Children are not an economic inconvenience; they are our best hope for the future
I recently spoke in a debate about 'Start4Life', the Government's new programme to improve the first 1001 days of a child's life. In his Budget Statement, the Chancellor announced £500m of Government investment for the Early Years, and in my speech I chose to drew on my own experience as a new mother to highlight the value of Family Hubs in providing support for babies and parents in those crucial first two years.
Giving every baby the best start in life - debated November 9
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and I thank the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for securing this important debate.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), whose leadership on the issue and perseverance over many years has led to the incredible result of this investment in the first 1,001 days —in such a difficult economic time, it is a real achievement to secure that.
It has been a privilege to be part of the early years healthy development review, with a number of others sitting in the House. It has been a great learning experience as a new MP but also a real honour to be part of that. This is an issue I am also very passionate about.
There is no more important period in anyone’s life than the first 1,001 days. As we have heard from many hon. Members, that is the time when the foundations are set for childhood and for the rest of life. Building blocks in terms of patterns of behaviour, how we communicate and our health are all connected and made during that time.
Lockdowns have been so, so damaging for the youngest in society, in all those areas we have heard about: lack of access to professional services, to community support and even to family support, which has really harmed the very youngest in our society. So the £500 million funding comes at a crucial time. I have to say it: it is time to build back better for babies. So there is no better investment for the Government to make than on the first 1,001 days. Babies who go through healthy development have a far greater chance of becoming healthy, happy, fulfilled adults who are going to contribute to the economy and, as the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West said, will be much less likely to be a burden on the taxpayer.
One great paradox of human society is that parenting is so important, but it cannot be left to the experts.
About half of us were brought up by people who had never done it before. The truth is that having babies is really hard—I have had three and I should know. It is amazing to me that something so natural, desirable and fulfilling is also so incredibly challenging. It does not always start well. My first child was a full two weeks late and I just escaped induction. He came into the world following a 32-hour labour, so we started parenting after two full nights without any sleep—something I did not even manage to achieve as a student. I had never even held a newborn, let alone been responsible for its survival. When we add the challenges of breastfeeding, living on no sleep, trying to identify when nappies need changing, and eating with one hand when a meal consists of a dry piece of toast that you can put in and out of the toaster without even opening the fridge, it is really tough.
I vividly remember one day, when my newborn was crying and my husband was out. I desperately needed a shower, as we were going out. He would not stop crying. I still needed a shower. I put him in the car seat, strapped him in and stuck him on the floor of the bathroom. I got in the shower and started crying myself. That is just what it is like as a parent of a newborn—then throw in mastitis and the challenges of getting to the town hall to register the baby’s birth, before we get to weaning, potty training and more sleepless nights.
What kept me going, and what kept us going, was family, friends and baby groups. Every day of the week, I found a different group to go to. I developed a routine that made sure that I saw adults every day of the week—other people who were going through the same experiences. I was really fortunate to develop a strong group of friends who learned to be mums together. Because of that support, interaction and camaraderie, I can honestly say that it was a joy and a privilege to care for a baby and to see them learn and develop. Despite the sheer exhaustion, there is nothing more worth while. My husband and I had all the support we could ask for—I had a full year of maternity leave and we had the financial security and the practical support to enjoy the first 1,001 days—but it was still really hard. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who we know is not short of a bob or two, remarked in a recent newspaper article that even they found it incredibly challenging. It is tough, whatever a person’s circumstances. I would like to say that I was a pro by the time the third child came around, but I am afraid the challenges were just threefold.
The truth is that we are not supposed to care for babies alone: it takes a village to raise a child.
Every first-time parent might be a novice, but millions of other people out there have done it before and can help. The sad fact is that so many parents do not have the support that I was so fortunate to have. If just one area of a person’s life is fragile—such as relationships, mental or physical health, geographical isolation or poverty, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said—caring for a baby can go from challenging to impossible. For many, there is a cycle of generational abuse and neglect that it is almost impossible for them to break on their own.
As we heard from the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, the world has changed. A couple of generations ago women did not work outside the home—they definitely worked inside the home—and there was a network of mums, grandmas and aunties on hand to help. Our social fabric was much richer. Nobody wants to return to the 1950s, and we have made incredible progress in so many areas—we must not deny that and must celebrate it—but we do need to intervene to rebirth the social and relational support that is so crucial in equipping families to thrive in the early years. That is why family hubs are so important and why I am so delighted that the Budget included £82 million to develop the network further throughout the country.
Family hubs should provide a one-stop-shop for parents, not only to make it easier for them to access professional support and advice from midwives, health visitors and other professionals but to integrate them with local community groups, build friendships and support networks and bring together the whole community to provide that “village” to help to raise the child, which every parent so desperately needs and to which so many parents do not have access, for all sorts of reasons. Family hubs can also be a place where intervention can happen early so that families with particular issues, whatever they may be, can be helped before the problem gets out of hand and leads to damaging consequences for both the baby and the parents.
How is a first-time parent supposed to know how to deal with colic, with their baby not putting on weight or with conflicts with a partner that are exacerbated by a lack of sleep? We do not know this stuff without asking other people. That is why family hubs should be available for everyone. Every parent needs support and a great way to provide it is through family hubs. I support the idea of allowing birth registrations at family hubs: if parents have to go there, under a statutory duty, they have then put their foot through the door, seen what is available, made that first contact and, hopefully, built some relationships with people in the community. That will make it that much easier to get support in future. A parent going to their local family hub should be as everyday an event as a person going to their GP surgery, with no stigma attached.
Of course, the start for life offer is all about babies, but if we want to use the language of the market, the parents and carers are the clients, so the whole offer is actually aimed at supporting and equipping parents and carers. I am delighted that we are recognising parenting as the most valuable contribution that anyone can make to society, so I am also pleased that £50 million for parenting skills is part of the offer.
On parenting, I wish to speak briefly about motherhood, which is not something we speak about much. It is brilliant that women are much more valued, in every sense, outside the home than we used to be—we are valued in the workplace and have full equality under the law, and those things should be celebrated—but I sometimes wonder whether we are too much valued through the lens of the traditional male role model, and the hugely important work that many women do in looking after children and building community through the home is massively undervalued, and sometimes looked down on and talked about in the language of oppression. I do not deny that that is the case for many women, but many women are fulfilled in that role and choose it in the early part—the first 1,001 days—of their child’s life. There are good biological reasons why women desire to do that, and I know that I certainly did.
Even the Department for Education’s own stats say that mothers of young children would prefer to work less, but we as a society have made it almost impossible for many women—parents, but often women—to choose to focus on their children in those early years. Our ever-increasing drive to get everyone into the workplace, the tax system and house prices make it impossible for the majority of families to survive on one income. They make it impossible for so many families to choose to take that crucial time out from work in the first two years of a child’s life. We also have a system that expects single mothers to be able to be the provider and the care giver, and that places so many in an impossible situation, which is difficult for them and difficult for the children.
I conclude by saying that children are not an economic inconvenience; they are our best hope for the future and deserving of every investment and support that we can give them. The start of life offer is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to refocus our priorities, to put babies at the centre of policy making, and to give every child the opportunity they need to grow and flourish.