Giving Every Baby the Best Start in Life

Sharon Hodgson Excerpts
Tuesday 9th November 2021

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
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I would like to start by thanking the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney), the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for securing this debate at this incredibly important time. I also offer my thanks to the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire for her tireless campaigning on this issue over many years, for her recent leadership of the early years review and for her success in securing funding for the sector in the recent Budget. All those are to be welcomed. It is not easy getting money out of a Chancellor, as we all know. She also knows my dismay at the short-sighted cuts that preceded this funding, making it all the more necessary. I know she agrees that we need to ensure that no Government cut valuable services such as Sure Start or family hubs ever again.

I stand here as a former shadow Minister for children and families, a role now most ably held by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). It has been said that once anyone has been a children’s Minister, like the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), or a shadow, they can never quite leave the issue alone. It is sort of like an “Order of the Babies” maybe, or a ministerial Hotel California.

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on all of us, but the effects of the lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures were keenly felt in the early years sector. I welcome the “Babies in Lockdown” survey report published today by the Parent-Infant Foundation, Home-Start UK and Best Beginnings. The pandemic is, sadly, far from over, and the report offers signs that the early years sector has developed a form of long covid, if you like. The survey found that nearly a third of mothers questioned reported that health visitor drop-in clinics that existed before the pandemic were no longer operating. I urge colleagues to read the report.

But let me take Members back to 1970, well before Zoom and Teams. Back then, fewer than a quarter of mothers worked; society expected a full-time mother. Without a central focus on the early years, and no talk of the 1,001 critical days or adverse childhood experiences, the education of very young children was neglected. Baroness Blackstone, writing in 1974, highlighted the fact that only 10% of three and four-year-olds attended state nursery schools or classes in 1971, with some areas receiving no service at all.

To combat the lack of state nursery education, the mothers did it themselves. Belle Tutaev set up a playgroup with her neighbour which eventually bloomed into the Pre-School Playgroups Association. This has since become the Early Years Alliance. But the state should have taken up this mantle, rather than the already burdened mothers. Not everyone was convinced of that principle, however. In 1980, George Young, then the Conservative Secretary of State for Social Services, said that he did not

“accept that it is the state’s job to provide day care to enable the parents of young children to go out to work”.

Listening to the debate today, 40 years on, we can see how far we have come from that thinking.

It was the last Labour Government who finally addressed this problem. I have spoken before, as others have today, about the late Tessa Jowell’s Sure Start programme being a beacon of early years policy. Sure Start brought children’s services together under one roof, uniting healthcare with wellbeing, education with childcare, babies with other babies, and parents with other parents. There were 3,620 Sure Start centres in 2010 under Labour. That has fallen, as we heard from the hon. Member for Richmond Park, by more than 1,300 in the past decade or more of Conservative Governments. Those that remain have been effectively hollowed out, offering only skeleton services with minimal opening hours. While the Government’s pledge to fund 75 more family hubs is obviously welcome, it does little to make up for that loss. I know the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said it is not all about the buildings but, when we have lost 1,300 and replaced them with 75, it is trying to get a quart into a pint pot, as they used to say.

Andrea Leadsom Portrait Dame Andrea Leadsom
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It has been such a pleasure to work with the hon. Lady on this topic for so many years. I just want to put on the record that it is not 75 family hubs, but 75 upper-tier local authorities; it will be for them to decide, but it could be hundreds or thousands of family hubs. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) drew the same conclusion, so I really want to set the record straight on that point, if the hon. Lady will forgive me.

Sharon Hodgson Portrait Mrs Hodgson
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I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady. That is an important clarification, and we must ensure it is out there that maybe it will not just be 75, but that they can make it many more. Let us hope it is 1,300; I am sure she will agree with that. That said, I warmly welcome what I think is the Government’s tacit admission that they got it wrong when they defunded the Sure Start programme, even though, as we all remember, on the eve of the 2010 election, David Cameron promised it would be safe in his hands.

However, we are where we are. Earlier this year, I also co-chaired a cross-party early years commission alongside the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson), who, as a former children’s Minister, is also a member of the “Order of the Babies” and a resident of the ministerial Hotel California. The commission heard from a wide range of stakeholders, including educators, academics and policy professionals. I will take the House through some of the recommendations in the comprehensive report.

First, there should be integration of health and education support for children, ensuring that every child receives the health visitor appointments they are entitled to and a new health visit when the child is 18 months old. Secondly, because too few families have access to essential services, a locally relevant and dedicated parent support service is needed in every community in every area. Thirdly, we should upskill early education practitioners by investing in continuing professional development, so that the workforce stay fit to face the challenges of the future. Those proposals could easily be made reality. I sincerely hope that, as part of the £500 million brought forward in the Budget, the Government will deliver all of what we seek in this debate.

As we take part in this debate, we are mindful that the babies and children themselves will not be listening. They will not be tweeting their agreement or penning letters to our offices. I will spare a moment to mention how, beyond their value on their own terms, reforms to the early years offer can be instrumental in improving the lives of those without children, via the economy.

The Early Intervention Foundation found that the cost of late intervention in 2016-17 was £17 billion, owing to the need for services to help with mental health issues, youth crime and exclusion, including a £5.3 billion spend on looked-after children. Early intervention can offset that cost. The Carolina Approach to Responsive Education programme provided intensive, high-quality childcare for ages 0 to 5 in the United States of America and delivered a 13% return on investment per child each year. It netted IQ gains, higher wages, increased likelihood of home ownership and higher scores on achievement tests.

For the family unit, the economic returns are clear too. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, parents in areas with Sure Start local programmes moved into paid work more quickly than those without, reducing the benefits bill to the taxpayer and increasing tax receipts for the Treasury. But that is not the full picture: the economic benefits are often only modelled on specific, targeted interventions, whereas the benefits of intervention fan out across a range of factors, such as reducing the later burden on the public purse— the whole point of early intervention—and greater participation in the economy over many years. As such, it is practically very difficult to model the effects of a web of measures applied at once. So just imagine the results we could achieve if those interventions were provided simultaneously, with wholesale improved outcomes delivered via intensive early years support. Britain’s early years offer has the potential to be much greater than the sum of its parts.

To conclude, I would like to look to the world we are creating as legislators in this place. As we speak, delegates from around the world are discussing the means of preserving the planet and protecting the environment in Glasgow at COP26. It is incredibly important that we limit climate change to an increase of 1.5°. Missing, I believe, is leadership for those who will grow up into these environments. The pursuit of climate justice is in no small part to ensure that our children and their children’s children do not face an uninhabitable, hostile world. As those at COP26 work for the future of the planet, let us, here and now, seize this golden opportunity to help those who will inherit it.