Parents and Carers of Infants: Support

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 12 March 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 4:30, 12 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered information on support available for parents and carers of infants.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. As vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group for conception to age two—the first 1,001 days—and mother to three adult children, I know how important the early days are. There is a wealth of evidence that the critical 1,001 days from conception to the age of two have a significant impact on the health, wellbeing and opportunities of babies and children throughout the rest of their lives.

The arrival of a new baby can bring huge joy to families, but it can also be a time of stress and anxiety as parents and carers adjust to the new responsibility, which can be overwhelming. There is no rulebook in parenting, and all families need some help to give their babies the best start in life. Parents are always learning and adapting to the different needs of growing children. We are all fallible. Help comes from family, friends, healthcare professionals or volunteers. There is often a huge variety of support and services available, but as my right hon. Friend the Minister found when she led the early years healthy development review, it is not always easy for families to access information about what support is available. That can make it hard for families who are juggling the demands of caring for a baby to find the support they need when they need it most. That is why I introduced the Support for Infants and Parents etc (Information) Bill on 6 February.

Before I continue, I thank the Chamber Engagement Team for their work in engaging the public on the Bill, and the Department of Health and Social Care for its advice. Interestingly, in feedback to the Chamber Engagement Team, many responders said that they were given very little information, especially on breastfeeding, and that lots of parents were paying for information from private providers, or mainly got information from online communities. Others had more mixed experiences, often saying they were given better information ante, rather than post, natal. Only a minority had much better experiences. Most people centred their responses on improving the dissemination of more consistent information. Increasing the numbers of health visitors and midwives was also a popular theme, and many said that they had heard of the family hub network, and the Start for Life programme.

My Bill is intended to support a baby’s cognitive, emotional and physical development during the 1,001 critical days from pregnancy up to the age of two by making information on the support available easier to access.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. In my constituency, there is an organisation called Family and Babies Bolton. Elaine put together the organisation over a number of years. It deals with breastfeeding and breastfeeding support and information for new mothers. Does my hon. Friend agree that this debate is a great opportunity to recognise the work of those organisations, not only in Bolton but across the country, which ensure a better future for our babies and infants?

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

I agree with my hon. Friend. The wonderful thing is that we have so many voluntary organisations that do amazing work helping young mothers and parents with breast and infant feeding. Our family hubs focus on that, as does the Start for Life programme. It is not just one organisation; there are lots of services out there that can support parents doing this.

The Bill will achieve its aims by ensuring that local authorities publish a Start for Life offer on their websites and via other means they consider appropriate—for example, by providing physical as well as digital copies of their offer. A Start for Life offer is information on services that a local authority is aware are available in its area for infants, parents or carers of infants, or prospective parents and carers, that are provided by or on behalf of public authorities.

In particular, the Bill focuses on services that support the physical and mental health and development of infants, and that support parents and carers, or prospective parents and carers, in providing support to their infants. The services named in the Bill that local authorities will be under a duty to publish information about are maternity services, health visiting services for current or prospective parents or carers of infants, services promoting positive relationships between infants and their parents or carers, mental health services, and breastfeeding and other infant-feeding services. Local authorities will be able to provide additional information on other services that they consider it appropriate to include information about.

The Bill also includes a regulation-making power so that the Secretary of State may ensure that information on other services provided by or on behalf of a public authority that are likely to support infants, parents or carers of infants, or prospective parents or carers, are included in a Start for Life offer in the future. The Bill introduces a further duty on the Secretary of State to publish guidance to local authorities relating to those duties. It is important that parents receive evidence-based support and are provided with information that is backed by research and proven by parents, such as that of the Start for Life programme.

While I understand that guidance on Start for Life offers already exists, I know there will be a huge amount of learning from the Government’s family hubs and Start for Life programme that could be considered and taken on board as part of new statutory guidance. A duty to consult on the statutory guidance will ensure that local authorities and bodies the Secretary of State consults will have the chance to have their say on what will most help them to fulfil that duty and support families locally.

Finally, the Bill requires the Government to publish an annual report that sets out information about support that is being provided in England for infants, their parents and carers, and prospective parents and carers. The report will also include information that the Secretary of State considers appropriate to include, such as information about the impact of support on outcomes. That is very important as it will create further transparency for prospective parents, and for parents and carers of infants, so that they can understand the support available as they navigate the joys and the challenges of raising a new baby.

