Health Visitors (England)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:20 pm on 23rd October 2019.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:20 pm, 23rd October 2019

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which links to the fact that fragmentation also remains a challenge throughout the system, running counter to the aim of whole family support that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned. I believe strongly that there is scope to improve collaboration between councils and NHS bodies in order to improve delivery, particularly on important issues such as breastfeeding, immunisation and the like. The digital child health programme is one area in which we are helping to overcome barriers, securing national backing so that information is shared properly between key professionals. That is particularly important for strengthening the links between primary care and health visitors. However, there are further areas in which we can work together better to support those with higher needs, and I intend to reflect on the points made during this afternoon’s debate and work further on the recommendations of the “Vision for the Future” report.

The commitment to grow the public health grant as part of the local government settlement underlines the Government’s commitment to protecting and improving the health of the population. Local leaders remain well placed to make decisions for their communities; there is a disparity across the piece, and we need to better understand the data. Local decisions should be based on robust assessments of local needs, supported by workforce plans.

Research also suggests that there are short and long-term educational and socio-emotional benefits from early childhood education and care. That is why we have prioritised investment in early education; the 15 hours of free early education for disadvantaged two-year-olds is welcome. However, those benefits start earlier—with a person’s interaction with their health visitor when they are 28 weeks pregnant, or even before that, in personal, social and health education lessons in schools. In those lessons, we talk about healthy relationships and equip our young people with advice on issues such as substance abuse and parenting.

In the prevention Green Paper, we announced our commitment to modernise the healthy child programme to reflect the latest evidence about how health visitors are part of a wider integrated workforce, providing support. Doing so provides an important opportunity to work with partners, and I will take my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham up on his offer, made in his recent letter, to bring with him academics and other interested parties—I note that there are interested parties across this Chamber—to talk about how we can best move this forward. I want to ensure that support is both universal in reach and capable of a personalised response, focusing support where the additional needs suggest we should put it.

I understand the continued focus on five mandated contacts, which provide a vital opportunity for contact with families, and national data shows that coverage has improved. However, I take on board the points that have been made; I do not want to reduce contact to those five moments, and there have been some interesting conversations about other points of contact. I have heard some within the health visiting profession say that they are being pushed to tick the box but miss the point, and I have spoken to my local health visitor lead about that issue. Health visitors are highly qualified professionals who have an important leadership role, and I wish to reinvigorate that role. Through working closely with commissioners and other professionals, particularly midwives, health visitors are critical to a child’s journey.

If we are serious about supporting early intervention, that means starting with relationships. Becoming a parent is an important time in anyone’s life, but it does not come with a manual; we all need help, and professionals have an opportunity to give evidence-based advice and support. Our vision for prevention encompasses the whole of life. We are now reviewing the prevention Green Paper, including the response to it by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. We will ask ourselves what more can be done, and we will work with local authorities and NHS bodies to address that question.

To give every child the best possible start in life and the opportunity to fulfil their potential, we need to fundamentally change the way we operate. I want to ensure that systems are in place to help infants as they develop, move to school and grow into adulthood; to overcome fragmented service provision; and to make the best of what exists, while using the evidence to maintain a resolute focus on additional needs. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend, and I am optimistic that we can make the change.