Helping children with allergies and Nigeria with Climate Change – all in a year’s work! Interview with Jo Swinson MP, part 3

Welcome to the third and final part of my interview with Jo Swinson MP. I hope you don’t mind the fact that it’s so long. I just sometimes think that blog interviews are quite short and sometimes it’s nice to have a more in depth chat. I’ve written it pretty much exactly as she said it so it’s real conversation. Think of this as the Hello multi page spread without the photographs. The plain text is my bit and the italics are her’s.

Not that I’m stalking Jo or anything, but I do have a They Work for You alert for her. I saw that she had recently asked Minister for Education Tim Loughton about bullying of children with allergies and I wondered what prompted that.

As Chair of the All Party Group on Allergy, I chaired an event before the election which was wonderful because it was kids 6-18 who came along to the House of Commons and presented their experiences as young people living with allergy. They talked about things like eating out, lack of good labelling and how that can be embarrassing with their friends and how managing their social life can be difficult. Also there were some children and it was one of these things from that meeting that really shocked me because it’s something that never happened to me as a child living with an allergy, who had gone through some serious ordeals.

Basically, other kids had put the food that they’re allergic to in their pockets or bags. Worse, the kids had been held down and had the toxic food pushed towards their face. We all know that children can be cruel and all bullying is bad and needs to be addressed, but the specific issue with this is that while some schools take it seriously, other schools didn’t see it as anything more than just kids playing around. Of course actually to a child who has a severe allergy to a particular food, then threatening them with that food is more in the league of pulling a knife on somebody else but it wasn’t being treated with that level of seriousness. So if you’re a child with an allergy and if you’re scared that you’re going to have the food that could make you go into anaphylactic shock and become very ill or die forced on you, that’s going to have a serious impact on your education.

I thnk that there needs to be a recognition that that sort of attack is very serious and needs to be dealt with accordingly. I hope that by raising the issue the Minister will be aware of what can happen and that schools can share best practice rather than the response being very very patchy with some schools dealing with it well and others  not managing to grasp the gravity of the issue.

So it’s almost like it’s training for teachers as well as education for kids?

Exactly, because allergy is growing rapidly in kids – it’s one of the few medical conditions that we aren’t managing to reverse so children need to learn that some children have allergies and children with allergies need to learn how to manage their condition and how to eat safely. We are talking about a minority though because the vast majority of children with allergies get along fine in school.

In fact, a child with an allergy can be a point of interest. I remember when I was 7 going back to school after an allergy test with the skin prick tests up my arms and some of them had the biro pen saying what they are and others had weals. I remember the class crowded round and looked at my arm and we all talked about it and explained what it was all about. It can be a bit of a learning point and something children can be interested in but if there’s a bullying environment in the school then it’s something that can be used against children.

Finally, I asked Jo about her recent trip to Nigeria with VSO.

It was fascinating. VSO have a scheme to help parliamentarians understand VSO and contribute their skills. Obviously MPs can’t go away for a whole year or their constituents would quite rightly be very concerned but they have an opportunity for us to go for a short period of time and I went the week after Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool to Nigeria and the specific project I was helping with was to do with the Climate Change Bill that they’re trying to pass before the elections next year. It’s at quite a crucial stage. It’s gone through both houses of the parliament but if they don’t finalise it and get it on the statute book before the elections, they have to start the process again. They want to set up a Climate Change Committee which isn’t a million miles from the Climate Change Commission we set up in our Climate Change Act. I was able to discuss with them the British experience and share some campaigning techniques. The President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan has a Facebook Page so we were discussing ways of encouraging young people to use social media to campaign on this issue.

Nigeria is already feeling the effects of climate change. In the north, the desert is basically spreading and that’s having an impact on agriculture and in the south, it’s just so vulnerable to any rise in sea level in an area where 38 million people live, a quarter of Nigeria’s population. If you look at a map you can see all the lagoons and lakes all round Lagos.  As a massive energy producer it has a massive ability to take action but it’s a challenge because it’s so tied into their economy. It was a fascinating trip. I held a workshop, held meetings in the Parliament and indeed with British officials to make sure they’re up to speed with the situation so they can encourage the process along.

And that is the end of the interview. I hope you enjoyed it.

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