Asking questions of government on early years support

Our Development Director recently attended the Joint APPG for Conception to Age 2 and Children’s APPGs on Emotional Well-being in the Early Years.

As part of our ongoing drive for policy change, on 29 April 2019, I was delighted to join the debate on this topic, and hear from the impressive panel which included:

  • Donna Molloy, Director of Policy & Practice, Early Intervention Foundation;
  • Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, Chief Midwife, NHS England;
  • Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP;
  • Dr Paul Williams MP; and
  • Tim Loughton MP (APPG Chair).

The meeting opened with each of the panellists sharing their progress and priorities in supporting children’s mental health in the early years of life:

Donna Molloy highlighted the link between the ‘toxic-trio’ (domestic violence, substance misuse and parental mental illness) and adverse birth outcomes. She said that daily interactions between children and their parents were crucial in the early years, and that government should be providing more intensive support for families under stress, with a stronger focus on child outcomes.

Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent spoke about new developments for maternity services in the NHS Long Term Plan. This includes a commitment to continuity of care for women throughout their antenatal care, birth and postnatal care. Jacqueline said this would support timely identification and referral of women with other issues, including mental health problems. Other encouraging developments include maternity outreach clinics for mothers with mental health problems relating to their pregnancy and birth, and for their partners, to address early signs of mental health issues, before these escalate.

Andrea Leadsom MP gave an update on the activities of the inter-ministerial group looking at what could be done to improve support for families in the first 1001 days. The group has consulted academics, practitioners and parents to understand best practice and what’s missing. Andrea said the ambition was to consider the system from the families’ point of view, to understand the services they need. She said she hoped the proposals could be shared before the summer and committed to coming back to discuss them with the APPG.

Dr Paul Williams MP said that getting the first 1001 days right can make a huge difference in a child’s life, and highlighted that 8,000 children under age one are currently living with the ‘toxic trio’. He said that there had been dis-investment in early intervention due to austerity, which needed to be corrected, and summarised the 10 recommendations of his enquiry, which included:

  • a call for a national strategy and ministerial responsibility for the first 1001 days;
  • a requirement for every local authority to have a local plan developed jointly with health and voluntary, community and faith sector partners, supported by pooled budgets and top-up funding from central government;
  • better accountability in local authorities to ensure they are providing adequate early years provision, with dedicated support and expertise from central government; and
  • more work to develop targeted offers to meet specific and complex needs.

Our Time had the opportunity to address the following two questions to the panel:

1. The Children’s Commissioner says there are 3.7 million children living with a parent who has a mental illness. What steps are being taken to address parental mental illness and its impact on children, to support child development and family resilience in the early years?

2. Where does parental mental illness feature in the children’s mental health policies and plans? Our Time believes this issue must be recognised if we want to break the inter-generational cycle of mental illness.

These questions were answered by Dr Paul Williams MP and Sally Hogg from the Parent Infant Partnership, who said:

  • Identification and provision for parental mental illness are equally important, and many people are not asked about their mental well-being;
  • To support identification, there is a need to make every potential contact with a family count;
  • Whilst the government has invested in more severe perinatal mental illness, there is a need for supporting parents with lower level mental health problems;
  • Huge health inequality still exists, and we don’t have a whole family approach to this yet; and
  • Government need to set guidelines and shared outcomes for early years, to be implemented at local authority level, supported by pooled budgets and top-up funding from central government.

This was an encouraging response from the panel and a fantastic opportunity to have Our Time’s questions and challenge to government heard in a public forum. However, more needs to be done to raise the profile of children affected by parental mental illness, which is why Our Time is developing a Manifesto for Change, which will set out its recommendations for this group.

Parental mental illness featured noticeably among the discussions around Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), in that it was acknowledged as one of the ACEs. This was encouraging, and my feedback to the panel was that whilst identification of parental mental illness was a crucial first step, national and local investment in prevention is urgently required in order to meet the scale of need, and to support charities such as Our Time to reach more children and young people.

APPG for Children – 1st May 2019

Later that same week, I had the opportunity to attend the APPG for Children for a special presentation by Ben Matthews, an Australian academic and worldwide authority on mandatory reporting laws for child sexual abuse.  

Ben gave an overview of his studies and findings in this area, which showed a significant increase in reporting of child sexual abuse in countries and states that had introduced mandatory reporting laws (currently, this excludes the UK). These findings highlight the impact of mandatory reporting laws on identifying children who are either victims or at risk of sexual abuse, which then necessitates appropriate action to be taken by agencies responsible for children and young people.

Whilst a very different issue to parental mental illness, this presentation offered helpful insight into the impact of reporting risk factors for children. It is one of Our Time’s campaign aims to make it mandatory for professionals working with children and families to report parental mental illness where they encounter it, to ensure appropriate support can be put in place early for the family, to prevent issues from escalating, and to protect children and young people’s mental health.