Giving Every Baby the Best Start in Life Debate

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Department: Department of Health and Social Care

Giving Every Baby the Best Start in Life

Kevan Jones Excerpts
Tuesday 9th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)
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All of us in this House who are parents or have young children among our family and friends will know that there is an abundance of advice available on the topic of today’s debate and many of us take that advice: we talk to our babies in the womb; we play games with them before they are born; we study baby-led weaning; and we invest in stain-proof covers that never seem to extend quite far enough. But wherever on the nurturing scale we sit as mums and dads, babies thrive when they are surrounded by adults taking an active interest.

The focus of my contribution is the babies and young children who need extra help to thrive—those whose interests are at the heart of the decision by the Government to invest in family hubs in the recent Budget, as championed by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom). As many Members have said, it is welcome that this agenda is taking a higher profile in the context of levelling up, because we all recognise the need to build on sound foundations.

Twenty years’ experience in children’s services has taught me a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the child support system in our country. Like our NHS, we are very good at emergency services, and studies by academics at the University of Bristol and the University of Warwick show that the UK has a world-leading child protection system. But today’s debate goes beyond protection from harm, and into how we help children to thrive and flourish—something that is a matter not just of social responsibility but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire highlighted, of long-term economic benefit to our country.

Thriving children live lives that cost the taxpayer less and contribute more to everyone’s benefit. To that end, I am going to offer three points, which are focused on how we turn the widely-shared aspiration that we hear in the Chamber—I grew up in the village of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) and am glad to hear of the progress it is making—into a change that children and their families can see and feel in their lives.

First, we need to follow the flow of money. The funding for early years, which is a key statutory responsibility for all local authorities, remains mired in bureaucratic processes that are dominated by those whose focus, for good reasons, is elsewhere. Schools forums, which determine the distribution of the dedicated schools grant, in which much of this funding sits, are dominated by the interests of our secondary schools. A fragmented early years sector of small private, voluntary, charitable providers often struggles to be heard. There is a structure around the money that inhibits innovation and flexibility, and stands in the way of creating the joined-up local offer that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) highlighted. Although I can see that there is a perceived political benefit to lumping that early years funding in with schools, in reality the needs of the sectors are different.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says about ringfencing and I do not disagree, but that is why Sure Start funding was directed through local authorities and ringfenced at a local level for local authorities to draw up their local strategies. He talks about levelling up, but this process did not start in 2019. We have seen the devastation of Sure Start centres, certainly in County Durham, as a result of cuts to that funding by his Government—although I know that he perhaps was not in the House then.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds
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It is good to hear the right hon. Member’s contribution. I was in a local authority throughout Sure Start’s implementation period, and although it was welcome to see a Government giving a high degree of priority to children in the earliest years of their lives, there were a number of failings with that programme. One was that the pace at which Government sought to deliver it—for understandable reasons, it was a political priority—meant that poor decisions were often made about the location of services and exactly what was delivered. At a time when many activities outside Sure Start were a high priority for local areas, Sure Start was generously funded to meet the Government’s aspiration while other activities, such as child protection, were starved of cash. Although all Governments want to deliver their priorities, we need to achieve a longer-term consensus about what is in the interests of children in the earliest years of their lives.

I call on Ministers to consider how we free the early years sector from the shackles imposed by the dedicated schools grant and bring it together with other local authority and NHS budgets, so that investment can be aligned with the needs of local families and built on the strengths of the early years sector. We must not forget that the sector is not just about nurseries; it provides an opportunity to join up with a range of local statutory and non-statutory services, which include health visiting, child minding, family hubs, child protection, public health, vaccination services, libraries, play and informal learning. When I was a new parent, the services provided by the libraries of the London borough of Hillingdon, including story time for young children, were an outstanding example of that early support. They were a chance to meet other parents whose children were at the same stage, to get informal advice and tips. That may sit outside what Government mandate, but it is exactly the sort of thing that parents of young children treasure.

Having touched on the funding challenge, we need to ensure that every area has the scope to develop a strategy for thriving that suits local circumstances. Many of our councils—the 152 top-tier authorities—are in partnership arrangements of one kind or another. Some are council to council, and others reflect outsourced services. That all reflects issues of local need and capacity. Along with the statutory lead member for children’s services and the director of children’s services, the health and wellbeing board has the most scope to join up the offer to get babies the best start in life. Those boards—statutory committees of the local authority—still struggle to assert their role, especially with the NHS, which in my experience is strategically disengaged, despite their role as key partners.

The rearguard action fought by the NHS against making public health a local and accountable service has also inhibited innovation and tied up resources in rolled-over NHS contracts rather than stimulating the reshaping of local services around children. I have seen some outstanding examples of such reshaping, however. I pay tribute to my constituent Dr Jide Menakaya, a leading paediatrician who has led work across the sector in his field of neonatal care in the London borough of Hillingdon to join up children’s services and Sure Start so mums and dads have a seamless experience. However, the system still tends to stand in the way of creativity rather than promoting it.

My suggestion to the Front-Bench team is that, in line with previous asks of our health and wellbeing boards—for example, to produce joint strategies on child mental health—we look at setting a clear expectation for them on a strategy for helping children to thrive in line with the first 1,001 days ambitions. Much of this already exists in different forms at a local level, but for a new parent or an expectant family, it can feel hard to access and fragmented, because it is driven by the disparate duties and funding regimes imposed by Government. In line with the local offer for children with special educational needs and disabilities, a strategic approach to the local offer for the earliest years will deliver greater value for money and, vitally, greater coherence for parents who access it.

The final area that I would like to put forward for consideration is accountability. Successive Governments have adjusted the regulatory environment for the early years, but broadly speaking the two priorities today are school readiness—seen in the regulation of settings such as child minding and nurseries—and the avoidance of harm to children, which is seen in the regulation of child protection and the NHS. We are in a context where resources are extremely stretched—not just money, but, as we have heard from a number of Members, the workforce too—which tends to drive a risk-averse approach in the early years, prioritising the absence of failure, rather than the promotion of innovation. We need to consider how we line up the accountability that we have all talked about with what we are seeking to achieve for our children. My suggestion to Ministers is that we need to look beyond the current inspection regimes and datasets used for performance management, many strengths though they have, and think about how we measure the things involved in a child thriving—the positive health and social outcomes that we want for babies in our country and how we incentivise the behaviour that will deliver them. Time is tight, so I will simply say that we have so many statutory duties in place that will help us deliver that, but so often the holders of those duties lack the autonomy needed to fulfil the aspirations we have. We need a permissive approach from Government.

In conclusion, we need to recognise that much of what we do is world class and of the highest quality, as many parents of young children, including me, can attest, but the regulatory regime still too often expects low standards. Rather than contributing to success, we have a complex funding system that stands in the way of local communities and their leaders delivering value for money and good outcomes for every child. We all want to give our babies the very best start in life. By enabling local leadership, setting high standards and setting people free to innovate, we give ourselves the best chance of levelling up life chances for all our children.