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Early Years Family Support

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:25 pm on 16th July 2019.

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Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 5:25 pm, 16th July 2019

It is a great pleasure to contribute to this important debate. I, too, want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom for her role in bringing this important issue and report before us.

I have the huge pleasure and joy of being the father of two boys. I feel somewhat old now, because the older one is due to be 29 shortly and my youngest one got married two weeks ago—it was a great day. So it was some time ago that I had that joy of being a new dad, but it is as a dad and as the co-chair of the all-party group on fatherhood that I want to talk a little about the role of fathers in this important matter.

I feel a little left out, because I did not meet my right hon. Friend until 2015, when I had been elected, and so did not have the benefit of her input on this matter before becoming an MP, but I know from my own experience of being a dad, and from various roles that I played before coming to this House, the importance of those early years, both before birth and immediately after. I know just how important that time is for getting that connection to the parents right.

The report is such a good thing—but if I were to have one concern, it would be that we could do more to recognise the importance of the role that dads play at this time in a child’s development. I encourage the Minister to consider and take note of the Centre for Social Justice report “Testing Times: Supporting fathers during the perinatal period and early parenthood”, which was written, in part, to support this review.

It is right we consider the role of fathers, who, according to the Office for National Statistics, are almost always present during this period; 95% of babies are born to couples, with 85% living under the same roof. Fathers are present, but despite that they often feel much overlooked at this important time in respect of their important role in supporting new families. Positive engagement and a strong emotional connection to a father has beneficial impacts—not just for the baby, but for the new mother, ranging from better physical and mental health outcomes to supporting emotional and cognitive development in young children.

It is a mistake to overlook the role of fathers, yet so often we do. In an analysis of inspection frameworks around maternity services, health visiting and children’s centres, we find that the word “father” is hardly ever used; the role of fathers is literally written out of expectations of our public services during this important period. Fathers are increasingly being written out of everyday language, being referred to through vague generic terms such as “birthing partner”. The intention of such phrasing might be to avoid causing offence, but it denies the reality of the pregnancy process and the early days of parenting that fathers are almost always around.

Health services will never have enough workers or resources to be the round-the-clock support network for new mums. When new mothers are asked about support, almost two thirds identify their partner as being their primary source—that is almost three times as much as the next option, which is their own mother. Only 5% say that healthcare professionals are the most valuable support. It is not surprising that fathers feel badly undervalued, with seven out of 10 new fathers saying that they are made to feel like a spare part during the pregnancy period.

The Centre for Social Justice and others have called for Ministers to introduce into inspection frameworks a “dad test”, which would mean writing into inspection frameworks for maternity services, health visiting and children’s centres a series of expectations around engaging fathers and helping them to help mother and child. There is so much more that we can do in this important policy area. Overlooking the role of fathers is misjudged. I hope that the Minister will look again at the report and ask what more can be done to ensure that new dads are given the support that they need, so that they can provide the help and support that the mother and child need at such a critical time.