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Early Years Family Support

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Draft Domestic Abuse Bill (Joint) Committee 4:36 pm, 16th July 2019

What has marked out this debate already is Members’ great passion for and commitment to this subject. It is a great pleasure to follow Lucy Powell and to hear more about the work she has been doing. However, the absolute tribute has to go to my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, who is quite simply the oracle on early years and attachment theory.

I will always remember the first time I met my right hon. Friend, and I had a teach-in that most people would pay for on early years attachment theory. I think that it was in the car park of a pub, but I very much appreciated that teach-in. Actually, I do not think she realised it, but she sparked a real interest in this area for me. This conversation happened many years before we were both in Parliament together, and it really marked out a very deep interest for me. I was able to follow that up as a shadow Minister—not particularly when I had a ministerial post, but when I was a shadow Minister—in the years before 2010.

My right hon. Friend is an expert in early years and attachment theory, and I do not want to add to what she and, indeed, the hon. Member for Manchester Central have said on a number of these issues. I want to go on to some other areas to expand the debate a bit more, but before I do so, let me say that it is absolutely fundamental that we get it right for every single baby in this country. The early intervention that my right hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have talked about in the debate is completely critical and vital.

As my right hon. Friend has said, having universal and targeted services is a critical part of this. While she was talking, I was reflecting on the service offered in my own constituency by Basingstoke breastfeeding counsellors. They are a mixture of paid-for counsellors and volunteers, but this is very much focused on volunteers who are there for mums to be able effectively and successfully to breastfeed in those early weeks and months. It is a service, frankly, that the NHS finds quite difficult to provide and that involves those expert counsellors. That is one way we can help to improve not only the health of our babies, but attachment from those very early weeks and months. That sort of support can be so important for babies and new mums in the early weeks—certainly, it was for me when I had my three children. Health visitor support makes a real difference in supporting mental health, breastfeeding and the health of the mother and baby.

I want to expand on the specific issues talked about today, because we need to get it right for families, too. To get it right for babies, we need secure and stable families and parents before babies are born, as well as afterwards. My right hon. Friend talked about the stress that can be put on mothers during pregnancy and how it can be transferred to the unborn child. That is one reason why I introduced a 10-minute rule Bill to try to change the law with regard to redundancy and pregnant women. More than 50,000 women a year in this country feel that they have no choice but to leave their jobs when they are pregnant. Those of us who have been pregnant, or have had partners who have been pregnant, can think of no time of our lives when we have less wanted to leave a job. At a time when financial stability is so important, one can only imagine the pressure individuals who have to give up their jobs are under.

In addition to specific expert support for parents around attachment, the Government need to reflect specifically on how we ensure pregnant women receive the support they need. In Germany, a law is in place that stops, except in extreme circumstances, any pregnant woman being made redundant. Not only does that help to alleviate some of the stress we have talked about, it enables that country to ensure that more women go back into employment after they have had children, and that helps to close the gender pay gap. I hope that the UK Government will continue to think about this issue, particularly at a time when we now have more women than men coming out of our best universities with science degrees. We need to find a way to ensure that those women can stay in the labour market and have a successful family life.

My right hon. Friend touched on the mental health of women after they have given birth. I commend the National Childbirth Trust’s campaign for a six-week maternal post-natal check. I think that happened in the past, but it seems to have dropped out of the most recent iteration of the GP contract back in 2005 or 2006. It would be a great way to ensure that, as well as protecting mums before they give birth, we have a mental health check after they give birth. If mum’s mental health is good, attachment can be strong.