On 27th November, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Conception to Age 2 – both chaired by Tim Loughton MP - held a joint meeting about infant mental health. This was a fantastic opportunity to hear from parliamentarians and civil servants about the important work that is underway in Westminster and Whitehall to promote the emotional wellbeing and development of babies and young children. Attendance at the meeting was fantastic, with people sitting on the floor and spilling out into the corridor!
Dr Paul Williams MP spoke first about the Health and Social Care Select Committee’s Inquiry into the First 1000 Days, which he is chairing. Paul described the compelling evidence about the importance of the first 1000 days, and his frustration about disinvestment in this area: “resources go to the urgent issues, not the important ones.” The Select Committee’s Inquiry is looking at what a national strategy for the first 1000 days should contain, and will be making recommendations about how to protect spending and incentivise investment in this life stage. Paul expressed his pleasure at the new cross-government ministerial group, and explained how committee will be hearing from, and trying to influence this group.
Mark Davies and Fran Oram, both Directors from the Department of Health and Social Care attended the meeting in place of the Minister Jackie Doyle Price. Mark admitted that there is no coherent strategy on the early years across government, and that there was a concern about local authority funded health services, including Health Visiting. However he described a “growing acknowledgement of the evidence base” and a range of useful pieces of work in this space, including the maternity transformation programme, the focus on school readiness in the public health outcomes framework and new work for alcohol dependent parents. Mark shared that, following the Prevention is Better than Cure Policy Paper, the Department would be producing a prevention green paper in the new year. Fran also described how the NHS Long Term would ‘cement’ and expand current work around perinatal mental health and contain more on the early years. Both expressed the opportunity provided by the cross-government ministerial group.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England opened her talk by saying that “there has never been a more important time to be bold and push forward on this issue”. Anne described how many of the current challenges facing children and young people, including gun crime, serious violence, school exclusion and poor mental health, could all be helped through earlier intervention. Anne also described her Office’s recent research showing that 16,000 babies are living in families experiencing severe mental health problems, substance misuse or domestic violence – many of whom will not be getting the help they need. Anne argued that policy, services and professionals are fragmented, and ‘the machinery of government doesn’t work well for children at this age’; We need an overarching strategy for vulnerable children and families from across Whitehall, that looks across the life course, and brings agencies together with a common purpose.
Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP, Leader of the House, came to tell the group about Cross-Government Ministerial Group on Family Support in the First 1001 Critical Days. Andrea shared her passion for giving babies the best start in life, and outlined the science of early brain development and the financial, emotional and social cost of not getting things right in the early years. Andrea described how her group was bringing Ministers together at three meetings, and was drawing on expertise from professionals, academics and parents themselves. The group hope to make recommendations to Secretaries of State by March about how to improve coordination and cost effectiveness of support for families, and fill gaps in provision ‘the whole family perspective cannot be lost – in all their different shapes and sizes. Family must be at the heart of service delivery’. Andrea is hoping that the group’s work will lead to a cross Whitehall submission to Comprehensive Spending review.
Finally, Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP talked to the group about the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into evidence-based early intervention. Norman described the need for better data on what funding is spent on early intervention and its impact. His committee concluded that there needs to be a greater focus on implementation science, including the training and supervision of front line staff and the need to ensure evidence based programmes are applied effectively. Norman lent his voice to calls for a national strategy for early intervention, and also agreed that there needed to be both additional investment in this area, and better use of existing funding.
During the session we also heard from Anna Feuchtwang, CEO of NCB about a parliamentary roundtable on children’s mental health that made calls around the importance of working with parents, the need for professional support (particularly health visiting), and the need for joined- up national leadership. There were also a huge range of questions to the speakers covering topics including postnatal care, public health cuts, the role of employers, the value of digital interventions and the need to improve data sharing.
At the end of the meeting Tim Loughton thanked speakers and asked them to come back to another meeting in the Spring to update us on their work.
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