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Early Years Family Support

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis Conservative, Banbury 5:14 pm, 16th July 2019

I should start by apologising for not being here for the wind-ups, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom and the Minister. Both are aware that we are suffering quite a challenging family situation at home—cortisol levels are quite high—so I will dash away immediately after I have spoken, although I could not miss the opportunity to speak this afternoon.

I remember a young woman from north Oxfordshire. She had two toddlers and was trying to do a part-time job, with a husband who was busy working away from home. She had suffered the death of a baby previously, so was relatively vulnerable in her state of early motherhood. I remember her standing outside a school gate near her home when a blonde woman bore down upon her.

Rather like my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, my first experience of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire involved a long discussion about brain scans, Romanian orphans and how important brain development is in the first six to 18 years of life. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, I found that the discussion took quite a long time, but at the end of it, I too was completely converted to the cause. I went on to become a founding trustee of NorPIP, the Northamptonshire Parent Infant Partnership.

Despite my extremely challenging family circumstances this afternoon, I have to speak in this debate. I pay enormous tribute, as everybody has, to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. She has persuaded a generation of us from across the House that this issue really matters. Despite your enormous indulgence of her, Mr Deputy Speaker, she did not have time to tell you how fabulous the work of PIP UK is—OXPIP, the Oxford Parent Infant Project, and NorPIP were the pioneers in those days, along with a few other areas—or how its targeted work with vulnerable women who need careful, considered, medical, evidence-based treatment transforms the lives of their families, babies and the following generation’s babies, who will be brought up by those families, which is something that we perhaps have not said enough about. We need to look at this in the very broadest sense; this is about parenting.

I pay tribute to everybody who has spoken this afternoon. We have obviously all been got at in the same way by my right hon. Friend. We have read our briefs and have learned how critical the first 1,001 days are. We have learned to say things in words that have been carefully chosen: things about parenting, about brain development and—I am going to say it, because my right hon. Friend did not—about “two is too late”, an early slogan of PIP UK that is not comfortable to say or think. Of course, two is not always too late, but it is a blimmin’ sight easier to intervene before two. That should be the message that goes out loud and clear this afternoon.

Everybody else who has spoken is an expert in this field, so I will restrict myself to two constituency examples, as I want to add something in a small way to this debate. The first concerns a breakdown in parenting, which is something that one of my senior headteachers has been talking to me about for around 18 months. He has noticed that children arriving at the nursery in his school are not potty trained and have much lower levels of communication than in previous years, and he is really worried about that. He set up a fantastic organisation called Safeguarding Children in Banbury, which I am pleased to say the Minister came to visit not so long ago, with 19 other schools in my area. The organisation aims to help schools to deal with traumatised, not school-ready children.

I will not go into the examples that that headteacher has given me in any detail because it would probably be possible to identify the families, but it is fair to say that seven families cause him most of the concerns in his one school. Those seven families have 34 children, who have been or are currently in his care. These are complex cases that involve drug abuse, other forms of abuse and, it has to be said, neglect. He has asked me some profound questions, which he also shared with the Minister, about the role that we expect schools to play today.

Do we expect schools to educate our children as well as they possibly can through really good teaching, or do we also expect them to be a frontline safeguarding service that addresses concerns over which they have no control? Children arrive at school aged three or four, and we expect the schools to deal with earlier neglect and abuse. The headteacher whom I mentioned spends a lot of his time filling in education, health and care plans, which he does not feel is the best use of his time. He is concerned that we do not have the right balance or the right role for schools, which are on the frontline of this battle.

My second constituency example is of Adoption UK, which I am proud to say is based in my area. There is, of course, an enormous link between early-years support and successful adoption. My family have had successful adoptions over the years, but it is important to remember that, for my generation, the average age of adoption was three months. My cousin has recently adopted; the average age for a child being adopted now is three years. The first 1,001 days are critical, and we can all work out the importance of getting to these particularly vulnerable children at the earliest possible stage.

I said earlier that two is too late, and we know that two is the optimum age by which we have formed good attachments and the bonds we need to form good relationships in later life, but there is a plasticity in early adolescence, when it may be possible to help children who did not have the best start in life to recover as best they can.

I urge the Minister to do all he can to safeguard the adoption support fund, as it has been repeatedly shown that this brilliant innovation targets help at the families and children who need it, some 90% of whom say it has helped them a lot—children’s parlance—with their mental health issues. These are children who, by definition, have difficulties with attachment and who have suffered in the past. It is important that we do that as a minimum.

In the early adolescent years it is possible to help children who have had a bad start in life and, by default, we should help them by offering all the counselling and extra services they may need. It should almost be that an adopted child has to opt out if they do not need it. If it is possible to help with attachment during that early adolescent period, it is important that we do everything we can to do so.

We have had some brilliant solutions, not least from my hon. Friend Tim Loughton. I would also like to plug Home-Start UK, which has a great organisation in my constituency—I am sure other Members share my love for Home-Start. I learned in my early years at NorPIP that peer-reviewing and evidence is key to people taking this sector seriously, and I am interested in Cardiff University’s study, which shows high levels of improvement in the mental health of children who have been helped by Home-Start.

We have heard about the importance of universal services, not least from Lucy Powell. This is not all about deprivation, and other families do need to be picked up—my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke suggested that six-week checks are critical—but targeted services are important, too. The families in Banbury identified by this headteacher are known to all sorts of services. We need to take a joined-up, targeted approach and get in there before the baby is born.

I very much hope that the IMG report and all its recommendations will be considered in enormous detail by the Minister—and by whoever takes over from him if he does move on. When I worked as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, I was fortunate enough to sit in at some of the IMG’s meetings; I do not think I am breaking too many confidences by saying that after those meetings several—in fact more than several—of the Ministers present sidled up to me in the Lobby or in the Tea Room and said, “Golly, I didn’t know all that about early brain development. Do you think I got it right with my own children?”

I had that conversation again and again, and I sure my right hon. Friend has it daily with colleagues and everyone else she comes across. It is true that we can all be better parents, at all levels of parenting. Investing in early years really is spending to save.