council for all they’ve done to ensure we were ready to start vaccinating before Christmas and for vaccinating thousands of residents.
And you’ve been especially interested in agriculture, which is important both post-Brexit and of relevance in the constituency?
I’m extremely proud of our farmers locally. They produce some of the finest produce in the country, kept us fed during the pandemic, and I am so glad that with our ambitions to expand trade to markets outside the EU, they will have better access to new markets. Already, we have ended the US restrictions on beef, and I am hopeful for ambitious trade agreements with New Zealand and Australia.
The pandemic has hit some areas of our farming industry very hard, and during the first lockdown I lobbied the Government with colleagues to secure a £10,000 grant for dairy farmers who had been significantly affected. I’m glad so many in Rutland and Melton were bolstered by this. In Parliament I have founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Farming and the APPG on Geographically Protected Foods.
Through these I have brought together MPs from all parties and pushed the needs of our farmers and food producers, and for protections for culinary specialties, like our very own Rutland Bitter, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies and Stilton Cheese in our trade deals.
You’ve also been a keen advocate of ensuring expectant mothers have their partners present for scans and prenatal appointments. How important was that to you personally?
I launched this campaign because pregnant women in some parts of Rutland and Melton, and hundreds of thousands of women across the country, were being denied their partners at scans, miscarriages, and during birth depending on which hospital they were registered with.
It is utterly unacceptable to me that women were being forced to go through the most difficult experiences on their own because NHS Trusts were choosing not to follow Government guidance, not least when my hospital had rightly permitted my husband to be with me for all scans.
No woman should give birth alone, and no partner should be locked outside the door. During my son’s birth, it was my husband who realised that my baby’s heart rate had halved, which prompted an emergency c-section.
The evidence clearly shows that partners during labour improves clinical outcomes, and I know that, in my case, it may have saved my son’s life. The Prime Minister and Matt Hancock were enormously supportive.
On my request, they ensured maternity settings (as well as cancer, end of life and paediatric settings) received Covid-19 rapid flow tests, and that guidance was clear women should have partners with them at all stages.
I’m angry it took so long for NHS Trusts to adopt the Government guidance, but relieved I could give women a voice, and that tens of thousands of women were not alone at sometimes the worst, and hopefully the best, times of their lives.
It must have been a very busy Christmas and New Year season, despite being locked own and stuck at home?
I love Christmas, and it’s such a time of joy normally, but it can be very difficult, especially if families have experienced lost loved ones as so many have this year. On top of those losses, Covid-19 prevented so many families from coming together so it hasn’t been quite the festive season we all love.
People don’t stop being in need over Christmas, and hundreds of residents wrote to me over the holidays for support. I was determined my team took a break as they’ve worked tirelessly this year, so I worked to help as many families and individuals as I could.
In our last interview you revealed that the green leather seats in the Commons are quite uncomfortable and that anyone entering politics might want to bring a cushion… have they become any more forgiving?
As much as it is an unparalleled privilege to sit on the green benches, after six hours any seat is uncomfortable! However, as I’ve been home in Rutland almost full time since March it’s been a tad more comfortable! I like to think of those seats as a reminder that power and responsibility shouldn’t be comfortable, and the decisions we make have real impact. It’s a privilege to serve, not a right.
Alicia Kearns is Member of Parliament for Rutland and Melton. For more information on her current work, see www.aliciakearns.com.