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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 13 January 2009

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Early Intervention (Finance)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Barbara Keeley.)

9.30 am

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Martlew, and to see colleagues from all parties here to support—I hope—the principles of how we fund early intervention; its financing is a work in progress, and today I shall try to set out a stall for the next year’s work on making it effective. I hope to be lucky in the draw and follow up this debate with progress, towards to the end of the year, and then perhaps have another exchange with the Minister, whom I am delighted to see in his place. I do not know whether he thinks that I am tracking him on his journey around Whitehall. I have had lots of interviews and exchanges with him over early intervention, which have always been very positive and sympathetic. I now want to take the matter further with him in his new role and explore some of the financial aspects.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend refer to the report that he and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) wrote? It is the most important report, official or unofficial, produced in Parliament since I became a Member 30 years ago.

Mr. Allen: I am deeply flattered by that tribute, as too, I am sure, is the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). I hope that the report has made a small contribution to every party’s thinking—in a non-partisan way—on how we address some of the long-term problems facing us. My right hon. Friend gives me an excuse to say that bringing about intergenerational change will require a generation. Everybody, of all political complexions and none, will need to understand that. We will also require a social and political consensus to sustain it over the long term. That is what we were trying to do in the report, and what I continue to try to do with people of all persuasions of good will, who see that early intervention is actually a very long-term solution requiring the broadest possible social and political support.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my hon. Friend for taking an early intervention from me—pardon the phrase. We will need a generation to convert and change the current culture. Nowhere will that be required more than in the media, which produce hyperventilating, hand-wringing headlines about an underclass. However, the moment that any Government, local authority or organisation try to tackle some of the problems, the media accuse them of being part of the nanny state and of interfering while parents try hard to bring up their children. Does he recognise that problem? How can we tackle it? We have in this place a genuine
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cross-party consensus on this matter; and I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that the report is magnificent.

Mr. Allen: I agree with my hon. Friend’s point, which has to be taken on board, about the nanny state. However, it is a greater nanny state that interferes in the court, policing and welfare systems and requires constant governmental remedial action at a late stage, which is very expensive. It is less of a nanny state that enables youngsters—whether up to the age of three or 18—to make the best of their lives and to become freestanding, self-starting, emotionally and socially rounded individuals who can take control of their own lives. Oddly enough, that will require less governmental interference and nanny state-ism and, therefore, save the Government and taxpayers a lot of money.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): For the sake of this debate, I shall refer to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) as my hon. Friend, because we worked hard on this report and agree on the subject. I also apologise to him, because with interventions at this rate he will never get through his speech. However, does he agree that during the baby P and Karen Matthews affairs—I have written about this—the media wrote from the standpoint of perhaps the majority in society, and that, especially during the Karen Matthews affair, there was a major shock that a group in society was living in such a state. The key is to ensure that that shock makes people say, “Something has to be done!”, so that the nanny state becomes completely absent and there is no nanny at all, whether family or state, in many of these lives.

Mr. Allen: I agree with my right hon. Friend—I am pleased to call him that in the context of this debate—about the media. Hopefully, the media will one day see that it is possible for colleagues throughout the House—whether in Government or aspiring to it—to work together, while of course continuing to have differences, and provide leadership in producing a serious early intervention package and understanding how we can finance it. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) for her pioneering work, not only as a member of the Cabinet but subsequently as a humble Back-Bencher who still, not so humbly, continues to push this agenda.

Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham) (Lab): rose—

Mr. Allen: Before I give way, let me say that this debate has come as a bit of a surprise to us, because the original debate was withdrawn. I intend, therefore, to make my remarks at leisure, in order to keep up this conversation, which is far more valuable than the usual artillery exchange.

Hilary Armstrong: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. As he knows, I have been lobbing things in the air and at the Treasury about this for some time. The evidence produced by him and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) is similar to work that I did in the Cabinet Office. We now understand more about the development of the brain and how it works. We did not have that information in the past; now that we do, however, we
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would be derelict in our duty if we did not intervene. I am talking not about late intervention but about the right support and intervention at the time when it will give the child a chance of surviving and prospering in this world. If we do not do that, we will not have rejected the nanny state, but will have failed in our duty. We must be prepared to intervene much earlier than has often been spoken about thus far. For example, this morning I was reading a Government publication on families in Britain that came out in December. It mentions early intervention programmes for eight to 13-year-olds. They are important, but at that stage sometimes we will be too late. We must intervene at the right time and support the parents. All the evidence suggests that, if we do that, the life chances of the parents and children concerned will be incredibly enhanced.

Mr. Allen: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention and you, Mr. Martlew, for the judgment that you are exercising to provide for a genuine debate. You need to be credited for that, Mr. Martlew, because we need this sort of exchange if this House is to be taken seriously. My right hon. Friend the Minister has been involved in enough Adjournment debates to know that they can be a lonely experience, with only a Minister and one Back Bencher present. Today, the record should say that heavyweight and intelligent people from all parties are participating in this debate, and I welcome that.

