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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

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is still this myth that it is not manly to admit to having some form of mental illness. I hope that we are getting away from the stigma of that, but we still have far to go in encouraging people. Hon. Members in this place who have come forward with their own very painful experiences have done a huge service by providing role models, as have celebrities in sport and showbusiness, and by showing that there is nothing unmanly or abnormal about coming forward when they have an illness that happens to be a mental illness, just as they would come forward if they had a physical illness. Why should there be any difference? However, we need to make it easier for men to cross that threshold in the first place. We need to ensure that they can come and talk to somebody and get checked out.

I am not going to go into the whole children’s centre argument. That is an important issue but this is not just about the bricks and mortar. However, one of my criticisms is that those places need to be much more dad-friendly, and much more imaginatively used. I have opened many children’s centres in my time, and I have seen some great ones that have football clubs on Saturday afternoons when the children’s centre is too often closed because it is a nine-to-five, Monday to Friday institution. Dads bring their kids and they play football together, then they do computers and reading with their kids afterwards. That is great bonding and co-educational time as well. Again, this is not rocket science. We need to make those places more welcoming for dads, and we need to put them in places that young fathers inhabit.

The killer statistic that I always use is that if a 15 or 16-year-old child in school has some form of depression, there is a 99% likelihood that their mother suffered from some form of mental illness during pregnancy or soon afterwards. The correlation is that close, and if we do nothing to help the mother at that early stage, we will certainly see the consequences later on. It is great that the Prime Minister has flagged up mental illness, and it is great that so much more will be happening with additional funding—not enough, but there will be additional funding—for mental health services in schools, but we need to do all this before school as well so that kids are less susceptible to mental illness problems, given all the pressures that they will face as they go through their school years. We need a much more joined-up approach.

Research by the Children’s Commissioner shows that 8,300 babies under the age of one in England currently live in a household where domestic violence, alcohol or drug dependency and severe mental illness are all present. That is a very worrying amount. That is why the Domestic Abuse Bill, which was at last introduced today, is very important, but we need to look at the impact on children as well as the impact on parents, because that trauma will be long-lasting. We tend to look at the immediate victim of domestic violence without looking at the collateral damage that it also causes. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire mentioned the horrific statistic of something like one third of domestic violence starting during pregnancy.

I will come to a conclusion shortly, Mr Deputy Speaker, although you do not look too impatient, so I might go on a bit. To join up Departments, it is crucial to have key players who are wedded and committed to the issue and who want to work to achieve solutions. Domestic violence is dealt with in the Home Office. Child sexual exploitation is now dealt with in the Home Office. There is an impact on housing, which is dealt with in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. There is an impact on justice as well. The consequences of social media—now dealt with by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—have an impact on children’s mental health. I used to deal with most of those things in one Department when I was Children’s Minister, but they have now been dispersed across Government, and we have to bring them back together.

I will finish on the role of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and public health. Health visitors are a huge resource. One of the great achievements of the Cameron Government—I was part of the discussions in the shadow Health team when we came up with the idea—was the huge expansion of the health visitor programme. Based on the research we did in the Netherlands with the Kraamzorg programme, which showed the impact that health visitors can have at an early stage when they have good, strong engagement with new mums and dads, there was a commitment in the 2010 manifesto to increase the number of health visitors to a figure of, I think, some 4,200. By 2015, that figure had just about been achieved. Alas, since then, things have gone into reverse.

I pay tribute particularly to Dr Cheryll Adams CBE, head of the Institute of Health Visiting, who has had a major input into the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire has already mentioned and the all-party parliamentary group that I chair. As the IHV recently noted, England is now at risk of sleepwalking into the loss of the health visiting service as we know it, unless urgent action is taken to address the current threats it faces. There are ongoing cuts to the public health grant, a 26% reduction in NHS- employed health visitors since 2015 and an unwarranted variation in the quality of services commissioned for families based on where they live rather than the level of need. As the IHV says, investing in the earliest years saves money in the long run and ensures that every child is supported to achieve the best start in life, yet the cuts to services in England persist at a time when inequalities are widening and infant mortality is increasing.

Health visitors are the trusted face on the doorstep. Whereas social workers are often treated with scepticism and fear when they knock on the door, the health visitor is usually welcomed over the threshold, particularly by new parents. He or she is an early warning system of some deficiency in parenting, as well as for safeguarding. It is absolutely essential that we build those numbers back up before we lose too many more of those experienced health visitors, working out of children centres or wherever—hot desking even, with social workers, with the district nurses and other welfare officers—so that they can detect and signpost families to the relevant services. They really are absolutely invaluable. Since the switch in responsibility from the NHS to local authorities—this is no detriment to local government—there has been a lack of experience in how those sorts of services are run, and therefore the issue is not treated as a priority. It is a priority and we need to get back to that.

Finally, I reiterate the recommendations made in the “Building Great Britons” report that the all-party parliamentary group produced in 2015. It was about having a joined-up Government approach to the 1,001 days; about every local authority drawing up its local plan and working with all the local agencies on how to deliver that plan for the 1,001 days, within a five-year term at least; and about having a monitoring system, which I based on the adoption scorecards that we brought in back in 2012, so that there is no place to hide and everyone has to be transparent about how they are progressing towards producing those services, compared with other parts of the country.

The solutions were in that report. We all know what needs to be done. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire led the way in bringing together the relevant parties and Departments to show how it could be done. Now we need to do it.