Early Intervention

– in Westminster Hall at 12:29 pm on 30th March 2010.

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Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 12:29 pm, 30th March 2010

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr. Wilshire. I understand, with a note of sorrow, that you will not be with us on future occasions. It is a pleasure to have known you over the years as a parliamentary colleague.

I also welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister. She and I share some unfortunate statistics regarding the make-up of our constituencies, and the deprivation and difficulties that exist. The third member of the trio, my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett is not with us, although sadly our constituencies sometimes linger near the wrong end of tables. I know that the Minister wishes to make an impact on such issues in her constituency, as do I, and she brings a special knowledge to bear on that.

I have called this debate to welcome the Government's document, "Early Intervention: Securing good outcomes for children and young people". I am not sure whether it is a White Paper, a Green Paper or just a document; none the less, I was pleased to see its publication last week. It is a guide and an inspiration, and I wish it had been available five years ago when I started as the chair of One Nottingham, trying to make Nottingham an early intervention city. It would have been of tremendous assistance.

In the spirit of early intervention, I hope that this document will be a guide and inspiration to many who come after us in different guises, and that it will inform the policies of the next Government, of whatever political complexion. It is a long overdue, well drafted and well pulled together document, and I have sought to spread it far and wide. It provides the groundwork for something I would like to see, which is a commitment in the election manifestos of all three main parties to furthering early intervention, and to developing 12 early intervention cities, perhaps by learning from what we tried to do in Nottingham. We also need the creation of an early intervention policy assessment centre. That issue is touched on in the document, although we must solidify it in practice. Early intervention should be funded through the capital markets and not through the Government, so that we can obtain the longevity and certainty that is the foundation of effective early intervention.

I have given the document a warm welcome, but I will now focus, rather perversely, on one or two issues where I think we could go further. I do not intend to be destructive in any way, and I hope my comments will be taken in the creative and constructive spirit in which they are offered. My first-it is rather wistful-is that I wish we had made more of this publication, and perhaps the Minister will tell us why it was dealt with in such a low-key way last week. I did not know it had been published until I was asked to comment on it by specialist journals. When I sent the document to the usual suspects and to national and international experts on early intervention, not only did they not know it had been published; many did not know it had been written. It was a low-key publication, which is a shame as there is a great story to tell. If we are to win people over to early intervention, we must start to trumpet it as a concept and philosophy that counters many of the ideas that exist so strongly in the way we currently administer social policy. I could not get a hard copy of the document this morning from the Vote Office, and that was rather strange.

It is an excellent publication, although we could have improved it further had we had a conference and a more open process of critique and consensus. The Minister may have known of time constraints that I was unaware of, but all friends of early intervention want to gather round and be as helpful as we can when the Government are doing such good things. The Government have also created an early intervention section within the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and that is welcome. All the trend lines are going in the right direction, and we hope to build on that with the Government.

A more serious criticism is that the opening definition of early intervention in the publication is not particularly good. Thankfully, it goes on to ignore that definition, and there is lots of good stuff in the body of the work. The definition of early intervention is given as,

"to tackle problems that have already emerged", but the whole basis of early intervention is that we get to problems before they emerge. We anticipate and pre-empt, and in some ways that definition is almost the antithesis of early intervention. The real definition of early intervention, and the one arrived at by many practitioners who think about and practise it, is to develop social and emotional capabilities in every baby, child and young person, so that problems do not emerge. It is not about problem-solving; it is about eliminating causes. To put it in less flowery language, a stitch in time saves nine-something that every parent understands.

The document is most welcome because of the way it pulls together a lot of understanding and practice in the field. However, we must guard against adopting the language of early intervention on a flavour-of-the-month basis by co-opting the language, but not changing existing practice. We must challenge and change existing practice, as well as paying lip service to the concept of early intervention. When I was chair of One Nottingham we pioneered the concept of an early intervention city, and there was undoubtedly an unconscious process on the part of some of the big public bureaucracies of absorbing and incorporating non-conformist ideas that were not measured, tested or benchmarked from the centre. A warm embrace tends to envelop such ideas, and they disappear after a brief life. It would be a tragedy for children and our intergenerational development if that happened with early intervention. We do not wish to see an exciting vision turned into policy administration and the defence of existing public bureaucratic boundaries and enormous remedial budgets.