I will say a few words on the family hubs and Start for Life programme. Family hubs offer early support to families and young children to help them overcome difficulties and build strong relationships. East Sussex County Council was one of the trailblazers benefiting from the £300 million investment up to 2025. It is leading the way and supporting other local authorities to improve services that are offered to families so that they can be rolled out more widely across the country.

We have three family hubs in Hastings, offering support including maternity and health-visiting services, breast and infant feeding, parenting programmes, budgeting, employability and many other things. I pay tribute to East Sussex County Council’s director of children’s services, Alison Jeffrey, who is soon to retire, for all her dedication, determination and service to all families across East Sussex—especially to ensure that children’s life circumstances are not life sentences.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady. When it comes to the issue of childcare or support available for parents and carers of infants, what she is saying is really important. Just to give a quick point of view from Northern Ireland, there has been an increase of some 14% in the price of childcare—which is part of this topic—in Northern Ireland as of 2021. My party has long pushed for an increase in the tax-free childcare allowance beyond 20%.

The pressure on working-class families cannot continue. More needs to be done to support them financially with childcare, so that they can go out and work and, as a result, make ends meet at the end of the month. The hon. Lady is right to raise this matter. I would press the case of working-class families who are under extreme financial pressure.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. The Bill is not specifically to do with childcare; it is also to do with the information given to parents and carers and prospective parents and carers of babies and infants. However, I do take on board his point about childcare. I think the hon. Gentleman will be aware that people who are in receipt of universal credit get free childcare, to some extent. That is worth noting, is it not? I thank him for his intervention.

Strong families are at the heart of communities. It is so important in Hastings and Rye to have high ambitions for and expectations of our families, because supportive families make for more stable communities, better outcomes for children and happier individuals. Investing in families and making sure they get the support they need from birth through to adulthood helps with children’s educational attainment, wellbeing and life chances, while improving wider outcomes such as poor mental health and unemployment. That is why funding allocated to family hubs must continue beyond 2025, and further funding should be allocated to extend the scheme to all local authorities in England beyond the 75 pilot authorities.

My Bill is scheduled to have its Second Reading on 15 March—this coming Friday. I hope it will be successful and that we can work together to ensure that every baby has the best start in life.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 4:41, 12 March 2024

I came along this afternoon just to listen, not to speak. However, I have been so inspired by my Sussex colleague, my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart, and equally so shocked by the revelation that Jim Shannon does not intend to make a speech in this debate—above and beyond the mini contribution he has already made—that I will use the time available to make a few comments. I want to speak particularly in support of my hon. Friend’s Bill, which I wish well this Friday, but also in the greater context of the Best Start for Life programme that has been championed over so many years by the Minister.

It is worth reminding ourselves why the whole issue of getting the best start in life and encouraging, nurturing and supporting parents at the very early stages is so important. I speak as the chair of the APPG on conception to age two—first 1,001 days. We have a display of officers from that eminent group here today, which was set up by the Minister herself some years ago. Those first 1,001 days are critical because it is a period of uniquely rapid growth in toddlers’ brains. More than a million new connections are formed every second in a baby’s brain, and babies’ growing brains are shaped by their experiences, particularly the interactions they have with their parents and other caregivers. What happens during this crucial time lays the foundations for future development, not just during childhood but into adulthood. They are effectively lifelong.

There is a lot of research showing that the way in which parents interact with their baby predicts the child’s later development. In order to thrive, children absolutely must have a loving and secure relationship with at least one sensitive, nurturing caregiver who can respond to his or her needs. That is why it is so important to support parents and parent-infant relationships to give children the best start in life. A range of stress factors during pregnancy and early years can be communicated to and can impact on a baby or growing toddler.

The cost of not getting it right is considerable. Some years ago, when the Maternal Mental Health Alliance issued its flagship report, it costed maternal perinatal mental health problems at some £8.1 billion. That is what it is costing for not giving mums and dads the best support to ensure that they can bond with their children. One in six new mothers will suffer some form of perinatal mental illness, and covid certainly worsened that situation, with all the pressures on first-time parents in particular of babies born during covid, as they did not have access to some of the support networks that we took for granted until then. In addition, child neglect has been costed at something like £15 billion each year, so we are spending £23 billion-plus on the consequences of not getting it right by intervening at a stage when it could have the maximum impact for the parent and, mostly importantly, the developing and growing child.

