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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 am grateful to the hon. Lady. It has been a great experience. When I became City Minister, I was so sorry to learn that I had to drop all trusteeships and the all-party groups overnight. I cannot thank my hon. Friend Tim Loughton enough—I have known him for the many years since we were at university together—for picking up the ball and continuing to drive these important issues forward to this day with his amazing dedication, focus and care.

Let me fast-forward through my more recent roles as Energy Minister, Environment Secretary and Leader of the House. On the face of it, there was little scope for me to continue the push on early years, but with the continued collaboration between the right hon. and hon. Members whom I have mentioned and many others, the excellent work has continued, culminating in the Prime Minister herself committing to support the early years agenda and asking me to set up the IMG in the summer of 2018.

The IMG itself comprised my hon. Friends the Members for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). I pay real tribute to all of them for their hard work on the group, as well as to the dedicated civil servants who supported us. Our remit was to consider the individual, the family and the wider societal risk factors that affect child development in the conception-to-age-two period and the long-term impacts, as well as the issues with central and local government’s approach.

The Prime Minister had asked the IMG to make recommendations to the relevant Secretaries of State that would support local areas in improving the co-ordination of early years services and in spending their current funding more effectively and more efficiently. I am so grateful to the Prime Minister for her continued support for, and interest in, the IMG, which my ministerial colleagues and I felt demonstrated the high priority being placed on that work.

I was delighted to be told that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, has already prepared a cross-Whitehall civil service team to take our recommendations forward once signed off by the various Departments. We met as a ministerial group several times and undertook a great many visits to learn from examples of best practice right around the country. We visited Manchester children’s centres, the Lambeth Early Action Partnership, a parent-baby drop-in group in Peterborough and an outreach group in Devon. We held roundtables with charities and families, including parents within the civil service. We had consultations on Mumsnet and spoke to so many passionate and dedicated people working within the sector who want to make a clear difference for parents and babies. It was a wonderful and thoroughly rewarding experience. Out of those visits, meetings and consultations, we quickly began to identify a number of common issues that clearly need attention.

First and foremost is the postcode lottery across the country of the availability of perinatal mental health and specialised parent-infant relationship support, particularly around parent-infant psychotherapy services. In some areas, the provision is fantastic, but in others it is almost entirely non-existent. We heard from parents and professionals wanting health visitors to provide greater levels of support to new parents and their babies, particularly where parents are struggling to form a secure bond, with better levels of breastfeeding support and post-partum care. We also had detailed evidence of the need for greater support for dads, greater support for same-sex parents, better availability for couple counselling and for targeted services for new parents, such as debt and housing advice.

One particular issue that we identified was the need for greater support for non-English-speaking parents. The incredible work of children’s centres was highlighted everywhere we visited, and there is no doubt that parents and professionals want to see family-centred spaces such as these protected. There is a great amount of need out there, and it is clear that we have the opportunity to bring about a huge step change in how we deliver early years family support right across the country, if we seize on the recommendations of the inter-ministerial group.

What did we recommend? First and most importantly, getting the 1,001 critical days right can put children on course for good social, economic and physical outcomes later in life. Getting it wrong creates inequalities and significant costs later for Government and society. Secondly, better focus on both universal and targeted services needs to be a priority in this period.

I will not go into all the key recommendations because Mr Deputy Speaker is looking impatient, but I will mention some of them. First, using the wealth of research and evidence taken by the IMG, Departments should work together to create a clear and cohesive Government vision for the 1,001 critical days. That should be published in the autumn after the spending review. Local authorities should be invited to set out their own service models that work for their local communities, and should be properly measured on that.