Health Visitors (England)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:08 pm on 23rd October 2019.

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Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:08 pm, 23rd October 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank Tim Loughton for introducing this important debate. The Labour Government recognised the decline in the number of health visitors and therefore put in train a health visitor implementation plan. As head of health at Unite—I refer Members to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—I was delighted to see that plan come to fruition during my time there. The ambition to raise the number of health visitors by 4,200 was a steep challenge, but a necessary one. We have heard the reasons why. Health visitors are the backbone of early intervention by health services. They are the pioneers of public health, and are instrumental in addressing health inequality. At a time when there are real challenges on children’s health, it is so important that a workforce is there to deliver that service.

Unfortunately, as we have heard, the numbers have fallen by 31% to date, from a peak of 12,292. That is having a serious impact not only on young people and their opportunities but on staff. We know from the work that the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association has carried out that 85.3% of health visitors are experiencing stress. They have case loads that are unsafe. It is therefore vital that the Minister put a statutory case load figure on the books. It is important that health visitors work to criteria under which they can cover their case loads. In York, we have only 29 health visitors to cover our city, which has a population of nearly 10,000 children. That clearly is not safe at all.

The health visitor implementation plan was good, though very rushed. Often mentoring was being stretched from a one-to-one relationship, which is the norm, to one-to-six. That is what I heard from some health visitors in training. No sustainability was put into the plan after its implementation. Therefore, with an ageing workforce, we saw rapid decline and people moving elsewhere in the health service—partly because they were placed in local authorities that, under the austerity measures, decided to cut back not only on opportunities for training and development but on pay.

Such cutbacks had a significant impact, and downgrading was part of it. For people who went to work in outsourced services, for which we obviously cannot get hold of information about true numbers through freedom of information requests, we know that conditions were even worse, and that people have left the service after their training period. That is a massive loss to our service as a whole.

I will rapidly move on to what needs to be introduced—a new, and properly resourced, health visitor information plan. There was a promise in the report on young people by Andrea Leadsom that the comprehensive spending review would resource the future programme, but of course we have not had the comprehensive spending review. It is therefore urgent that the Government put money on the table to deliver that.

We also need to ensure that we bring services back into health that have been outsourced, so that there is proper monitoring of the service and it is seen as a statutory service to be delivered. I am very interested in the ideas that have been proposed in today’s debate that it either be moved back into the NHS or into a proper partnership between health and local government. The reality is that the right relationships need to be built for health visitors to deliver the programme.

Finally, we need to ensure that the right stakeholders are brought around the table. It has been brought to my attention that some consultation has taken place on how we should move forward on such issues as the number of mandated contacts and so on, but not all the stakeholders are there. I urge the Minister to meet with the CPHVA, which is the lead organisation representing health visitors, and to ensure that included in that cohort are people working in the profession who can really reflect what it is like on the frontline today.