Healthy social and emotional development in the first 1,001 days means that individuals are more likely to have improved mental and physical health outcomes from cradle to grave. It means that children can start school with the language, social and emotional skills they need to play, explore and learn, and that children and young people are better able to understand and manage their emotions and behaviours, leading to less risky and antisocial behaviour later on. It also means that children can have the skills they need to form trusting, healthy relationships.

It has been calculated that some 28% of mothers with mental health problems report having difficulties bonding with their children. Research suggests that the initial dysfunctioning of mother-baby relationships affects children’s development by impairing their psychomotor and socio-emotional development. As well as the direct impact on the child, it can have longer-term adverse effects on the parents and wider family. The onset of a maternal mental health condition can precipitate relapse or recurrence of previous mental illness. It has the potential to herald the onset of long-term mental health problems and is associated with an increased risk of maternal suicide, and we know how alarming the figures are for women who commit suicide soon after giving birth. It is important to say that this is not limited to mothers; there is also an impact on fathers. Post-natal depression has been linked with depression in fathers and high rates of family breakdown, so this is all about families and the children. That is why it is important not only that we have a range of services available in a joined-up way, but that those parents know how to access those services and whom to speak to.

I will give an example from all those many centuries ago when I was the Children’s Minister. One of the first things I did in the first summer recess was to spend a week being a social worker in Stockport. I went out with real-life social workers, without cameras, just doing their daily job. One of the first places I was taken to, with a really impressive social worker—I think they chose one of the most challenging cases they could—was a house in one of the most deprived parts of Stockport, where a young mum with three young boys from three different fathers, none of whom was on the scene, were living in absolute squalor. There were no carpets on the floor, and they were literally eating off the floor. There was nothing in the fridge, some furniture dumped at the bottom of the garden and dirty mattresses that the kids were sleeping on.

One of the children had a bad toothache—I remember it distinctly as if it were yesterday—so the social worker said to the mother, “Why haven’t you taken the child to the dentist?” because it had been going on for some time. The mother herself had had a tooth problem the day before. She had gone to the emergency dentist and had it sorted out, but she had not had the presence of mind to take the son with her. Before long, if things went on like that, those children would have ended up in care. The mother would have been absolutely beside herself—she doted on and relied on those children greatly, and the kids relied on her. For all her problems and challenges in being a decent mother, that was all she knew; she had had poor parenting herself.

What struck me was that a number of professionals had been going in and out of that house over a period of time, and virtually every time they went, she had to start her whole story again about the various problems. There was no real joined-up action where that mum and her kids were almost literally taken by the scruff of the neck to children’s support services at the local children centre, taken to the dentist, or given information and classes on nutrition and feeding and things like that. What was needed was somebody to take control of that family’s life, get them back on the straight and narrow, and join up all the services and all that information, and that just was not happening. A lot of money, time and resources were being spent on that family, and things were not getting any better. That is why the Start for Life programme, and the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is putting together, are all about making sure that somebody takes control of the information around a family’s requirements and needs, points them in the right direction, and takes them physically to where they need to go if necessary, so that it does not constantly start again every time the family comes into contact with yet another agency or professional service. That is why the work on the red book—digitising it, for example—is important to make sure that information is readily available to everyone having contact with families that need that sort of help.

None of this is rocket science or, frankly, new; we have been talking about it for many years. Earlier, I dug out one of the reports from the conception to age two: first 1001 days all-party parliamentary group. “Building Great Britons”, which we produced back in 2015, is now almost 10 years old. I reread the foreword, which I wrote, and we made some recommendations. I will go through those quickly to see how many have become reality and how many can still become reality with the assistance of my hon. Friend’s Bill. We also came up with two conclusions. The first was:

“We want to create children who at the end of their first 1001 days have the social and emotional resources that form a strong foundation for good citizenship.”

Tick—that is absolutely still our goal. The second conclusion was:

“Without intervention, there will be in the future, as in the past, high intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, inequality, dysfunction and child maltreatment. These self-perpetuating cycles create untold and recurring costs for society. The economic value of breaking these cycles will be enormous.”

Tick—that absolutely applies today, as it did then. A case in point is the one I cited in Stockport, which is a textbook example of how failing to intervene properly is costing an awful lot of money.

The first recommendation was:

“Achieving the very best experience for children in their first 1001 days should be a mainstream undertaking by all political parties and a key priority for NHS England.”

