Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

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Family Policy Westminster Hall debate 04.05.11

Sharon was responding as Shadow Minister for Children and Families to a debate on Family Policy called by Conservative MP Jessica Lee.


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Meale, after just about five hours' sleep.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee) on stepping in to lead this debate, which I understand was secured by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan). I also thank her for providing me with notice of the particular aspects of family policy that she addressed. Yesterday, I learned that in a former life she was a lawyer specialising in family law, and that background certainly came to the fore today in her very well-informed speech. She praised Sure Start centres in her constituency and made the suggestion, which has a lot of merit, that parenting classes should become the norm. She also said that early intervention is not only about the money but about how it is used. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) highlighted evidence on specific early interventions that work in his excellent report-I am sure that the Government are paying particular heed to that report. The hon. Lady also spoke about the speed of the safeguarding process, which we all agree takes far too long, especially for babies and toddlers.

I pay tribute to all the other hon. Members who have spoken this morning. There have been many excellent contributions, covering the whole gamut of family policy issues. We have heard some harrowing cases that have been used not to sensationalise but to highlight the worst that can happen when families break down, or when they were never whole or healthy in the first place. There is a cycle of damaged people having children, who are then in the system in one way or another, throughout their lives, from day one. I think that we are all united in an ambition to end the cycles of deprivation that we know exist right across the country, despite decades of initiatives and interventions.

Although the debate has been very well-attended, there are other hon. Members who would have wanted to be here but are no doubt tied up with campaigning around the country. Many of them will be speaking to families at this very moment, about the issues we are discussing here.

It goes without saying that families are the bedrock of our society, and one of the most important duties of Government is to support the parents of today in providing a stable and loving environment in which the parents of tomorrow can flourish. No two families are the same, however, and the needs of parents and children vary widely, making developing policy in this area as difficult as it is important.

On safeguarding, we are clearly waiting for the outcome of the Munro review, which was commissioned following the tragic case of Peter Connelly, and I would not want to presuppose what any of its final recommendations might be. Needless to say, I welcome Professor Munro's initial findings, and I look forward to the final recommendations and to the Government response. It is welcome that the Government are seeking the advice of the professionals who deal with at-risk children and families every day to find out how we can improve the systems to help those children.

I have not been working on this particular area, but I think that I am safe in saying that we accept the need for a balance between the guidance and processes that adults and professionals working with children are given, and their ability to act on the basis of their judgment and to respond swiftly in co-operation with other agencies when a risk to a child's safety or well-being is identified. There are concerns about whether the cuts to local authority budgets will mean a reduced social worker work force in some areas; many local authorities certainly expect an increased case load, and foresee problems due to cuts to police, mental health and primary care trust budgets. I hope, therefore, that we can implement any sensible changes quickly and seamlessly, to ensure that no children slip through the gaps in the meantime. As the hon. Member for Erewash described in highlighting a particularly concerning case, the unintended consequences of our care system often do not help or improve the life or outcomes of an already damaged child, and we must do all that we can to ensure that the system does not cause harm.

An area in which I have done a lot of work is that of early years and early intervention. This is another very important topic, and although the Government have been making some positive noises, it is actions that count, and their actions, so far, have left a lot to be desired. Again, they have sought wise counsel, and we have seen some very thoughtful, and at times convergent, reports from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North and Dame Clare Tickell.

One of the programmes that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North praises in his report is that of family nurse partnerships, in which young, first-time parents, possibly from families with multiple problems, are given help and support from the point of identification, past birth and into the early years of their child's life. The intervention does not focus on just the health of the mother and the child-important though that is-but crucially on the aspirations that parents have both for their child and for themselves, and on how to achieve those aspirations. I have heard great things about the results, and look forward to shadowing a family nurse in my constituency later this month to see the work for myself as part of the Royal College of Nursing's campaign for everyone to shadow a nurse. The Government have made a commitment to reach 12,000 families in that way by the end of this Parliament, but I hope that, given the strong recommendation in the Allen review, the Minister and her colleagues will look at rolling that kind of intervention out more widely, particularly as it focuses wholly on families who might not actively engage with other services, such as Sure Start children's centres.

I also welcome the fact that the Minister has assembled an early years working group to advise on further policy development in this area, but I hope that she will listen to the group if it turns around and says that what she and her colleagues have done to early intervention funding-cutting the budget by some 22% this year and removing the ring fence-negates what we ought to be trying to achieve, which we all agree is to improve outcomes for all children. I have been trying to get that message across for a while now, but do not seem to have had much success, with the Opposition day debate on children's centres last Wednesday a case in point. I have to place on record the fact that the Minister was very much missed from that debate, and I sincerely hope it was not through illness. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), might have his eye on her job. He is a very charming man, but I have to admit that I have grown to enjoy my little jousts with the Minister, so I am very pleased to see her in her place today.

On the afternoon of last Wednesday's debate on children's centres, the OECD published a report, "Doing Better for Families", that called on Ministers to rethink their decisions to cut support for families, particularly support for early years services. The Government enjoy quoting OECD reports, so I hope that they will listen to this one. Perhaps the Minister will give us a few comments in a moment.

On wider policies affecting families, one key element that a family needs to thrive is the parents' ability to earn a decent income with which to bring up their children. In the vast majority of cases, that means that they must be able to organise child care in order to go out to work. I do not want to take this collegial and serious debate down too political a route, but it is clear to most people that many of the choices made by the Minister's colleagues over the past year have not been a great help to ordinary working families in that respect.

One decision that keeps coming up relates to working parents' ability to pay for early education and child care. Hon. Members will be aware that Save the Children's report on child well-being, published yesterday, places the UK 23rd out of 43 developed countries on that measure. That might be the subject for a later debate, but Save the Children's chief executive, Justin Forsyth, said that the Government should reverse their cut to support for child care in tax credits, which reinforces what I have heard time and again from the sector.

I wanted to say a few more things, but I will conclude, as I think that everybody here wants to hear the Minister's response to the debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Erewash for leading this debate. Given the day and many Members' commitments to the campaign trail-and to catching up on sleep-it has proved to be a useful discussion. I hope that we will have many more opportunities to continue this vital discourse.

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