16 July 2019
Nadhim Zahawi responds to a debate on early years family support

Nadhim Zahawi responds to a debate on the importance of the first 1,001 critical days of a new baby’s life in determining his or her lifelong physical and emotional wellbeing and related reports by the Health and Social Care Select Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.

 6.03 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) on securing this important debate on a Tuesday—pretty remarkable. I guess it is a question of knowing which levers to pull to make sure these things happen. I thank her for her tireless commitment to this very important area. I also thank her for all she did to drive forward the work of the inter-ministerial group on early years family support in her role as chair. Madam Deputy Speaker, I think you would agree with me when I say that we have had a debate that epitomises all the great things about our Parliament. It has been deep and well informed. The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), who co-sponsored the debate, made an excellent speech. I have been up to see the school readiness work that she is doing with Andy Burnham and I pay tribute to his work, passion and commitment not only to this issue, but to looked-after children. He is a champion of those children who, through no fault of their own, we have had to take away from their biological parents.

The hon. Member for Manchester Central spoke about funding, and she knows that I am putting my best foot forward and preparing for the spending review as well as I can. Her compliments mean that my head will not get through the double doors behind you, Madam Deputy Speaker. She is right to highlight the extraordinary work of maintained nursery schools and their passion, commitment and the additional hard yards, as she put it, that they go to. In many ways, they will be the trailblazers in Manchester for the joined-up, place-based, integrated early-years delivery model. She also talked about workforce development, which I will return to later.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) made the point incredibly well about flexibility in working, which I hope a future Government looks at very closely. He also talked about shared parental leave. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) again referred to maintained nurseries, and his two maintained nurseries in Warwick and Whitnash, and I thank him for that.

It is almost impossible to compliment my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on this—he has heard me say before that he is a fountain of knowledge on this area. He reminded the House that the strategic importance of children’s mental health has come to the forefront in this place. He is right to highlight the number of debates and the number of colleagues who are now engaged in this agenda. I hope that he will continue his passionate backing for the troubled families programme and all the other issues that he rightly reminded us need support in a future Administration.

With my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), I visited Safeguarding Children in Banbury, which is for children who have been traumatised, and the work there is remarkable. She also mentioned the adoption support fund. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is not in her place today, but we had a fantastic gathering yesterday for the report on the adoption support fund, which my hon. Friend cited. Ninety per cent. of children said that this helped them a lot in terms of the additional support that they needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who co-chairs the all-party group on fatherhood, rightly reminded us of the key role that fathers play and the fact that they are role models. I think of the work that I have seen, and we want to develop further the focus on not just mothers, but fathers. As a Manchester United supporter, it pains me a bit to say that Manchester City is doing remarkable work in early-years outreach—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Manchester Central says “Four clubs” and she is quite right—I know. We will move on swiftly to my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), who rightly reminded the House that children’s services are challenged, and we need to look at that very closely when it comes to the spending review.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) talked about the Imagination Library, and I will certainly take a look at that. It is extraordinary, and it is testament to his incredible entrepreneurial—I think that word has been used a lot over the last few weeks—abilities to be able to identify it and bring it to Brigg and Goole and North Lincolnshire Council. It is remarkable that 95% of children are now signed up.

I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s approach to the first 1,001 days. The evidence is clear that the first 1,001 days of a baby’s life can have an impact on their social, economic and physical outcomes in later life. We all know this is a period of significant physical change for the mother and baby and a critical period of development, cognitively and emotionally, for babies.

The early years family support ministerial group has considered carefully how the Government can improve the co-ordination and cost-effectiveness of family support for children under the age of two and identify the gaps in available provision. It has now made its recommendations to the Secretaries of State, and they are considering them. It is important that the next Government continue that work and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire pointed out, report to the House in due course.

From the point of conception, we have the opportunity to ensure that all children get the best start in life. We start building our health asset as a baby in the womb. The transition to parenthood is a key opportunity to provide good information and support to adults on the importance of the child’s first months and early years. There are clear benefits from early investment and support through pregnancy and the early years, and supporting early intervention means starting with good pre-conception care. The Government are committed to improving maternity services for vulnerable groups, and an enhanced and targeted continuity of care model will be implemented to help improve outcomes for the most vulnerable mothers and babies.

