What are town-hall meetings?
We know that right now, students have a lot of questions they want to ask to those in positions of power. As a result and as part of the International Day of Students we held some open, town-hall style meetings with local MPs which you can view below if you missed them.
November 2020 Town-hall meetings
Watch back the 18th November Town-hall meeting with Cheltenham MP Alex Chalk
We couldn't cover all the questions from students live in the meeting so sent them to Alex Chalk to respond to, his responses are below. Questions are themed together in bold with th question text in italics.
Are there plans to test students before they travel back to university after Christmas? Because surely if shops, pubs and restaurants re-open in December and people are seeing friends and family again, then everyone will be coming into contact with one another. Therefore if they weren’t tested surely there’s a real possibility we could see a repeat of September when COVID cases sky-rocketed amongst students, which increased the overall R rate?
Is there a plan to test students after Christmas when they return to university?
The Government has published new guidance setting out how students should return to universities after Christmas in a safe way to protect their communities and reduce the spread of the virus.
Students will be asked to stagger their return to universities after Christmas to help protect those around them and reduce transmission of Covid-19.
New guidance published by the Department for Education will set out how higher education providers should manage student returns over a five-week period according to the following:
From 4 - 18 January, medical students, those on placements or practical courses with a need for in-person teaching should return in line with their planned start dates; The remaining courses should be offered online from the beginning of term so students can continue their studies from home; and From 25 January, all other students should start to return gradually over a two-week period, and by 7 February all students are expected to have returned.
All students should be offered Covid tests when they return to university to help identify and isolate those who are asymptomatic but could spread the virus. All universities will be offered testing facilities to give students two lateral flow tests, three days apart, with results turned around within an hour to help control the spread of the virus.
These measures will be crucial to manage returns carefully and protect students, staff and local communities while reducing disruption to education.
The Government has also announced a one-off fund of up to £20 million to help students most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances.
Universities?should tailor plans to best suit the needs of their own student population. They should also consider prioritising those who may need to return to campus earlier for other reasons such as students who do not have access to appropriate accommodation or study space.
The Government expects universities to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their tuition. The Office for Students will be monitoring universities to ensure this happens.
The plans for the spring term follow those enabling students to return home for the Christmas break, with 126 universities offering mass testing for students before they leave in the ‘travel window’ between 3 – 9 December.
As a private landlord and a politician who has consistently voted against tenants rights, would you ever treat your tenants as badly as the University of Manchester has treated theirs? And would you stand in solidarity with any rent strikes that may take place at UoG in the very near future?
No, it's not true that I have "consistently voted against tenants' rights".
I supported the Tenant Fees Act which abolishes letting agent fees for renters. I did so despite the condemnation from many landlords. The Act applies to all applicable assured shorthold tenancies, tenancies of student accommodation and licenses to occupy housing in England.
The Act also caps tenancy deposits at five weeks’ rent, and saves tenants between £25 and £70 per year. This will, in the words of Shelter, “ease the significant financial pressures renters face when moving, whilst making the lettings market more competitive and transparent.”
I also supported measures to tackle default fees as part of the Act. Under the new default fee provision, a landlord or agent will only be able to recover reasonable incurred costs, and must provide evidence of these costs to the tenant before they can impose any charges. I am confident this will protect tenants from being charged hundreds of pounds for a damaged item which actually only costs a few pounds to replace.
Second, I have in recent years expressed concern about proposed changes to mortgage interest tax relief and buy to let stamp duty rates, as I was concerned that they would simply lead to an increase in rents for tenants as the additional burdens were passed on. I raised these concerns in particular with the Treasury and received a detailed response indicating that average rents have actually fallen.
Third, I support the Government's consultation on new legislation to abolish Section 21 evictions. Although the majority of landlords behave with probity, a small minority of landlords behave unscrupulously leaving some tenants with the worry of being evicted at short notice or living in poor accommodation for fear they will be asked to leave if they complain about problems with their home. Data shows that Section 21 evictions are one of the largest causes of family homelessness.
There are many other pro-renter measures I could point to. Ultimately, however, I believe the key to improving affordability across England is to build more homes. That is why I am glad last year we built more homes in this country than in any year for the last three decades bar one.
When I saw what was happening in Manchester, I immediately contacted the Universities Minister to express my concern. As for a rent strike at UoG, every case must be taken on its merits and I would have to look at the circumstances at the time. It is not possible to prejudge an issue of this nature.
Your Voting History
What is your reasoning for consistently and recently voting against environmental bills that would help save the environment?
I'm afraid this question is also based on a false premise. Moving to an environmentally sustainable planet is an issue about which I feel very strongly. I have long said (and long before I entered politics) that climate change is one of the three most serious challenges that our country, and indeed our world, faces. In my view it should be considered in the same bracket as terrorism and antibiotic resistance, such is its potential threat to the health and wellbeing of our communities here in the UK and beyond.
Contrary to the questioner’s suggestion, as has been recognised publicly, I was the MP who actually introduced legislation which called on the UK to commit to be completely carbon neutral by 2050. I introduced it because of my deep concern about the conclusions of the International Panel on Climate Change about measures required to meet the Paris Climate Accord targets. You can watch my speech in Parliament here.
I was delighted to be recognised earlier this year at the Green Heart Hero awards in Parliament as the MP who had achieved more in the last year than any other.
Regrettably, the theyworkforyou website has omitted any reference to this Bill in its record of my contributions to Parliament. There is no good explanation for this omission. I also walk the walk - or 'bike the bike' - in my daily life! I travel to the overwhelming majority of my appointments by bike, making me the first Cheltenham MP to do so. I have also supported the planting of trees in Cheltenham, and only last week secured 1,000 new trees for planting in our town.
Free School Meals
Do you believe that eligible children should get free school meals during school holidays and what was your opinion on the u-turns that happened in the last several months?
Can you explain why you voted down Labour's motion to extend free school meals during the Christmas holidays?
Nobody with an ounce of humanity wants to see children go hungry. I certainly don't. In fairness, that was never on the cards. Free School Meals apply during the 39 weeks of school term time; this whole issue was about how to ensure children are properly fed in the remaining 13 weeks. No previous government has channelled holiday support via FSM.
Instead, earlier in the year the Government provided £63 million of additional funding to councils (over £550,000 for Gloucestershire CC) to support households struggling to afford food and other essentials as a result of the financial difficulties due to the pandemic.
Gloucestershire County Council as a result, was able to run a COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Grant Fund over the summer - and over the half-term just gone. That meant that every child in Gloucestershire who was entitled to a FSM was eligible for help. Parents and carers simply needed to call 01452 328 518, give their child's name and a food voucher code was sent direct to their mobile.
Now, more funding has been granted (as I always called for by the way). I warmly welcome the announcement of a £170m package of winter support forchildren, families and the most vulnerable over winter. As part of theCovidWinter Grant Scheme, £1,508,000 will be provided to Gloucestershire County Council.
The funding will be ring-fenced to help the hardest hit fit families and individuals, with at least 80% earmarked to support with food, heating and bills. The grant will cover the period to the end of March 2021.
The Holiday Activities and Food Programme has also been extended until Christmas 2021 with £220 million allocated to the programme. This will mean all children eligible for Free School Meals will have the option to join a holiday-time programme that provides healthy food and fun activities during the summer, Christmas and Easter holidays.
The Government will also boost Healthy Start payments from £3.10 to £4.25 from April 2021 and has pledged additional funding of £16m for food distribution charities. This additional funding, ringfenced to support with food and bills is a fairer and more effective system than the FSM vouchers in my view.
Watch back the 17th November Town-hall meeting with Gloucester MP Richard Graham