First week back after recess has seen Parliament continue to take some steps back towards normality. Whilst most people are familiar with Prime Ministers Questions and the main Chamber of the House of Commons, many don’t appreciate some of the other normal processes or how the current ones are peculiar due to Covid. As regards the main chamber we continue to have questions to the Prime Minister and indeed to the various Secretaries of State but these are hybrid with many of the questions asked via video link. The chamber also holds many debates on everything from Bills to Urgent Questions to Ministers but these are also hybrid and are incredibly limited by Covid regulations. Normally a debate involves exchanges between Members with contrasting views and opinions with the opportunity for interventions and challenges, but under current operations we essentially offer a short speech giving our views without a real challenge. Whilst this is better than nothing it clearly limits the robustness of events and is one of the reasons that I look forward to a more normal Parliament developing. Many people are less aware of Westminster Hall debates which take place in a room just off Westminster Hall itself. These are an important opportunity for many other debates to take place at the initiation of Members of Parliament from all sides of the House. These were suspended for a long time but have now been restarted, again though these are also currently hybrid so real debate is limited. To give you examples this week, in Westminster Hall there were debates on an e-petition relating to trespass; on line abuse of elected women; waiting lists for elective surgical operations; the scope of the proposed Turing scheme; the arms trade and Yemen; the UK’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership; health inequalities and the Covid-19 outbreak in West Yorkshire; support for children with SEND; promotion of electric vehicle usage; the National Stroke Programme and aftercare and rehabilitation services for stroke patients; land rights for religious minorities including Baha’is in Iran; Social care and the Covid-19 outbreak. This illustrates for you both the importance of these debates returning to a real debate and not just a series of speeches that a minister responds to, as they are now, and also the variety of debates that take place.

I had the opportunity to guest on the Science and Technology around the potential role of hydrogen in achieving Net Zero as a representative of the BEIS committee and I joined part of the sessions of the Durham Energy Institute Joint Conference with North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers. It was good to hear some students with very interesting ideas for future Net Zero supporting initiatives.

I had the privilege to represent you at a Service of Thanksgiving to celebrate the life of His Royal Highness Prince Philip The Duke of Edinburgh on Tuesday at Durham Cathedral, a very moving experience.

Locally, I was also able to join the minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, Victoria Prentis, on a farm visit and spoke with the NFU on rural crime and made a visit to a local wind farm. I took a walk around the Town Centre this week and it’s good to see more shops open and people out in the sunshine seeing friends. It is so important we do everything we can to try and reinvigorate this as the heart of our town. I called in to the British Heart Foundation shop and spoke with Clive, he tells me that they have lots of stock due to people donating but they have not been able to sell products due to being closed so if you get chance please support them. I am sure other charities are the same as we have all had lots of time to have a clear out. Charities depend on the funds they can raise from shops like these so your support is invaluable.

We continue with the vaccination programme and many of us will have taken the opportunity to meet friends outside for a drink or two, which is a fabulous step forward. It is important we’re all sensible about this though and meet in small groups and not take liberties so we can continue the route out of lockdown. We all want the next steps of the route to be confirmed but that can only happen if the data continues to be positive, so please enjoy the increased freedom we all crave but be sensible at the same time. Even if you have been vaccinated, think of others who you could transmit to and if you have not yet been fully vaccinated please take the opportunity when it is offered.

Please continue to respect our key workers, from shop workers to NHS to Council workers to the emergency services, they all continue to do a fabulous job for us. We can best support them by following the rules and remembering Hands, Face, Space and Fresh Air.

Stay safe.

Paul Howell

Member of Parliament for Sedgefield