Mr. Frank Field: May I bring my hon. Friend back to his point about the nanny state? As I see the way in which his ideas are developing, they may include an element of the nanny state, but the aim is to do away with it. In the extraordinary world that we have experienced, we were the product of a wonderful wave of working class respectability that transformed the nation. That respectability was also about how we raised children. For reasons that we do not have time to go into today, the nation is increasingly falling out of love with the way in which it raises its children—the next generation. The proposals in the joint publication, and others that the two authors have spoken about, aim to get us back to the self-governing society that we once had. We developed this extraordinary way of successfully raising children. Families cohered in a way that allowed them successfully to negotiate the outside world.

Mr. Allen: I say to my right hon. Friend that we must be careful that we do not talk ourselves into a debate about the nanny state because it does not get raised that often. I have read the works of Thomas Paine and they say that Governments, even in their best form, are a necessary evil. The idea that state-ism should control people’s lives—as some people on the left, the right and the centre believe—is anathema to my political tradition. We want to liberate people and give them the equipment to make their own way. That is the basis of many, if not all, of the mainstream political philosophies in the UK.

I will come on to the subject of parenting later. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham knows, the famous child psychologist Bruce Perry was the first to pick out those shocking pictures of the brain size of a three-year-old who had been loved and nurtured and that of a three-year-old who had been seriously
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neglected. The contrast was between an ordinary three-year-old and a three-year-old in a Romanian orphanage. Physically as well, there was a difference in size. That stunning image was used by my right hon. Friend when she was running the Cabinet Office, and I have used it over and over again. Bruce Perry’s thesis is that there has been a breakdown in the intergenerational transmission of parenting skills. That is a sociological way of saying what I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said in our modest publication “Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens”. If we continue that transmission of good parenting skills in a virtuous circle, we will be half way to setting up effective early intervention and creating self-starting, rounded and emotionally capable people. I will give way to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), but then, if I may, I should like to make a little progress because everyone is making my points.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): May I move the hon. Gentleman from the philosophical and more general point to a very practical point? Regardless of what we do and spend, we will fail young children unless we get housing right. As Members of Parliament, we have all heard cases of single mums and families living together in very poor housing, being bumped from pillar to post, with children who are disabled, ill and sometimes emotionally challenged. Unless we make it easier for those people to get decent housing in which they can keep warm and dry and feel safe, we will not get anywhere. We have an economic crisis at the moment that could challenge financial support and early intervention. Those things would be a very soft target for ministerial cuts. We must not take our eye off the ball, and we could kill two birds with one stone by tackling the provision of housing for such children.

Mr. Allen: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As chair of a local strategic partnership, One Nottingham, I have learned that this matter is everyone’s business. The traditional idea that this issue is a matter for children’s services or health services is nonsense. Partnership—that overused word—is essential. We need people, from our employment partners, our housing partnerships and communities and development areas to help us on this. We must bring everyone to the party. This is not a problem that someone else will solve if we throw a bit of money at it and we appoint an early intervention project co-ordinator. It will be solved by everyone coming to the party and making their contribution. We are dealing with a circle. If we can intervene and break the intergenerational circle, then we are out into the open field in this policy area. To do that, everyone must play their part.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work. I hope to bring a bit of relief to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and the Minister by saying that we are not necessarily talking about huge amounts of public money. We all know that public money is very tight at the moment. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the political will that is necessary for local authorities to work with organisations in the voluntary sector? In my constituency, the South Bedfordshire community family trust—known locally as Two in Tune—is having
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good discussions with our local authority. If there was real political will for local authorities to work with organisations in the voluntary sector to give families the skills and the support to be good couples and then good parents, we would go a long way to solving the problems. Often, people are more comfortable working with organisations in the voluntary and community sector than they are with an organ of the state. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the political will that is necessary in local authorities?

Mr. Allen: The most valuable commodity in this debate is political will and commitment, and our greatest enemy is administration. We need to consider such things in a more radical and political light—I do not mean a partisan party political light. For example, I may say a little later—if I get there—that we need to free up local government. Brilliant creativity, which is currently inhibited in local government, is a tremendous waste of a national asset. The creativity in the House is wasted as well because we are not able to make an effective contribution or hold Government to account. The idea is that there is stasis—that we administer, manage and maintain the problems, rather than tackling the causes. That issue was one of the most exciting things about the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham. She laid out a pathway for getting to the causes and not just treating the symptoms. If we can do that politically, and set it out—it has to be a social and political consensus—we will go a long way towards tackling such issues. The voluntary sector needs to find its place. However, it cannot find a place as effectively in the locality unless we free the locality to find space for it. The sector would choose to do that, but it is often constrained by its targets and by being told that it has to do something by next year. Short-termism, which is a characteristic of late intervention, hamstrings the efforts that we could put in locally with the voluntary sector.

