Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a joy to be back in Westminster Hall. It is a joy to be the first bloke to speak in Westminster Hall after the lockdown, and it is a decided bonus to have you here in the chair and to see so many colleagues suitably “spaced out”, as I think you referred to us earlier.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on securing this debate and on the report from her Committee. It is no mean feat to have achieved over 230,000 signatures. I cannot speak with as much authority as can the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), being so close to having a four-month-old—I am rather closer to being a prospective grandparent—but I speak as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for conception to age two: first 1001 days, and I chair the charity the Parent-Infant Foundation.
Others have already spoken out about the need for greater flexibility for maternity leave and paternity leave, brought on by the particular factors and pressures during lockdown. I agree with much of what is in the report and with what the hon. Member for Newcastle North has said. It has been interesting that the report is very much informed by the personal testimonies of many parents, including many new parents. Parents are facing extra pressures: school closures, with many parents who already had children facing having those children at home as well as going through pregnancy, confusion for employers and employees about what they are actually entitled to at work and what is safe for them to be able to work during pregnancy given the coronavirus considerations, and mixed access to childcare, as the hon. Lady said. There is also the added stress of not being able to have partners at crucial hospital appointments and scans, and in some cases even at birth, and there are some really tragic cases. I quote the case of Emma Kemsley from Saffron Walden who could not even have a partner at a termination when she found out at her 18-week scan that the baby would not survive outside the womb. It was doubly tragic. These are exceptional circumstances. These are not ordinary times.
Babies have become the forgotten part of the population during the pandemic. Over 330,000 babies have now been born in England during lockdown. Many new family members and parents have been isolated from extended family members. They have not had the usual loving care and support of grandparents around them. There have been cases of babies now exposed to other babies recoiling because they are not used to babies. They have not been at those post-natal classes where there is contact with other babies, so they are just not used to them. It is going to take a lot of normalising when we can get back into socialising, which is such an important part of the life of a new baby and of a new parent in particular. The problem in respect of health visitors is that the only families permitted to have face-to-face contact with health visitors are those that have been deemed vulnerable. That is such an important item of support in those early days, and is also an important early warning system for things potentially going wrong. Many toddlers, children and new babies have not had those important early checks, and we hear that up to 70% of health visitors have been redeployed to other hospital community settings during the pandemic. That is a really false economy when the impact that those health visitors can have so early on—for new parents in particular—is absolutely essential. Every year, 106,000 under-one-year-olds are exposed to domestic violence, parental substance misuse or severe mental ill health, yet only 15,000 of them are supported by social workers.
The Parent-Infant Foundation, which I chair, produced the report “Babies in Lockdown” jointly with Best Beginnings and Home-Start UK. The report showed that almost seven in 10 parents felt that the changes brought about by covid were affecting their unborn baby or young child. Over two-thirds of respondents in the survey carried out by us said that, overall, their ability to cope with pregnancy or care for their baby had been affected by covid restrictions. Many families and young parents from lower income backgrounds and black Asian and minority ethnic communities had been hit harder by the covid pandemic. That is likely to widen the already deep inequalities and early experiences and life chances of children. In the report we recommended a “baby boost” to enable local services to support families that had a baby during or close to lockdown, and a new parent-infant premium providing new funding for local commissioners targeted at improving outcomes for the most vulnerable children.
It is essential that those new babies—and new parents in particular—get the very best start in life and the best attachment to their children so that when they arrive at school they are normalised, socialised, ready, greedy and eager to learn and to get on with their fellow children at school. It is a false economy not to be doing more.