Health Visitors (England)

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

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

Earlier, I raised the contrast with social workers where there is a safeguarding issue. It is a completely different dynamic and relationship. There is a reluctance to let the social worker over the threshold. That is less the case with health visitors, because they are seen to be there to help. But there is a reluctance from some people, perhaps due to ignorance as to what the health visitor is there to do from people who think, “I know it all; I don’t need you,” or due to people who may fear that their vulnerability will result in their child being taken into care. That is why that friendly face is so important. The health visitor is on their side to help them in being a new parent, in a way that other professionals cannot be.

According to the state of health visiting survey by the Institute of Health Visiting, one in four health visitors did not have enough time to provide the postnatal mental health assessments to families at six to eight weeks, as recommended by the Government; Jonathan Reynolds mentioned that. These PMH checks are a key part of the Government’s maternal mental health pathway. Previous research involving clinical trials with 4,000 mothers found that those who received health visitor support were 40% less likely to develop postnatal depression after six months.

There are five mandated reviews under the Healthy Child Programme that health visitors undertake. While those are spread across the first 1,001 days, they are concentrated in the first 12 months. Health visitors are concerned that the number of reviews is insufficient and leaves too large a gap between contact with families. Not enough scheduled reviews are happening, and we probably need more reviews intensively at those early stages.

There was also a lot of concern about steps being taken to help recruitment. I tabled a question earlier this week, which the Minister kindly answered. I asked

“the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, what steps he is taking to reverse the fall in the number of health visitors.”

She replied in a written answer, saying that

“Since 2015, local authorities have been responsible for the commissioning of services for zero to five-year-olds and as such, they determine the required numbers of health visitors based upon local needs.”

We understand that. She continued:

“A Specialist Community and Public Health Nurse apprenticeship (Level 7) is currently in development. This will offer an alternative route directly into the health visiting profession.”

I am afraid that that answer raised some alarm among people at the Institute of Health Visiting, and the response to it that I got back was to point out that

“The apprenticeship route is not an alternative route directly into health visiting. Applicants still need to be nurses or midwives and the course presents a number of risks: it is longer, the end point assessment delays qualification unnecessarily…it does not deliver a national strategy for the profession. HVs”— that is, health visitors—

“who are not employed by the NHS do not have the same opportunities to those covered by the NHS People Plan - this includes NHS funding for CPD”— that is, continuous professional development—

“leadership development, pay rises, safer staffing and national action to address recruitment/retention difficulties.”

It also pointed out that

Local Authorities determine the level of HVs dependent on local need, however there is no measure of quality of service or guidance on how far the service can ‘flex’
to meet those needs.”

In addition, the apprenticeship is still not ready to be rolled out; it takes longer than current training; and it is more costly and therefore less attractive to employers and/or recruits.

An urgent workforce plan is needed to tackle dwindling health visitor numbers. I have spoken to representatives of the Local Government Association. They are very concerned about this situation; as representatives of local government, they want to get their public health role right. The LGA said that

“it had offered to work with the Department of Health and Social Care, the NHS and Health Education England to help deliver a plan that would see the ‘right number’
of training places commissioned. It would also develop new policies to ensure health visiting remained an ‘attractive and valued’

I hope that the Minister is receptive to that offer; I am sure she is.

What needs to be done? Again, we need to value the role of the health visiting profession. I am sure that all of us in this Chamber and beyond would want to do that, but we have to will not only the inclination but the means as well.

A publication by the Institute of Health Visiting, “Health Visiting in England: A Vision for the Future”, makes 18 sensible and practical recommendations, and they all involve some investment. I will touch very quickly on a few. The institute wants to see

“urgent and ring-fenced public health investment…A review of 0-5 public health funding…to cover the cost of delivery of the Healthy Child Programme in full in all Local Authorities in England.”

All local authorities in England will need that funding. It goes on to say that

“As we await the refreshed Healthy Child Programme, as an interim measure, the proposed metric should be a floor of 12,000”— that is, 12,000 full-time equivalents—

“to restore the workforce to the target figure calculated for the Health Visiting Implementation Plan, 2011-2015…New National Standards for health visiting are needed to support consistency within the profession. The title ‘health visitor’
and its role should be protected and restored to statute. A review of health visiting training with a risk assessment of the impact of the removal of Health Education England funding of training and replacement by the use of the Apprenticeship Levy.”

Frankly, those are sensible measures. I very much hope that the Minister will look at them positively; I am sure she will. It would be a false economy not to do these things. They need to be part of a bigger shift in Government policy—the policy of any Government; I may be pushing at an open door—towards an earlier, more intensive, preventive intervention approach, from conception to the age of two especially. Health visitors are absolutely at the centre of that.