Another thing to mention is the possible publication of a White Paper on social mobility. I welcome the Government’s efforts, but policies will be built on sand unless we get every child in the United Kingdom up to a basic level of social and emotional capability. It is virtually impossible to stop a child with a rounded, general social and emotional capability becoming literate and numerate being excited by learning and wanting to achieve and aspire and to get a decent a job. Above all, it is virtually impossible to stop them wanting to be a good parent when they in turn have children.

In Nottingham, in our own small way, we have attempted to introduce an early intervention package of measures that allows children, from their very first breath, and even before that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham said, to develop social and emotional capability. If such measures succeed, policies for social mobility and educational attainment would flourish, and policies regarding apprenticeships and getting back to work would have a solid foundation on which to work. In Nottingham, I want to get the 31,000 people who are on incapacity and related benefits back into some form of work, as long as it is work that suits them and in which they can be confident of achieving. They would be better placed if we had those foundations in place. I would welcome a social mobility White Paper, but we need the firm basis on which such policies can move forward.

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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Allen: I have now reached the end of the first paragraph of my speech, so I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Kidney: I shall address funding later, but to get the foundation right, every child should learn about half what they will ever learn in their first three years. Too often, there is no appreciation of the importance of that: a lot of people wait for their child to start nursery or school to start their learning, but it should actually have started before that. We need a transformation of support during those first three years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said that we had that in the past, but that we have lost it. We certainly need it now.

To build on what the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said on not worrying about the cost, does my hon. Friend agree that all the services are there, but that they are in different silos, so getting them to focus on the kind of transformation that I mentioned would not necessarily be costly? I am thinking of children’s social workers and health visitors, who are important, but the range of local government and national health services should also be involved. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the voluntary sector, which is important, and at national level, we have the Family and Parenting Institute, Parentline Plus, the Children’s Commissioner and Ofsted. With political will, we need to knit those services together—that is the transformation that we want.

Mr. Allen: My hon. Friend makes a number of intelligent points, as I always expect from him. George Hosking of the Wave Trust has greatly influenced me. Rather comically, he has explained via a dance that a woman would have to have hips about 5 ft wide to give birth to a baby whose brain is fully formed—I could not possibly do the dance that he does to illustrate this, and I would not attempt to do so. To put it succinctly—I find this preposition memorable—every child is born three years premature. Parents—we might be talking about a single parent living in one room—look after babies who, in other circumstances, could be in an incubator in intensive care. We ask poor, lonely, young people, often women who are on their own, who are not educated in parenting, to look after what is in effect a premature baby and to take that baby through those vital first three years, when the brain explodes with neuron growth.

Age nought to three is a vital period. Perhaps because I come from Nottingham, I have an image of an archery target with that age group in the bullseye. The next ring is the age three-to-18 group. They will be the carers in future, so if they properly develop, they will make the valuable nought-to-three period of the next generation as prolific as possible, through empathetic behaviour, nurture, love, warmth and the family values that are traditionally part of raising a child. My hon. Friend is right that that period is important.

I shall address costs later, but in a nutshell, it costs £250,000 if a child goes wrong and is banged up in a secure unit for a year at the age of 16, and £230,000 if a child ends up on an intensive drug rehabilitation programme for a year. Let us imagine what would happen if that
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money was put into nurse-family partnerships, in which nurses have a relationship with every young teenage mother. It would pay for 50 youngsters—I have done a quick calculation—to get the most fantastic help with nurturing and loving their child, which every parent wants to do. That would save us so much money down the road.

In Nottingham, for example, we could give warmth, comfort, security and expertise to the parents and children to whom I referred for £2.8 million—we are already doing so for a quarter of the children of teenage parents for £700,000. That is the same cost incurred by five or 10 people who have gone wrong, not including court, prison and welfare costs. The problem cries out for that kind of sensible investment. I shall deal with this matter later, but if we can figure out how to make that saving, we could also provide a tremendous income stream for the Government for 20 or more years as this generation grows up.

Mr. Duncan Smith: My hon. Friend has moved on from this issue, but I have found, through my dealings in the media—the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) mentioned this—that when we talk about children failing generally, the questions are always about schooling. The media are absolutely obsessed with bad or failing schools, but they fail to recognise—it is difficult to get this across—that a huge chunk of a child’s education, even after the age of three, takes place at home and that, before the age of three, it takes place exclusively at home.

People need to understand that, if they want children to excel at school, they cannot simply say, “Everything is down to the school.” They must understand the huge significance of family involvement. The family must take the child to school or nursery education ready, as my hon. Friend has said on many occasions. This is the most difficult thing to get across to people, because they keep coming back to the fact that it is the school’s or the teachers’ fault. In fact, schools and teachers pick up the pieces of a failure that we should have dealt with right at the beginning.

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