We cannot go on as we are. There is a clear public policy choice: we either continue as we are, which will mean that we pauperise every taxpayer to pay for the costs of social failure; or we take a different turning and try to squeeze down on dysfunctionality at the earliest possible moment, in order to ensure our economic, let alone our social, survival.

One of the issues that comes through in the document is the attempt to commit to a common attainment level across society. There is a terrible waste of babies, children and young people throughout some of our communities. If we can define a social and emotional bedrock and a standard that is applicable to all children-particularly to make them school-ready-we will obtain a fundamental sea change in the way we view our role and responsibilities in society. We need clarity in raising standards, particularly the standard of having a child who is ready to go to school, rather than condemning that child to go to school followed by 11 wasted years because they are unable to listen, learn and make the best of that time. If we do not do that, we could slip back into pure remedialism.

I guess this is just a personal thing, but some of the professional jargon we encounter rankles a little. I am thinking of debates about stigmatisation, and the use of pseudo-medical phraseology such as "triage" or the misuse of the word "resilience", given that many children cannot bounce back if they are not given the right social and emotional tools and equipment to work with. One of my least favourite terms is "risk factors". That tends to involve a list of the symptoms, rather than seeking to deal with the fundamental causes of many of those symptoms. Again, the fundamental cause is the social and emotional capability or incapability of many of the babies, children and young people whom we are discussing.

We must be careful: unless we have the vision that I have set out and unless we have it in mind at all times, we can lapse into the day-to-day maelstrom of micro problem-solving that so many of our public servants are sucked into. They do remarkably well in that firefighting job, but there must be a point at which people step back and, as well as fighting the fires, have a proper programme for smoke alarms. As well as swatting the mosquitoes, people must have a proper programme for draining the swamp. That vision and aspiration cannot be set by hard-working local officials in the health service, the police, children's services and community services. It must be set at the top. The philosophy and the desire to change the culture have to be clearly there at the political and ministerial level. I welcome in particular the personal work done by the Minister, but also the work done by the team at the Department in moving that forward.

Fundamentally, we need to reach much further back to resolve some of the difficulties than we are currently doing. On occasion, the language in the document I am discussing slips a little from its own very high standards. People talk about specific problem solving and remedialism, when really this issue is about breaking the intergenerational cycle. As the Minister will know very well from experience in her own constituency, we need to see the baby who is born as tomorrow's parent, who can go on to raise a better generation. If we can crack the intergenerational cycle of deprivation, that will go a long way towards resolving many of the symptoms, including crime, drug abuse and drink abuse, with which we are all too familiar.

I commend the document, particularly for its work on partnership. Partnership is about a vision and a culture. The chief executive of Nottingham city council has said that

"early intervention is in everyone's DNA".

I hope we can continue that momentum, but to make partnership working more effective, we must ensure that proper help is available from a policy assessment centre for early intervention such as those in Colorado and Washington state, which were mentioned in the document, and many other areas. I am talking about a centre that can implement and drive my ambition, which is to see a dozen cities become early intervention cities and break out of the constant and expensive cycle of trying to tackle the consequences of deprivation and dysfunction.

I also commend the document for its excellent work on funding and money saving; it is a small section, but I know it is not an afterthought. There is much more to be done in that regard. We have to break out of the problem whereby funding tends to be for one year or two years and people do not have a 20 or 30-year, long-term view, which is essential. Unless we do that, there will just be small starburst efforts based on personal energy or individual projects, rather than a long-term philosophy.

Tracking is also referred to in the document. It talks about the common assessment framework, but that framework is more of a snapshot than an action plan and often tends to be bogged down in its own difficulties, such as who will pay for it and who is taking responsibility for the individual. We need a proper data-sharing tracking policy so that we can identify people not when they commit an offence or appear to have a problem, but when it would be really helpful to do so-not least to parents, who want assistance at the earliest possible moment.

