It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tim Loughton on securing this important debate.
I also congratulate Members on the degree of consensus that there has been about how important health visitors are to each and every family they touch. I may not be able to answer Members’ contributions directly, but I will ensure that if there are further points to make after this debate, I will write to Members in due course. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s leadership and support on the issue of children and young people, and particularly his efforts to focus on those first 1,001 days, which can impact on social, economic and physical outcomes throughout life. I strongly agree about the importance of early years intervention, and that strengthening support at the very start can stop problems escalating and help the broader family. As both my hon. Friend and Luciana Berger pointed out, we can stop these problems before they start, or we can certainly intervene.
My hon. Friend made strong arguments for the value of health visitors and their ability to cross every threshold, which cannot be overestimated. Good health is one of our country’s greatest assets, and we cannot take it for granted; just as we save for retirement, we should be investing in our health throughout life, from the cradle to the grave. Starting in childhood—actually, even before a child is born—we can help to ensure that our children enter the world, and that they are raised, healthy and happy.
Most babies get a fantastic start in life, benefiting from the support of loving parents and dedicated health professionals. However, we know that some lives can be easier than others, often because of circumstances over which those babies have no control and the conditions in which they are brought up. Children who live in more deprived areas are more likely to be exposed to avoidable risks and have poorer outcomes by the time they start school. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree pointed out, some of those things have impacts further down the line: at the weekend, a teacher said to me that if a child has poor linguistic skills, that will affect their ability to learn to read because of phonics and so on. It is right, therefore, for support to have a clear focus on reducing inequalities and targeting investment to meet higher needs.
The Government remain absolutely committed to working with partners to identify how to support growth in the community workforce, including through district nurses, general practice nursing, GPs, health visitors and school nursing—the team that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham described so well. We are taking significant actions to boost the workforce, including training more nurses, offering new routes into the professions, enhancing reward and pay packages to make nursing more attractive and improve retention, and encouraging those who have left nursing to return. I know that there is still post-qualification, but I do not pretend that there are no challenges; many Members have articulated the challenges that exist, particularly issues such as CPD, which we are aware of and are working on.
We know that the electronic staff records show a reduction in the number of health visitors employed by NHS organisations. However, we also know that this is not a complete picture of the health visitor workforce, who may be employed in social enterprises, private sector organisations or local government. I want to work with partners such as the Local Government Association and the Institute of Health Visiting to establish a much clearer picture, which is what the IHV asked for in its “Health Visiting in England: A Vision for the Future” report—I think it was recommendations 12 and 13. That will help to move the debate forward.
I am pleased that Health Education England is also leading on the development of a specialist community public health nursing standard. That standard will cover several roles, including those of health visitor, school nurse, occupational health nurse and family health nurse, and I am keen for that development to progress swiftly. Currently, as my hon. Friend mentioned, a specialist level 7 community and public health nurse apprenticeship is in development. That apprenticeship will offer an alternative route directly into the health visiting profession, on top of existing pathways that enable people to qualify as health visitors. We must make the best use of these highly skilled and valued members of the profession and of the broader healthcare family, and we must ensure that they can optimise the good they can do when they intervene in children’s lives.
Local authorities remain well placed to commission health visiting and early years support, but they should do so in partnership with all those around them.