It is a pleasure to follow Naz Shah. This is the second time today we have been in a debate: we were here at half-past 9 this morning, and we are back again for a different subject. I thank Fleur Anderson for raising this essential issue. Obviously, I am from Northern Ireland, where this is a devolved matter, so the Minister will not have to respond to any of my points as it is not her responsibility, but I want to give a perspective from Northern Ireland perhaps to replicate what is happening here on the mainland. Although this is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, the problems that arise in Northern Ireland are probably relevant from the point of view of what we have faced.
I am sure I am not the only one to have been contacted by various charities about the difficulties they have faced and will face in the near future. Action for Children made a presentation to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Education with information that can be replicated in every region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I was asked to highlight that:
“Of particular importance…during the first lockdown, new referrals to the services often did not connect in easily with online offerings, and many staff felt that there will be many vulnerable children and families that will have missed…vital information and support around the critical 1,001 days in early development, breastfeeding and parental and infant mental health.”
They may have missed out all of that.
Initially, many services struggled to cope during lockdown. It was described to me that there was an “element of chaos”—it probably was not anybody’s fault; it was just the way it all happened. We were all unable to know how to reply or respond. The Departments were responding on their feet, and things kept changing. That was also part of the problem with the system, because whenever it kept changing, parents were asking, “What’s going to happen next?” The confidence in what is happening at a ministerial level needs to be addressed.
When a move towards virtual service delivery was initiated in March and April last year, most services did not have any records of email accounts for family contacts, and many did not have the technological equipment to cope with the sudden transition, which was strange and new not just to Government Departments but to all the parents, families and staff. Staff and families struggled with a lack of familiarity with the online platforms that facilitated their virtual services. There remains the issue that some families simply cannot be reached via that medium, and I believe that that marginalised those families, who faced a greater disadvantage.
In general, comments about communication from Health and Social Care and the Department of Education were positive. It was noted that there was greater regional communication and collaboration on practice and policies during the pandemic. However, many service providers also noted serious fatigue in relation to online offerings and the fundamental value of face-to-face contact when working with early years and families. It is much better to do things face to face, though it is not always practical, so sometimes we have to do it a different way. Experiences were also very different for families with whom there was already an established relationship versus new referrals, who often did not connect easily with the online offerings. Many staff were perplexed and still feel that many vulnerable children and families will have missed vital information and support around the critical 1,001 days in early development, breastfeeding and parental and infant mental health.
Privately run programmes for baby groups, breastfeeding and sensory play, and antenatal programmes, are currently running during this second lockdown, but not with the regularity that they should. Publicly funded groups, however, are not able to continue similar support services at present. Many providers are seriously concerned that that is another way in which social inequalities are widening, and warn that those inequalities are hard to rectify through remedial policies in the long-term. There are also concerns that minimal adaptations have been made to targets and monitoring processes for early years services, despite major adaptations to the way in which their offerings are delivered. The level of online engagement, for example, may not be reflected within the current target frameworks.
I am quite sure that those problems in Northern Ireland are also happening on the mainland. Action for Children has also reported that the situation has the potential to load extra stress on already highly stretched staff members who are coping with the changes by burdening them with unrealistic expectations to deliver “as things were”, as well as create content and opportunities for things “as they are”. Numerous issues have been highlighted at Stormont and are on the record there. I seek to highlight them in this place as well, to give the debate a measure of information and experience from Northern Ireland.
There is a great need for a strategy to help build those programmes to meet needs. Although we all hope that we are coming to the end of the pandemic—my goodness, I hope and pray that we are—children have lost out on a year’s support, and that cannot be glossed over. It is imperative that we determine how we can ensure that each child has a foundation without cracks, or it is inevitable that they will fall through those cracks. I know that the Minister does not want that to happen. I look to the Minister and the shadow Minister to understand our strategy in moving forward with early years development without leaving children and their mummies behind. I add my support to the calls to give consideration to the extension of maternity leave, enabling mothers who have thus far been robbed of support to have a chance of accessing support and help in the formative years.
I have always wanted to say this in Westminster Hall, and I will make it my last comment: the Minister is very fortunate—she knows it, I know it—to come from Omagh. I was born in Omagh, long before she was born—maybe not long before, but a wee bit before, anyway—and I am so pleased to see a Northern Ireland export in her position.