I hope the Minister will agree that there is undoubtedly a degree of paralysis locally when people talk about data. There is always a problem with data protection. Ministers tell me that no problems exist-"Challenge them and confront them." However, the culture is there of saying no first-"Justify your request"-rather than building up the trust and the processes that would make data-sharing effective.

I have a few final questions to throw into the pot regarding the proposals. First, I very much welcome the idea that there should be a research centre on child well-being, which will include early intervention. When will that be created, how will it be set up and who will be represented in it? Will it, for example, use the expertise of the Centre for Excellence and Outcomes in Children and Young People's Services, which does such good work?

Secondly, an early intervention implementation group will emerge. That is very welcome, but can we ensure that it does not, as was said in the document, act after a child's exclusion from school, but four years earlier than that-or possibly five, six or seven years earlier-so that we can pre-empt the child's being excluded from school by getting the right help to the parents and the baby?

The third issue is the use of evidence-based programmes. I think we would all like to see that, but we also need an independent organisational driver of the sort I have described as a centre for policy outcomes.

Finally, on the economic side, there will be an expert group on the long-term financing of early intervention. That is very welcome. I hope it will not be as narrowly drawn as the document suggests. That seems to favour social impact bonds only. There are many other instruments. There are early intervention bonds and many other possibilities whereby the market, which over the past two years has shown its brilliance and invention in getting us into trouble, could show its brilliance in organising out some of the social problems and being seen to be even more socially responsible. I do not mean soft money, ethical money or money with Government underwriting. I mean a hard-faced proposition about making money from ensuring that babies, children and young people grow up to be productive people, rather than an imposition on taxpayers. That should not be limited to the 14-to-16 age group. On the contrary, the focus should also be on babies who are 14 to 16 days old, rather than just on young people who are 14 to 16 years old. It would be useful if the Minister told us when the expert group on financing early intervention will be created, who will be in it and how she sees it functioning.

There are a number of crunchy particulars in there. I hope the Minister will take the questions in the spirit in which they have been offered. Once again, I place on the record my thanks to her, her civil servants and her Department for what I hope will be seen in many years to come as probably the first big building block, philosophically, to be put in place by the Government. The breakthrough to make early intervention a philosophy and a vision will benefit children as yet unborn and generations still to come. If we can start to lay the groundwork and operate consensually as far as possible with other parties, everyone will look back on that in the future and say, "If they did nothing else, they did a good thing on moving early intervention forward."

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families) 12:49 pm, 30th March 2010

I join my hon. Friend Mr. Allen in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire. This will, as you put it, be your last outing, so let me say how much I have valued your friendship and our discussions about Bristol City football club-when its performance has been good and when it has been bad. I will sorely miss that, because we are probably the only two Members in the whole of Parliament who follow Bristol City.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Conservative, Spelthorne

Once I have retired, the attendance at Ashton Gate may increase a little. I understand that the club is looking for a manager. Should I apply, can I count on the Minister for a reference?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Mr. Wilshire, it will certainly be great to see you regularly at the games. Given the recent publicity about retiring Members of Parliament offering themselves in various roles, perhaps you and I should have a private conversation about your idea.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the debate. His commitment in his constituency, in the city of Nottingham and in the House in pressing forward the urgent and important debate on early intervention stands as a beacon in this Parliament. As he rightly said, early intervention is at the heart of all our children's and young people's services. As we know, the most effective way to improve young lives is to act at the earliest possible opportunity. My hon. Friend talked about securing the social and emotional capabilities of every child and young person, and I agree with what he said.

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that there are, regrettably, many definitions of early intervention. For the purposes of the document-not as a final conclusion-we are talking about intervening as soon as possible to tackle the problems that have already emerged for children and young people, and I take exactly my hon. Friend's point about the need to take that wider step as well.

