Thelma Walker: A bumpy first year as MP...and what Parliament could learn from Yorkshire

Thelma Walker has been MP for the Colne Valley for a year.
Thelma Walker has been MP for the Colne Valley for a year.
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THE moment in time, 4.29am on Friday, June 9, 2017, will forever be etched on my mind. After being awake for nearly 24 hours, the returning officer gathered the candidates and our agents together to announce the result of the election.

4:30am came and my life changed forever. I was now the Member of Parliament for my local area, representing the residents of the constituency in which I had been teacher and headteacher for 34 years, where I had raised my children, and where my husband and I love to live.

A year on, and reflecting on what I have learned and achieved, is incredible. Being an MP is often a seven-days-a-week occupation, although I am encouraged by my staff to take a day off now and again.

You respond to emails at all hours, speak to constituents about issues whilst you’re doing the weekly shop, or attend fantastic and worthwhile community events and festivals. It has been a steep learning curve for myself and my family, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

One of the wonderful things about being an MP is that every day is different, each bringing new challenges and opportunities to advocate for my constituents. One day you can be attending a village fete, the next you can be in Downing Street at a reception celebrating the work of outstanding teachers. You never really know what’s around the corner.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of being the MP for the Colne Valley constituency is being able to assist constituents with any issues they are facing, and engage with their views on different areas. I have held several surgeries since my election in June, and I am truly humbled to be able to help those who are in vulnerable situations, or who passionately champion their causes.

Since July 2017, my office has handled more than 4,500 pieces of casework and correspondence, with concerns ranging from Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments (PIP), to asylum and immigration cases.

One part of being an MP which I am very grateful for is the opportunity to go into schools and talk to the pupils about what democracy is, how it works and what life is like as a Member of Parliament.

I always tell them about how MPs try and shuffle along the green benches to avoid sitting on the bumps which are uncomfortable if a long statement or debate is taking place. This normally gets a laugh. One of the questions I get asked the most when visiting schools, or when school groups come to Parliament is “What do you most enjoy about being an MP?”

The answer is simple. As an MP, I can ask key questions and challenge the Government on issues before they are legislated on. I can make changes and improvements which affect people in my constituency, and across the country. I can advocate for young people, teachers and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

One example of this was the cross-party campaign to enable children in foster care to access the full 30 hours free childcare, as they had been excluded when the policy was first introduced. MPs are very passionate about causes they campaign on, and when that passion transcends party lines, it can be used to make effective changes. The Education Committee is a fantastic example of this, where members from different parties collaborate to hold the Government to account.

As a committee, we examine and make recommendations to the Government on some of the problems facing the education sector, such as teacher recruitment and retention, young people’s mental health and the foster care system. Parliament does, however, have its frustrations. One which comes to mind is how inaccessible the role of an MP can be for someone with a young family. While there is a nursery on the estate, which was built in 2009, there are still several members who face challenges with childcare during varied sitting times and late-night votes.

The Palace of Westminster is steeped in tradition and history, there are constant discoveries of new corridors you have never been down, or paintings and sculptures you haven’t noticed before. Also steeped in tradition is the Chamber itself. MPs must bow to the Speaker as they enter and leave, and they are not allowed to refer to other members in the first person, for example “the Honourable member for X” as opposed to “you”. There is no other place like it, and every day as I walk through Carriage Gates, past Big Ben, I still get the sense of awe and excitement I had on my first day.

I was recently asked what lessons Parliament could learn from the north. In my opinion, I believe that politics in Westminster could benefit from being more straight-talking, and grounded in the understanding of the challenges faced by people across the UK. In addition to its frank and down-to-earth nature, the North also benefits from having some of the friendliest and welcoming people in the UK, and Parliament could certainly learn a thing or two by watching how things work in Yorkshire.

I am really proud to be a Yorkshire MP, and I feel very privileged to represent the people and the place I love.

Thelma Walker is the Labour MP for Colne Valley.