I hope that the Start for Life programme, which the Minister proposed, was done with the sign-up of all the other main political parties. That is really important, because it is a long-term scheme. When there are changes of Government, it is important that one does not change everything for the sake of changing it—I was going to say, “Throw the baby out with the bathwater.” One might want a bit of rebranding or tweaking here and there, but this needs at least a decade to really take effect. I hope that the good work the Minister has done will carry over if there is a change of personnel and Government in the future.

The second recommendation was:

“Require local authorities, CCGs and Health &
Wellbeing Boards to prioritise all factors leading to the development of socially and emotionally capable children at age 2, by: adopting …a ‘1001-days’ strategy”.

That is part of what the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye will impress on local authorities. Much of this is delivered through local authorities and local health professionals. It is all very well for the Government to say, “This is what needs to happen,” but it does not happen unless there is the buy-in, the infrastructure and the commitment to deliver it at the sharp end at local level.

The third recommendation was:

“National government should establish a ‘1001-days’ strategy fund to support local authorities and CCGs to make a decisive switch over the next 5 years, to a primary preventive approach”.

I think we are only part of the way on that one. The Minister may want to pick that up and explain how we can achieve that.

The fourth recommendation was:

“Hold Health &
Wellbeing Boards responsible for ensuring that local authorities and CCGs demonstrate delivery of a sound primary prevention approach”,

as outlined in part 2 of our report. Again, that is what my hon. Friend’s Bill is trying to get at. We need to see commitment at a local level for local people to judge. They can do it in different ways. What might apply well in my constituency might not apply so well in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in large northern metropolitan boroughs, or in rural constituencies. It is up to local interpretation how it is best delivered, with a framework set out nationally, but with local authorities and local agencies having to describe and set out how they are going to achieve the goals and aims.

The fifth recommendation was:

“Build on the ‘Early Help’ recommendations of the Munro Review”,

which I commissioned in 2010,

“by requiring and supporting all relevant agencies in prevention to work together to prevent child maltreatment and promote secure attachment.”

As I found in office, joined-up government is an illusion. I hope that the appointment of my right hon. Friend the Minister, with a remit in several different Departments as well as Best Start for Life, achieves more of a joined-up approach in that regard.

The sixth recommendation was:

“Appoint a Minister for families and Best Start in Life with cross-departmental responsibility”,

which I hope the Minister is achieving. I hope it will survive and continue under whoever fills her shoes at some hopefully distant stage in the future.

The seventh recommendation was:

“Make joint inter-agency training on the importance of the early years for social and emotional development, for all professionals working with children and families in the early years, a priority in the ‘1001-days’ strategy.”

That is important, as I found in safeguarding. We need professionals from different bodies singing from the same song sheet. The most effective way to do that is with joint inter-agency training so that they learn about the requirements of the job sitting next to the police officer, the health visitor, the teacher, the GP, or whichever professional is involved. We do not do inter-agency joint training nearly effectively enough.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Family hubs involve partnership working. I know that East Sussex family hubs partner with police, health and education, so they really do provide whole-family support.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

That is absolutely right. We had children’s centres to an extent; we must have family hubs to a much larger extent. We need a sort of Piccadilly Circus of different professionals coming together, sharing information and nominating who will act for a particular family to make sure that the job is done and that a family in need does not fall foul of memos circulating between different professionals that never actually hit the spot. Somebody must pick it up and act on it. So many safeguarding cases end badly because somebody does not take responsibility, pick up the ball and act on it in whatever way. That is why family hubs are important.

We have all the relevant people in the same place, although hopefully going out of the family hub because most of the good things happen outside a family hub. It is not all about bricks and mortar, but where the services are targeted. The problem with children’s centres in the past, great idea though they were, was that the 15% most deprived families who would benefit most from the services offered by children’s centres tended to be those who did not access those centres. Family hubs are all about getting across thresholds where people live and go, work and shop and whatever it may be.

That was effectively the eighth recommendation. Children’s centres and youth hubs should be set up to be a melting pot of different services available.

The final recommendation was:

“Research evidence and good local area data are necessary to ensure effective changes are implemented to services. Where data and evidence are not available, these should be prioritised and supported with appropriate funding.”

I hope that as family hubs are rolled out and the Best Start for Life project becomes a reality they will start to produce the evidence we need to show that the impacts we are having on babies and their parents is life changing and dramatic. It is certainly a good investment socially and financially because hopefully we can prevent all the problems by getting in at the most appropriate time, at the earliest time.

