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Early Years Family Support

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:24 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Labour/Co-operative, Manchester Central 4:24 pm, 16th July 2019

I for one, Mr Deputy Speaker, am pleased that you allowed Andrea Leadsom the time she needed to give such an excellent and outstanding speech about why the 1,001 critical days are so important. When she asked me to co-sponsor this debate, I did not hesitate to say yes. As she has said, she and I have worked together on this issue for many years. In fact, she was the first Government Member to approach me when I first got elected, and she asked me to get involved with her work on this important area. She sought me out and we have worked very closely ever since. As we heard in her outstanding opening speech, her personal commitment to this agenda is completely without exception. She has done a fantastic job and we really miss her drive and leadership in government on these important issues. I will say more about that later.

I will not try to emulate the right hon. Lady’s excellent speech, but, as she has said, all the evidence tells us that the most important time in the life not just of a child but of a human being is those first 1,001 critical days. The fact that we do not give enough attention to that is, in my view, immoral, because we know how important it is, yet it does not get the attention it deserves.

The science has already been outlined, but I want to highlight another aspect. Deprivation is still a really key issue for outcomes in the first 1,001 critical days and thereafter of a child’s life. We know from all the evidence that the single biggest indicator of how well someone will do in their GCSEs is their developmental level at the age of five. We also know that children from better-off backgrounds hear 30 million more words than those from less advantaged backgrounds. The developmental gap between the less well-off and their better-off peers is significant before a child even starts school. It can be as much as 18 months or more in some cases. The Government, services and others seem to spend a huge amount of time and money on trying to address those gaps later in life, when we could do a lot more earlier and save a lot more money in doing so.

That is why we are here today. If we spent on this issue even a fraction of the amount of resources and time that we spend on health, education, criminal justice, home affairs, the Department for Work and Pensions and all the services they support—and instead of focusing on the consequences of not getting the first 1,001 days right, focused on the root causes and those early years—not only would we save a huge amount of money for Government and the country, but we would create a much happier and better society.

We are here today because, unfortunately, the ambitious work that the right hon. Lady began and almost concluded in government has not yet come to light. Like her, I have asked questions, both written and oral, about what is happening. It would not take a huge amount. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, who will respond on behalf of the Government, is a fantastic Minister. He and I have worked very closely on a number of issues, and I do not doubt his commitment. I hope he will soon be in the Cabinet, and I believe that this issue needs Cabinet oversight.

What needs to happen? We have already heard some of the issues. I am going to focus on three things that I think need to happen. Some of my comments are based on my role leading on an outstanding piece of work that the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, asked me to do on school readiness across Greater Manchester.

We do not need lots of new initiatives and new programmes. We know what works, largely, and we know what we need to do. We are just not doing it as well as we should or making it reach as many babies and parents as it should. I do not want the Government to take the message from this that we want lots of whizzy new action plans. We just want to get the nuts and bolts, and the agenda and the importance of that agenda, right, because if we steer this oil tanker in the right direction, we can make great strides. It is not rocket science, and that makes it even more immoral that we are not doing some of these things, because we know what works in the early years.

The first thing we need, I am afraid, is more cash. We cannot have this conversation without discussing funding, and particularly funding for local government. As we have heard, many of the early help and intervention support services—including, critically, Sure Start children’s centres—are funded via local government, which has seen some of the biggest cuts across Government. Action for Children has published a really good report which shows the real value that Sure Start centres can provide in narrowing the attainment gap. The recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report on Sure Start children’s centres showed how much money was saved in just one area—hospitalisation of infants—for the NHS by reducing the number of unnecessary visits to hospital by parents.

We need more cash, and we need that cash to be allowed to be spent on early help and intervention. That includes the troubled families programme, which, as the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said, should be extended to the early years. The troubled families programme is due to end soon. That would be a travesty, because it has done more to break the cycle of deprivation that we have heard so much about than many other joined-up programmes.

I want to make a small plea on funding. The Minister will know that I would not let this opportunity go without mentioning our valued maintained nursery schools, which in many cases act as hubs for children’s centres and the holistic, place-based, integrated support services that we need to change lives for the better. Their funding is at risk. The Minister has been an outstanding champion for them. He has done a great deal of work with the all-party parliamentary group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes and others to secure funding. If he leaves office for a higher position under the new Prime Minister, which I am sure he will and which he deserves to do, I hope he will leave a firm handover note to his successor. The sector will miss him greatly if he leaves the Department for Education. He is the most popular Minister we have had in this Government.