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It is a pleasure to respond to the debate on behalf of my party. I would like to thank the Backbench Business Committee and its Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), for making time for this important debate, as well as Andrea Leadsom and my hon. Friend Lucy Powell for their work. This is a serious and important debate. Now more than ever, we see that for some children, childhood hurts, with 2.3 million growing up with vulnerable backgrounds, including in families with the toxic trio of ACEs— domestic violence, addiction and mental health issues.
It has been a brilliant debate, with some fantastic contributions that were genuinely from the heart. My hon. Friend Matt Western talked about maintained nurseries. My good friend the Member for Manchester Central has shown great support and commitment to early years and always comes up with fantastic solutions to problems. Her Manchester example is exemplary. I thank her for her work on maintained nurseries—she has put fantastic pressure on the Minister—and the early years workforce academy.
Mrs Miller focused on health visitors. She does brilliant work with the Women and Equalities Committee on shared parental leave, pregnancy discrimination and maternity discrimination. I will take this opportunity to make a plug for my “selfie leave” ten-minute rule Bill for the self-employed. Tim Loughton has years of experience, and I was humbled by his contribution. He focused on adverse childhood experiences and called for joined-up solutions, which is exactly what we want. The scheme described by Andrew Percy was extraordinary, and I will definitely take it back to Batley and Spen. The numbers speak for themselves.
Victoria Prentis talked about local examples and adoption support. As we heard from Steve Double, fathers are often missed out. I am doing work on trying to get men into early years settings, so that fathers feel more comfortable taking their children into those settings and discussing parenting and so on. I apologise if I have missed any Member out.
We have had a fantastic debate. The contribution from the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire was exceptional. Her personal experience was very moving. I am sure that lots of people outside this building will find the fact that post-natal depression can happen to anyone very relevant, and I hope that it will encourage them to seek support. Today’s speeches show the determination and imagination that exists in this House to get the first 1,001 days of a baby’s life right, and we have heard about the extraordinary speed at which babies’ brains develop.
I would like to speak to the two Select Committee reports cited in the motion and then move on to explore some of the options available to us. The first is the report of the Science and Technology Committee called “Evidence-based early years intervention”. I was very interested in the report at the time of its release, and it was a privilege and pleasure to enjoy a thorough debate on the report in Westminster Hall in March. Norman Lamb spoke with a great deal of wisdom in that debate. He had hoped to speak today, and his contribution is missed.
It is clear that there is cross-party consensus on the need for a data and outcomes-driven national strategy for early intervention. No matter how good the work that has been done by local authorities, that best practice should be spread across our country, and with technology, that should be easier than ever before. I share the disappointment that this key recommendation has not been accepted by the Government.
From reading the report, it is clear to me how important it is to share information. The fact that there has never been a tragedy in early life because too much information was shared speaks for itself. Unfortunately, we have seen how dangerous not sharing information can be. Much of this is because different agencies use different computer systems and different data handlers. We need a far better understanding of the principle of the Caldicott rules, sharing information when it is in someone’s best interests.
I now turn to the Health and Social Care Committee report on the “First 1000 days of life”, which is truly a fantastic report. It comes at a pivotal time for children, when, according to Action for Children and YouGov, two thirds of parents and grandparents believe, for the first time ever, that their children and grandchildren will have a worse life than they have had. There are children—so many—who are just not getting the best start in life. At the age of two, there is a six-month developmental gap between higher and lower-income families, with one in 18 two to four-year-olds experiencing mental health issues. When I read this report, not only did I think some of the recommendations were absolutely excellent, but it highlighted for me how many gaps there are in what we currently provide.
First and foremost, I pay tribute to the recommendations in the report, including that the Government should consider the needs of vulnerable families in all policies. This is an absolutely brilliant step forward if we can make that work. It is important for children and health, and it will also send a strong message about social mobility and social justice. I was really encouraged to see the work of the Better Start projects. I have been lucky enough to get to know the work of Better Start in Bradford and the way it works across the local area, with a focus on health and education, which is really encouraging. In fact, I was really lucky to join it for Baby Week last November. That weeklong celebration of babies was informative and enjoyable; I got to squeeze lots of babies, which is always a good bit of my job. I would like to applaud the National Lottery Community Fund for its vision in creating this programme.