Communication, information and all the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye is endeavouring to achieve with her Bill—I wish her well with that on Friday—are all about continuing the jigsaw of the Best Start for Life, which my right hon. Friend the Minister started and which I hope will come to full fruition, because we desperately need it for so many of our children, families and babies in this country.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care) 4:59, 12 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson.

This has been a small but perfectly formed debate. I congratulate Sally-Ann Hart on securing not just the debate, important though that is, but a Bill. I wish her Bill well on Friday, because, as Tim Loughton rightly said, there is a degree of consensus on these issues across the House. We all understand the need for children to have the best start in life, and for parents to have wraparound support as and when they need it. Those first 1,001 days are crucial to the development of a child to ensure that they start out in life with the best chances that we can give them.

I was interested in what the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said; my ears pricked up to attention when he mentioned Stockport. Being a partly Stockport Member of Parliament, I am keen to promote it as one of the two boroughs that my parliamentary constituency sits within. Stockport children’s services are good. They provide decent support to families when they need it, and there are some challenges. Stockport is a unique borough in many ways, in that it is a microcosm of the entire United Kingdom. It has some of the richest, most prosperous parts of Greater Manchester within its boundaries, and some of the poorest parts. It is almost a perfect make-up of the country.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham

Although it was 14 years ago when I went there, I have been back since. I am delighted to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that Stockport had a fantastic children’s services department then and it has remained so, with some impressive, experienced social workers. Where I went was not in his constituency; I visited nearby, with the full compliance and support of the then Member.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care)

I would hazard a guess that the hon. Gentleman visited Brinnington, which is just over the border. Irrespective of that, he is absolutely right to support the Best Start for Life programme, and he is right that we should not change it for the sake of it. We can tinker around at the edges, but the ethos behind it is absolutely right.

I would also hazard a guess that if this Government had their time again, they might well have done the same with the Sure Start programme, which was starting to make a big difference. I will talk very briefly about my experience of Sure Start in my constituency. I was given the privilege of opening one of a number of Sure Start centres. This one was in the Dukinfield part of my constituency, in the Tameside borough. It was attached to a primary school in the middle of a 1960s deck-access council estate. The centre had been open and providing services to the community for about six months before it had its official opening. As the guest of honour cutting the ribbon, I was introduced to a number of people who used the services within the Sure Start provision.

I was introduced to a young mum called Sarah. She was very young, and had been ostracised by her family because she had become pregnant. She had no natural support network around her. Her only existence had been the four walls of her flat in the deck-access estate. Understandably, she had become very depressed post pregnancy, and the life of her young baby was essentially sitting in front of the television while mum was in her dressing gown eating crisps. Her brilliant Sure Start worker eventually convinced mum to go to the new provision across the way, and got her out of those four walls of the flat.

Dukinfield is a very white, very working-class community. The Rive Tame, which runs through Tameside—the clue is in the name—is only very narrow, probably no wider than this room. On the opposite side of the river from Dukinfield is Ashton-under-Lyne, and that part of Ashton-under-Lyne is very heavily south Asian, with predominantly Pakistani and some Bangladeshi communities. Never the twain shall meet. That river may as well be a wide ocean. Those two communities did not mix, but this Sure Start centre was shared by both communities.

Sarah very excitedly introduced me to her best friend Ameena, who lived in Ashton. Those two would never have met but for that Sure Start provision. She said to me, “Mr Gwynne, let me introduce you to my best friend Ameena. Her daughter plays with my daughter. They’re best friends, and I go to her house. Mr Gwynne, before I came here I couldn’t boil a pan of water. She’s now teaching me to cook curry.” I just thought: Wow! Not only is it a safe space for different communities to come together by accessing support through mainstream statutory services, but they are informally helping one another. I thought that was great. If we could bottle that and spread it out, that is what we should be doing.

That is why I will always argue passionately that Sure Start was working and why I am pleased that the Minister has brought in family hubs. Although they are not yet on the scale of Sure Start, from small acorns grow great oaks. I believe that, whoever is in government, supporting the family and nurturing them in those first 1,001 days really matters. In terms of the Bill from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye, some really simple changes can make a big difference. She mentions that for many it is not easy to access information for support and that local authorities should publish the Start for Life offer on its website.

