Health Visitors (England)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 23rd October 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 4:30 pm, 23rd October 2019

Again, the hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which was on page 5 of my notes. This issue affects everybody across society, often better-off, more affluent families who might be better at hiding it or less inclined to come forward to seek help. The charity that I chair has units in Liverpool, Newcastle, London and so on, and we see that middle-class parents who have serious attachment dysfunction problems with their children are less likely to come forward. Those, ironically, may be harder-to-reach people. Health visitors are the early warning system and are able to signpost some of those people to services. They can also point out, “I think you have a problem,” and it will be taken on trust.

I appreciate the good points that have been made, but I will make some progress. The cost of failing to intervene early is enormous—financially and, more importantly, socially. The impact of not intervening early can disadvantage a child through early years, school years, adolescence and often into adulthood. In some cases, it can be life-defining.

One of the great achievements of the coalition Government was to pledge a massive increase in health visitors. In opposition, the then shadow health Minister, Andrew Lansley, championed the recruitment of no fewer than 4,300 new health visitors, based on the successful model of the Dutch Kraamzorg system—I was involved in research into that—where post-natal care is provided to a new mother and her baby an initial eight to 10 days immediately after birth.

Four years ago, the Government’s health visitor implementation plan and the “Call to action” scheme were the pride of the nation. The policy was built on sound evidence that the health visiting profession had the power to drive health improvements and provide a universal service designed to give every child that best possible start in life, as we all want to see. Impressively, for a Government target, it was achieved—just about—in the lifetime of the 2010 to 2015 Parliament.

Depressingly, since then, the numbers have started to drop dramatically. In June 2015, there were 10,042 full time equivalent health visitors in England. A year later, that had fallen to 9,491 and the latest figures show a 31% drop from the peak. According to the Institute of Health Visiting,

“one in four health visitors do not have enough time to provide postnatal mental health assessment to families at six to eight weeks, as recommended by the government.”

In response to a survey that the institute put out,

“three quarters of respondents said they are unable to carry out government recommended maternal mental health checks three to four months after birth.”

That is a crucial stage at which to pick up mental health problems with the parents, which may already be impacting or will impact on the infant. It is not only about looking after the baby, but the family unit and particularly the prime carer.

To a large extent, the reason for that has been the transfer of responsibility for health visitors from the health service to local government, as part of its enhanced public health responsibilities. I am not challenging the wisdom of doing that, but it has come at the time of the greatest squeeze on local government spending recently. The architecture of the delivery of health and wellbeing services for babies and young children, I think, has been fragmented in a disorienting manner between local councils, CCGs and NHS England, with insufficiently qualified scrutiny of how it works. There is an issue around the quality of informed local authority oversight over many of these public health roles.