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Early Years Family Support

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:51 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire 3:51 pm, 16th July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
believes there is now overwhelming evidence of the importance of the first 1,001 critical days of a new baby’s life in determining his or her lifelong physical and emotional wellbeing;
notes the work of the Inter-Ministerial Group led by the Rt. hon. Member for South Northamptonshire, the Thirteenth Report of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, HC 1496, on First 1000 days of life and the Eleventh Report of the Science and Technology Committee, HC 506 on Evidence-based early years intervention;
and calls on the Government to take strong and decisive action immediately to ensure that every baby gets the best start in life.

I am delighted to have the chance to speak today on a subject that is a real passion for me, and one of the reasons that I got into politics. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, particularly Ian Mearns, for finding time for me to hold this important debate.

It is a great pleasure to see good friends from across the House here to support the motion this afternoon. I am looking forward to hearing some excellent speeches on an issue that, if we get it right, has the potential to be truly life-changing for so many in our society. We are here today to share the overwhelming evidence of the importance of the 1,001 critical days of a new baby’s life in determining his or her lifelong physical and emotional wellbeing, and to call on the Government to take strong and decisive action right away to ensure that every baby gets the best start in life.

I want to pay tribute to some recent work that has been undertaken in this important area by the Select Committees chaired by Norman Lamb, my right hon. Friend Robert Halfon and Dr Wollaston. I know that the right hon. Member for North Norfolk was keen to speak today and I am sorry that his duties elsewhere mean that he cannot be with us this afternoon.

As many right hon. and hon. Members will know, until recently I was chairing a cross-Whitehall inter-ministerial group at the request of my right hon. Friend, the Prime Minister, to look specifically at how the Government can best improve support in the earliest years, for families and their newborn babies. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister for her prioritisation of this key issue—I believe it can provide a vital part of her legacy.

I am told that the inter-ministerial group I chaired was the only significant piece of cross-departmental work under way, with the obvious exception of Brexit. I am so grateful to the Prime Minister for tasking me with the enormous responsibility of contributing my own experience and knowledge in this policy area to fundamentally change our society for the better. I was proud that one of the last things I did before stepping down from my role as Leader of the House was to sign off on the detailed recommendations of the group.

Before we turn to the recommendations, I want to take a few minutes to set out the science behind the importance of the 1,001 critical days. From conception to the age of two—the period that is now referred to as the 1,001 critical days—it is the existence of a secure and loving relationship with a key adult carer that literally shapes the way a baby’s brain develops. It is amazing that, in the first year of life, more than 1 million new neural connections per second are being created in the brain. Secure attachment to a loving adult carer has a lifelong beneficial impact on the baby’s developing emotional health, and the developing brain will literally learn that the world is a good place and that problems can be solved.

Not only that, but secure attachment in the earliest period of life can have a positive impact on our entire social fabric. It is not about the impact on the individual; it is the positive ripple effect that secure attachment creates. It is the emotionally capable adults that those children become, able to make friends, learn, hold down a job, find a good partner and then become good parents themselves. It is the society that we could create if we fully address this issue.

Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that insecure or, worse still, disorganised attachment leads to all of life’s problems, at one level there is no doubt that it severely limits a person’s ability to cope with life’s ups and downs, and we know that in the most extreme cases a person’s earliest experiences can totally wreck their life. Negative early experiences create new generations of troubled and insecure young people and are often passed down to their babies by parents who themselves suffered insecure attachment. This is known as the cycle of deprivation. I well recall discussions with Dame Louise Casey when she was the troubled families tsar, who became convinced that intervening much earlier would be vital to prevent the later behavioural challenges that she was seeing, and the many discussions with my local police and crime commissioner, who recognises on the street every day the impact of a person’s earliest experiences on their tendency towards later criminality, addiction and violence, as well as depression and suicide.

It is clear that the science of brain development matters not just in our early years, but is a cradle-to-grave public health issue, the symptoms of which are evident in the years and decades that follow poor early experiences, which can cost the individual and society so much.