My hon. Friend talked about the cultural change that is necessary in our children's and young people's services. The document seeks to lay out a simple process for early intervention. The aim is, first, to identify the particular issues that make intervention necessary. Secondly, we need to have a good assessment of need. That is then carried forward into the final step, which is about making sure that the results inform a purposeful response. As my hon. Friend said, such a response is about making a stitch in time and acting early for the benefit of the individual, the family and the community.

The consultation-the document the Department has published-is intended to open up a debate further to clarify and develop the issues. The Government are determined that we-frankly, the same is true of all political parties-need to improve outcomes for children and young people. That is why we have already made significant steps on early intervention, but we need to go further.

With our 3,500 children's centres-the number is rising-we are providing services to intervene early to help families and children. We are also working on early development and we have put £1 billion into extended schools services. On transition, we often see problems later on with the eight-to-13 range, so it is important to intervene early to support the family, the child and those in the wider setting.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Could I just be clear about the status of the document? Is it a consultation document? If so, is the consultation still open? How do people put in their views to help improve the document?

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I was going to pick that point up. I am sorry; I did not mean to mislead my hon. Friend. The document is up for debate; it is not a formal consultation, in the sense that the Government would have a 12 or 13-week period for responses.

My hon. Friend asked about the early implementation group, and the document is intended to be the starting point for the discussions that the group will take forward and lead. Those discussions will, for example, be about specific practice-we have tried to address this in the documents-that demonstrates clear outcomes that are of value to the child, the young person, the family and the community. There is lots of value for money around, but the question is how we spread understanding so that everybody locally does not invent their own solution, which may or may not work, and the data are not collected.

As part of the exercise-this relates to one of my hon. Friend's questions-we have asked C4EO, which already collects good practice for us, to make sure that good practice is fed into the implementation group. The Association of Directors of Children's Services is also advising the group. There are discussions about who will sit on the group, how they will link to an institute, how we can develop these things and-I will come to this shortly-financing. The implementation group is taking these issues forward.

Interms of the Government process, I am not quite sure how we would describe the document; it is not a Green Paper, it is not a White Paper and it is not a formal consultation. It seeks to make more advice, support and good practice available, particularly to children's trusts, which have to bring together health bodies, local authorities, the police and the third sector-all the services on the ground-in their children's and young person's plan. Organisations have to look at how they can work together, based on a needs assessment, to deliver not only the services that they do now, but the early intervention that my hon. Friend has so rightly explained.

We need a practical method of doing such things. We do not want to tell people what to do or to issue guidance, although guidance might come at some stage, but to make sure that people not only sign up to the principle, but develop the practice, as my hon. Friend has done so ably with his partner agencies in Nottingham.

The implementation group will also need to look at financial considerations. My hon. Friend touched on the social impact bond, and there have been two pilots, which have given us some interesting results. That is not the only possible financial mechanism, but it is the one that has been piloted, and we are asking for it to be considered. I am attracted to such a bond for the following reasons. First, it gives charities, third-sector organisations and local authorities extra finance, so that they can start bringing together seed finance and early implementation provisions. Secondly, the local authority or charity would have to agree specific outcomes with those they had received the money from. They would have to track their data and show that their approach worked.

On that basis, the Government would pay for the bonds-that is the idea-but we would not do so if they did not work. Instead of having targets, pressures and silos from central Government, we are looking at whether a local assessment, based on need, could deliver. However, my hon. Friend is quite right that other financial solutions may be available.

To answer my hon. Friend's questions, therefore, the implementation group is central, and he is right that the question of whom we have on it is crucial. We are being advised by two important institutions, but we will make sure that we have more. Those involved will then engage in dialogue and settle the way forward on the other questions that my hon. Friend asked.

Why was the document low key? Whether publications are low key or not is not always in the Government's hands. Regrettably, the document did not attract attention, and nor did the children's centres. However, as the debate goes forward locally, I hope it will achieve what my hon. Friend and I want: great social and emotional development for young people and children, based on early intervention. With the support of my hon. Friend and others, I am sure we will achieve that.