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Early Years Family Support

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:53 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 4:53 pm, 16th July 2019

I am completely recharged and relieved by that. The hon. Lady is my absolute favourite Member of Parliament for Manchester Central, and many things besides. But this debate is getting far too consensual, so I shall return to the points that I was trying to make.

The phrase “1,000 days”—or, for those whose glass is half full, “1,001 days”—is almost becoming common parlance as well, and it needs to. It needs to be almost a brand. People need to understand that those 1,001-ish days of life from conception to the age of two are the period that will have the most impact on a child’s future life. If we do not invest in the right support then, the cost of picking up the pieces later will be so much greater, both financially and, as I think everyone here recognises, socially.

I should declare an interest, in that I chair PIP UK—the Parent Infant Partnership—which was set up by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. I became chairman of the trustees, and am proud still to be so. Our most recent report is “Rare Jewels”. I pay tribute to Sally Hogg, who works for PIP and who did a great deal of research on the scarcity of parent and infant mental health specialist support. That was a false economy.

I shall now be slightly unconventional, and talk about the motion. The motion is about the inter-ministerial group, and I want to talk about some of the experiences of that group. As I found during my few years as a Minister, joined-up government is a complete myth. What the group almost uniquely did, because of the vim and force of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, was bring together key Ministers from half a dozen key Departments to try to create joined-up solutions. A child’s mental health, and those early years affecting the child and his or her parents, are not just the preserve of the Department for Education and of children’s social care. They touch on the work of so many other Departments

I am glad that my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller is still here. She will remember that some years ago, when I was the Children’s Minister and Sarah Teather was also an Education Minister, we tried to put together the early intervention fund, which was largely intended to bring together different interests with a pooled budget so that we could work together on smarter solutions. However, that did not really fit the way in which the civil service worked.

We struggled for some months to pull together a plan that would involve various other Departments, and we were being frustrated at every turn; so we formed a pizza club, well before my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire was on the scene. My then colleague Sarah Teather and I rang other colleagues—Housing Ministers, Health Ministers and others. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke was then a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions. We got together in “The Adjournment” restaurant, had a pizza, agreed what we wanted to do, and all went back to our Departments in the following days and told our civil servants what we wanted to do. The response was “Well, I’m sorry but that’s not the way we do things around here, Minister”, to which our response was “Tough, we’re now doing it.” That was the only way we could actually get through an important joined-up policy because the system just did not work. I do not think things have improved much at all.

Another innovation I set up then was the Youth Action Group. Again, there were problems and I tried to youth-proof all Government policy, which is something I still bang on about. There were many problems that transcended different Departments, and yet if there was a problem, it would go from one Department to another in a vicious triangle, as it were. So I got together six major charities led by The Prince’s Trust and Barnardo’s. I co-chaired it and, at one stage, I think we had nine Ministers from nine different Departments. Invariably most of those Ministers would turn up to those meetings and the children’s charities and youth charities would bring particular problems to us. One problem was about housing benefit for looked-after children who were care leavers, which was the responsibility of the Department for Education for care, the Department for Communities and Local Government—whatever it was called in those days—for housing and the Department for Work and Pensions for benefits. We got the three Ministers together with the three lead officials and said, “Here’s the problem; can you please take it away and solve it and come back with a solution that the children and youth workers can then take away?” Alas, that group no longer exists, but we need far more of that sort of rationale and mentality in Government. The inter-ministerial group showed how it could be done, and it is so important that the work continues. I hope that the recommendations that have been made are taken up and run with.

We need a Minister for early-years children and families at Cabinet level. It should not just be left to civil servants to people those committees when what we need is a co-ordinated ministerial response. This needs to be led by a high-profile Minister who has the clout, enthusiasm and drive to bring all the relevant Departments together and come up with a cross-departmental solution. I am afraid that we are still a long way from that in common practice, and that is partly what is wrong with Government and with our civil service. So that is my main plea.

On the investment equation, I am not going to repeat everything that has been said, but we know that healthy social and emotional development in the first 1,001 days means that individuals are more likely to have improved mental and physical health outcomes from cradle to grave and children will start school with the language, social and emotional skills they need to play and explore and learn. Children and young people will also be better able to understand and manage their emotions and behaviours, leading to less risky and antisocial behaviours and the costs that these bring to individuals and society, and they will have the skills they need to form trusting, healthy relationships—something we heard about in the Chamber earlier. If they had that, we would not have to spend such a lot of time teaching it to them at school because it would come naturally, and they would know what a proper quality, trusting relationship actually is. And if they know, they are much more likely to be able to hand it on and nurture their own children as they become parents in the future.

The cost of getting this wrong is huge. Some years ago—although it is still as true and important today—the Maternal Mental Health Alliance calculated the cost of getting perinatal mental health care wrong for the one in six women who will have some form of perinatal mental illness. The cost of that was £8.1 billion each and every year, and the cost of child neglect in this country is £15 billion each and every year; so £23.1 billion is the price of getting it wrong. A fraction of that spent on early intervention—well-targeted, well-timed, well-positioned by well-qualified and trained professionals—could save so much personal grief and so much financial and social grief later on.

It is not rocket science, as I constantly say; it is technically neuroscience, but it really is something we should have been doing so many years ago. The troubled families programme is the model here, and it is essential that the troubled families programme is not just retained, but expanded in the comprehensive spending review. I have always said that we need a pre-troubled families programme, because in the troubled families programme we are dealing with the symptoms of getting it wrong earlier. If we prevented those symptoms in the first place, working in those very early years, so that we have a well-balanced parent or parents with well-balanced children, they are more likely to arrive at school eager and able to learn and be contributing members of society. That is so vital. Some 28% of mothers with mental health problems report having difficulties bonding with their child. Research suggests that this initial dysfunction in the mother-baby relationship affects the child’s development by impairing the baby’s psychomotor and socio-emotional development.

Postnatal depression has also been linked with depression in fathers, and with higher rates of family breakdown. We forget the impact on fathers of not knowing how to deal with a mum—a partner—who all of a sudden has some form of postnatal mental illness. A lot of fathers are affected by this. I know that my hon. Friend Steve Double, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on fatherhood, is going to talk about this. It is essential that we look at all parents, when both parents are on the scene, and give support to the family as a whole.