Positive adult-child relationships are key protective factors against adversity and trauma. The Government are committed to improving perinatal mental health services. The NHS long-term plan will increase access to evidence-based care for women with moderate to severe perinatal mental health difficulties and I hope benefit an additional 24,000 women per year by 2023-24. This is in addition to the extra 30,000 women getting specialist help by next year and the year after. We will be making care provided by specialist perinatal mental health services available from pre-conception to 24 months after birth, in line with the cross-Government ambition for women and children, focusing on the critical first 1,001 days of a child’s life.

We are also expanding access to evidence-based psychological therapies within specialist perinatal mental health services so that they also include parent-infant, couple, co-parenting and family interventions. As part of that, we will be offering fathers and partners of women accessing specialist perinatal mental health services and maternity outreach clinics evidence-based assessments of their mental health and signposting to support as required. This will contribute to helping to care for the 5% to 10% of fathers who experience mental health difficulties during the perinatal period.

We are increasing access to evidence-based psychological support and therapy, including digital options, in a maternity setting. Maternity outreach clinics will integrate maternity, reproductive health and psychological therapy for women experiencing mental health difficulties directly arising from, or related to, the maternity experience. In addition, over the current spending review period, we are giving local authorities more than £16 billion for public health for all of the health functions they commission, including health visitors. The Prime Minister announced our commitment to modernise the healthy child programme to reflect the latest evidence on the importance of the first 1,001 days, including how health visitors and other professionals can support perinatal mental health.

Beyond the perinatal period, the first few years of a child’s life are fundamentally important in achieving long-lasting outcomes. I am grateful to the shadow Minister for mentioning the 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds. It has reached 800,000 two-year-olds since its launch in 2013. I will certainly look at her points about targeting and take-up. We are spending £3.5 billion on our early education entitlements this year alone, which is more than any previous Government have spent. We are also supporting parents to improve the quality and quantity of adult-child interactions to support early language development in the home.

Following our successful home learning environment summit in November, we have continued to work with businesses and other partners. We have just launched the Hungry Little Minds campaign, a three-year campaign to encourage parents to engage in activities that support their children’s early learning and help to set them up for school and beyond.

Looking beyond parents, we know that a skilled early years workforce is also key. That was one of the three points made by the hon. Member for Manchester Central. Children and families come into contact with a great many professionals in the early years. This is a huge opportunity, but it is not easy to get it right, particularly for the families who are the hardest to reach. We want to engage everyone, from frontline professionals to local system leaders, in our efforts to improve early language and literacy outcomes. Alongside our training for health visitors, we are investing £20 million in our early years professional development fund, which will offer training to practitioners in disadvantaged areas to improve, in particular, early language, literacy and numeracy outcomes.

Local areas have a key role to play in commissioning and delivering effective early-intervention services to meet complex and specific needs, and the Government are supporting them in that task. The Department’s early years local government programme, in which we have invested £8.5 million, focuses on improving the way in which local services work together across health, education and early years to improve the outcomes of children aged five. As part of that work, multidisciplinary peer reviews will help councils to identify necessary reforms, and our early outcomes fund will provide an additional £6.5 million of grants for local authority partnerships to improve the delivery of services. I have commissioned the Early Intervention Foundation—this is an issue that has arisen repeatedly during the debate—to look into how children’s centres and other delivery models can help to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged children and spread good practice across the sector. When we have the data, we shall be able to focus on where we should spread that good practice. We also remain strongly committed to the What Works initiative, embodied in our three What Works centres.

Part of the Government’s funding for the Early Intervention Foundation is being used to establish an early years transformation academy. The academy will provide a framework for the sharing of learning, including events and online material for leaders, commissioners and other stakeholders. The start of more intensive academy work began in June, and will provide further opportunities to pool learning.

Let me again thank my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire for securing the debate. We know that getting it right in the early years is key to ensuring that all children have the best start in life. That is reflected in the excellent work that is already being undertaken across England at local and national levels, but we can certainly do much more. My right hon. Friend’s legacy should be the IMG’s continued delivery of what we agreed should be delivered.