I know we are not supposed to use props, but I draw Members’ attention to the website of Grow in Tameside, which has a page for key Tameside contacts for early years support and information. It is all there on the website, in part because early years has been a passion of Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council for a long time. In the 1980s, before it was fashionable, they had child and family centres in Tameside. Those centres were used as the evidence base for Sure Start when the Labour Government came in in 1997. The Minister made sure that Tameside was one of the pilots for the family hubs, so we have family hubs operating already in Tameside and doing great stuff. They could do more, but it is great what they do.

This is not just about statutory services but about the wider support network, whether that includes religious organisations, community organisations, the voluntary sector or others. There are lots of things going on. I am a very proud patron of Home-Start in Oldham, Stockport and Tameside. Sarah and the team there do great work. The Dad Matters team under Kieran does great work engaging with dads. They have a breastfeeding service, and they have Cascade, where people can donate toys and clothes to families who need them. That work is being done, but we need to turbocharge it. That is why Labour will always support any measure that means the best start in life for children and families.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:09, 12 March 2024

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. What a lovely debate! I thank all colleagues from across the House for their contributions; it has been genuinely interesting. I would like to begin by thanking my hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart for introducing her Bill on such an important topic and for securing time to debate it today. As Members will know, I have been championing the needs of babies for getting on for 27 years—gosh, that makes me very old. Now, having the huge honour of being the Minister with responsibility for Start for Life, I remain as committed and as passionate as ever in my mission to make sure that every baby gets the best start for life.

It began with my mum, a qualified midwife, asking me to help her to write a business plan for the Oxford Parent-Infant Project, a charity that to this day helps families who are struggling emotionally to cope with the journey to parenthood. Having experienced post-natal depression myself with my first son, who is now 28 and very big, I know only too well how crucial the earliest years are.

I have spent much of the last 27 years helping to establish parent-infant partnerships and various different charities providing therapeutic support for families, and then, in Parliament, working on the cross-party manifesto for the 1,001 critical days, and championing babies in Government and in Parliament.

I have worked with many colleagues. I am grateful to Andrew Gwynne for noting that this is a cross-party agenda. I totally agree with him. I had so many conversations with Dame Tessa Jowell about the fact that Sure Start went so far, but that family hubs would be the 21st-century version. That is not to denigrate in any way the fantastic work of Sure Start, but family hubs are a one-stop shop, building on that excellent work and using the potential for digital to create a digital red book. The shadow Secretary of State, Wes Streeting, has been sending me parliamentary questions about that. I encourage him to continue doing so, because it might speed things up.

There are many different measures to create the one-stop shop for parents, in a way that did not exist with Sure Start. Crucially, we want to make sure that those services are completely universal. What every parent and carer has said is, “No.1: tell me where I can get services and what they might consist of. No. 2: don’t stigmatise me. Don’t make me feel that if I go to this place, you might start proceedings against me and my children.”

The programme is designed to improve on, build on and grow that crucial support for the early years, and I am delighted to hear that it has the support of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.

As well as the support from Dame Tessa Jowell, Lord Field, Lord Blunkett, Lord Cameron, my right hon. Friend Mrs May, Boris Johnson and our present Prime Minister, who all support this crucial early days agenda, I pay particular tribute to the support from my hon. Friend Tim Loughton, who has worked with me for so many years. We met when I was 18 and he was 19 at university. Before we were in Parliament together, we had this same interest in early years. As a former Children’s Minister, he has done so much to promote this agenda. I have mostly enjoyed working with him; sometimes I wish he would pipe down, but it is really excellent that he carries on banging the drum for early years. We have worked on it for so long together; he feels like an old pair of boots. Is that parliamentary language, Mr Henderson? I am sure it is.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham discussed, there is strong evidence that the 1,001 days from conception to the age of two set the foundations for our cognitive, emotional and physical development. Nurtured babies will go on to develop strong relationships and, as they grow up, will be better equipped to tackle the challenges that life throws at them. Investing in that critical period represents a real opportunity to improve outcomes and tackle health disparities by ensuring that millions of babies and their families have access to a one-stop shop style of family hub where all support services can be found in one welcoming universal hub.

Shockingly, up to 40% of babies are not securely attached by the time they reach the age of five to a loving adult carer. Worse still, around 10% have disorganised attachment, which is closely linked with the worst outcomes in our society.

I was delighted, back in July 2020, when the then Prime Minister asked me to chair the early years healthy development review. The goal was to create a vision for brilliance during the 1,001 critical days from conception to a child’s second birthday.

