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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate in support of my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, who has such passion for and knowledge about this issue. I too feel a bit left out, because I have never been accosted in that way. I am a little bit upset, but perhaps we can do that later. I echo what my Cornish colleague, my hon. Friend Steve Double, said about fathers. I will touch on it a little later, but I am one of those who felt left out throughout that process.
I am a huge advocate of cross-departmental working, if joined-up government is even possible. As with many issues, collaboration in early years work is incredibly important if we want to improve the effectiveness of services, both in Government and out there in service delivery at a local level. The working group chaired by the former Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, was a positive step in bringing together all those Departments that need to be involved to find a rounded answer to the many complex issues relating to children’s services. I hope that that group drew some genuine conclusions that can be carried forward under a new Government, and it is positive to hear that my right hon. Friend expects that to be the case.
I wish to acknowledge the progress the Government have made on early years. My right hon. Friend Mrs Miller spoke about flexible working and shared leave. I am proud of the fact that more than 850,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds have benefited from free early education places since these were introduced. We spend £3.5 billion a year—that is more than ever—on early years entitlement, targeting those children who are less likely to access formal early education than their more affluent peers and helping to close the unfair gaps that exist from birth. As has been touched on, though, sometimes by the time those children reach two the challenges have already been set in place. It is then much more difficult to overcome them.
We need to do more to support children in disadvantaged areas, including Mansfield and Warsop in my constituency. On average, by the time a child from a disadvantaged background reaches the age of five, they are four months behind more affluent children in their overall development. The figures for children who start primary school in areas such as mine without the basic skills that they need are quite shocking. It simply is not good enough. The gap that exists at the age of five only widens and becomes more entrenched if it is not tackled early enough. We cannot wait until children get to school, when in many cases the damage is already done. My hon. Friend Tim Loughton chairs the all-party group on the first 1,001 days and rightly recognises that this time is vital in identifying the children who need support and who will likely always be disadvantaged if they do not get help early on.
I support the point made by my colleague on the Education Committee, Lucy Powell: we do not need more whizzy initiatives. In fact, the Select Committee has looked at lots of whizzy initiatives in recent weeks and I have been highly unimpressed by several of them. We need to spend that money on the high-quality delivery of the basic services that we know work out there in local settings.
I support Action for Children’s call for the Government to set a clear direction for children’s centres, to introduce an outcome framework to address the current funding challenges, and to use the next spending review to allocate additional funding to local authorities for children’s services. Children’s centres provide support to families so that they can overcome challenges and help to provide a safe environment for children, but without adequate funding for children’s services, children’s centres have struggled. So many local authorities are in deficit in respect of children’s services that it can be a huge challenge to look at moving to a more preventive, proactive approach, when they cannot fund the crisis services they are being asked to put in place.
We often argue in this place about Sure Start versus family hubs and other models. I advocate bringing some of those services into a primary school setting, because primary schools are trusted institutions that people might be happier to visit and to access. One way or another, a joined-up approach to proactive service delivery, accessible to those who need it, is necessary.
In those early weeks and months, we need to support the health visitors in their role of helping parents, babies and families across the country. I am happy to see that the Government will implement continuity of carers, which means that mothers will receive care from the same midwife throughout pregnancy, birth and into the post-natal period to better guard perinatal mental health. More support for young mothers and families can only be a good thing. I have mentioned my own experience as a new father, watching my wife cry as she fed our newborn baby, feeling very left out and totally helpless in that situation. Obviously, our family was a huge support, but so too were the health visitors. The advice that they gave us at that time was vital.
There are opportunities to access funding through other Departments. Obviously, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has some funding challenges. Health visitors used to come under the Department of Health. Their role is still very clearly a health matter, and there is perhaps more money in that Department than there is in other places. That is an example of where cross-departmental working might be able to help deliver these services on the ground in a more effective way.
I am also pleased that the Home Secretary has recognised that the Government need to tackle the adverse childhood experiences that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire mentioned in her speech. The experience of drug abuse or domestic violence poses huge challenges throughout the lives of young people. Steps have been taken towards better cross-departmental working on this issue, identifying people who are at risk, but there is so much more to be done. When we compare people with four or more adverse childhood experiences with those who have none, we see that they are more likely to go to prison, more likely to develop heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or mental illness, more likely to commit crime and more likely to undertake other health-harming behaviours such as drinking, smoking and drug use. Many of those issues are far too prevalent in my constituency. If we look at the statistics, we see that places such as Mansfield often feature at the top of the wrong kind of tables, which puts children at particular risk. These adults often go on to have children of their own who experience the same issues in their childhood, creating a downward spiral that crosses many generations. If we do not intervene early, it will affect many families and individuals and create challenges for schools and adult services across the board. It is a prime example of how investing in early intervention services saves not only lives but money further down the line.
What is clear even from this short speech in this debate today is that the issues cross countless Departments, many different Ministers in Westminster, and a variety of local service providers from local government to health, education, police and many more. After decades of erecting barriers between these services, each with its own pot of funding and its own agenda, we now must find a way of bringing those barriers down and building on the evidence of successful schemes that require genuine collaboration—working and funding things together. We need to do that locally and nationally, which is why my right hon. Friend’s working group is still so important. It is why the troubled families programme is an example to follow. It is why we should be seeking out, rewarding and sharing best practice in this area.
Last week, I met the bigger charities in this sector, including Action for Children, Barnardo’s, and the Children’s Society. We discussed the collaborative approach that needs to be taken by those kinds of third sector organisations to make a convincing case to the Government and to the Treasury for proactive and preventive children’s services. A financial case for shifting that investment upstream also needs to be made, making it obvious that value for money as well as the social value of that kind of support are key aspects as well.
Ultimately, it is only cross-departmental working and properly funding early intervention services that will break the cycle and improve the lives of children in areas such as Mansfield. It too often seems to be children who fall through the cracks between Departments —whether it is children’s services across the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and all the other services that come into that, all the way through the age range to youth provision, which has similar challenges across different Departments. We have to bring that back together. I certainly support the idea of Cabinet-level responsibility for these things all together.
I urge the new Government to commit to additional funding for children’s services and to properly prioritise early intervention in the first 1,001 days, building on the work that has been done by my right hon. Friend and others. I am encouraged to hear that the IMG’s work continues and will be taken forward under that new Government, as there is an awful lot to do in this area if we are to make sure that our children have the very best start in life. We need to deal with all those issues in the first two years, when it is vital that we find and support those young people.