As a last point on this report, I want to touch on health visits. The report recommends five mandated visits and an additional visit when the child is aged between three and three and a half. Visits are so important for the health of a child, but they also help professionals understand the home environment of the child so that they can identify children at risk and respond to their complex needs.
If we discuss the first 1,001 days of a child’s life, we must discuss Sure Starts and children’s centres. A number of interventions have pointed to the loss of Sure Starts and how they made a difference. We know these centres can be transformative—a place for help and advice when parents need them—but, more than that, they support parents in building a loving and nurturing environment for their children, as well as in building attachment and an opportunity for the caring and safe home that is so integral to much of what we are speaking about today.
Let me say, very briefly, that I was lucky to visit Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Newham, where the focus is very much on the attachment theory. It has one worker who stays with a child, goes to their home and supports them throughout their experience in the nursery. I was told, statistically, about the children who will not settle. At the end of the first term, 1% of children leave maintained nurseries. However, there is not the focus on attachment in private nurseries, and often 12% of children leave those settings after the end of the first term because they have not settled. Attachment works, and we certainly see good practice in maintained nurseries.
Centres help with supporting children to become school-ready—whether through direct learning in the centre, or via the centre supporting parents to read to and to teach their children. This work is needed now more than ever, as just 57% of children from poorer backgrounds are school-ready by the age of five, by comparison to 74% of their wealthier peers. This just does not feel good enough, especially when we consider the frightening rate at which Sure Starts and children’s centres have disappeared from our communities.
As we have spoken about data, it is important to say that although the Government’s own figures show that hundreds of Sure Starts have gone, analysis I would call precise puts at roughly 1,200 the number of them closed since 2010, and certainly services have been hollowed out in the Sure Starts that are still standing.
Putting the number of centres aside for the time being, analysis provided by Action for Children shows a worrying trend in the usage of children’s centres. It says that local authority spending fell by £327 million between 2014-15 and 2017-18, which coincides with a decrease in the number of children using the centres. That figure fell by 400,000, or about 18%. There has been no reduction in demand for support or in the need for support, so there is clearly a gap between the centres and the ability of families to access them. If anything, the rise in the number of children growing up in poverty can only impact on the pressure on those services. I am sure that concerns us all across the House. If we discuss an inter-ministerial working group or seek consensus on the early years of life, we must accept the reality of the situation for children’s centres. It is often grave because of a lack of funding, and we must try to work towards a national strategy that ends the postcode lottery of provision.
One policy I want to talk about is the 15 hours of free childcare available to disadvantaged two-year-olds. The policy is there to help those children with their development and support them on their education path. We must applaud the direction of this policy, but I must ask the Minister—perhaps he will have an opportunity to answer when summing up—why it is that three in 10 of these children are still not accessing the care they are entitled to. Is he assured that the Department is using everything in its toolbox to make sure that eligible children are identified and that their parents made aware of the entitlement and encouraged to take up the place? We know the difference it makes. We have heard about that from Members across the House today.
It is worth noting that the Social Mobility Commission recommends extending the offer of 30 hours of free childcare to cover households where one parent is working eight hours a week, rather than the current system where they must work for at least 16 hours a week. In the interests of social justice, I would prefer for the policy to be universally available, but I hope that the Government look closely at that recommendation. Social mobility has remained “virtually stagnant” since 2014 and inequality exists “from birth to work”. Those are not my words, but the words of the Social Mobility Commission. I know we can do more to reach out to vulnerable children and their families.
In conclusion, of course we all want every single baby to have the best start in life and we accept that the challenges are great, but there is good work and innovation happening across our country. We have heard about it from many Members across the House. With initiatives such as Sure Start and children’s centres, the advanced knowledge we have about health outcomes and the support of Parliament, we should be able to strive for the very best. It will require determination and significant resource, but if the next Prime Minster wants to build a legacy, I hope that he pays attention to today’s debate and puts the first 1,001 days of a baby’s life at the heart of his agenda from day one in office. As we have discussed in many previous debates, if billions can be given to businesses and wealthy individuals then I know that every single Member who has spoken in this debate will want assurances that money will be set aside to rebuild services for our most vulnerable children.