During that review, I met with families, academics, frontline professionals, charities and volunteers to understand what was going well and where change was needed. I saw excellent examples of people helping families when they needed it most, but I also heard how hard it can be for parents and carers to find timely support. I heard about the many services available to families, which are delivered by a workforce of highly skilled professionals, as well as many dedicated volunteers, but I also heard that information on those services is often patchy and difficult to find, with parents finding it almost impossible to navigate the system and understand what support is available to them.

In March 2021, the Government published “The best start for life: a vision for the 1001 critical days”. The vision set out six action areas for improving support for families during those critical days to ensure that every baby in England is given the best possible start in life, regardless of their background. It is the first action area in that vision that describes how every local authority in England, working with the NHS and other partners, will be encouraged to provide a clear and joined-up Start for Life offer to every new family.

Each local authority’s Start for Life offer would describe the essential support that every new family might need, as well as providing information on the additional support that some families require. A clear and accessible Start for Life offer will help to signpost families to the support and services available where they live, and those Start for Life offers should explain clearly to parents and carers what exactly is available and where to find it. The recommendations included in the vision are relevant to every local authority in England.

In my role as the Under-Secretary of State for Public Health, Start for Life and Primary Care, I now have the ongoing pleasure of visiting local authorities up and down the country, and I see directly some great work happening to give every baby the best start in life. Just last week I visited Uxbridge family hub, where I saw some fantastic work by Hillingdon Council and its partners to provide vital services to families with babies. That included providing a welcoming space for parents and carers to make new friends, and offering many different specialist support services, including antenatal, midwifery and health visiting, as well as infant-feeding and parent-infant-relationship support.

To support the implementation of the Best Start for Life vision, the Government are investing around £300 million to improve support for families through the family hubs and Start for Life programme. The programme is implementing many elements of the vision and is delivering a step change in outcomes for babies, children, parents and carers in 75 upper-tier local authorities in England, including most of those with high levels of deprivation.

The programme provides funding for local authorities to publish Start for Life offers and to establish parent and carer panels so that they can receive direct feedback from those using the services. There are many examples of good progress in publishing and publicising Start for Life offers right across the country. For example, Northumberland County Council has equipped every health visitor, midwife and family-hub practitioner with a QR-code keyring that, when scanned, takes users to a bespoke website setting out the local Start for Life offer. That ensures that parents and carers can be encouraged to access the offer at every opportunity.

Many local authorities that have not yet received additional funding through the family hub and Start for Life offer have also chosen to publish their Start for Life offers anyway, and to implement other elements of the vision, because they can see the huge benefits to future outcomes for families and their children. Early prevention is not just kinder but much cheaper than later interventions.

In the Government, and across parties, we all remain committed to ensuring that every baby gets the best start in life. Central to that is ensuring that parents are able to easily find the support that they need, when they need it most. The Support for Infants and Parents etc (Information) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye, has the potential to help ensure that that is the case, so I want to conclude by reiterating my thanks to my hon. Friend for her introduction of that private Member’s Bill, and for securing today’s debate on such an important issue.

The debate has highlighted just how important the 1,001 critical days are, as well as the huge opportunity that the Bill provides to ensure that families have access to vital information about the support available to them at such a critical stage in both their lives and the life of their baby. I look forward to the Bill’s Second Reading on Friday.

5.20 pm

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye

I thank everyone who has attended this debate and made a contribution, showing support on this very important issue. I especially thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for her comments and her interest in this private Member’s Bill.

I thank my hon. Friend Tim Loughton for his valuable comments as chair of the APPG on conception to age two—first 1001 days. As a former Children’s Minister, his knowledge, passion and focus on children and families is exemplary. He highlighted the long-term aims that were in the “Building Great Britons” report—it was extremely helpful for him to draw attention to them—and how failing to intervene is not just a social and human issue, but an economic one, too, if we are going to put the pound signs in front of our eyes.

My right hon. Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham are the dream team for early years. I have to say that—it is absolutely right. I also thank the shadow Minister, Andrew Gwynne, for his kind words and support, for his clear passion for children and families, and for his clear acknowledgment that children and families are not political. They really are not political.

In conclusion, I believe that the support for my private Member’s Bill, the Support for Infants and Parents etc (Information) Bill, will play an important role in helping to achieve the Government’s aim of giving every baby the best start in life. I hope that the Government will support the Bill when it has its Second Reading on Friday.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered information on support available for parents and carers of infants.

5.22 pm

Sitting adjourned.