Oona King

Thursday, 17 March 2011 11:18

Children: Early Intervention

Written by  Oona King

17 March 2011

Baroness King of Bow: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, for securing this debate and especially for her excellent speech, which summarised the benefits of early intervention. I do not believe that it is hyperbole to say that the future of this country rests on whether we implement successful early intervention strategies-certainly, the future of our children rests on it.

That is why politicians need to become experts on very young children and how their brains develop; it is not enough for us just to kiss them at elections. It is also why we desperately need to exempt this subject from party-political point-scoring. I commend Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith on their excellent report and the example they provided. I congratulate also the two noble Lords who made their maiden speeches in this debate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for his non-party-political praise of Sure Start programmes.

Many good speeches have been made, but I draw attention particularly to that of my noble friend Lady Morris, who outlined the perils of moving Sure Start from universal to targeted provision. What assurances can the Minister give on that point and on funding for Sure Start centres?

As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, pointed out, we must respond to the evidence that is stacked a mile high here. As she said, we need to move spending to the developmental stage rather than it being remedial. Just how cost-effective is early intervention? Westminster Council calculates that damage caused by an unruly family costs it £273,000 every year, a figure that includes the costs of foster care, domestic violence and ASBOs. Action for Children has estimated that for every £1 spent on Sure Start children's centres, society benefits by between £4 and £9 in the long term and that early investment can save the economy £486 billion over 20 years. I know that we are not great at thinking long term, but surely we cannot afford not to. If anyone remains unpersuaded, I ask them to read Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt; in fact, every politician should read this book. I realise that, at my citing a title such as this, noble Lords could be forgiven for thinking that I want to see a communal outbreak of "Kumbaya" in the Chamber. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although it might sound quite touchy-feely, that book explains precisely how we cannot afford to wait until later in a child's development if we want that child to flourish.

Likes others, I shall not attempt to précis the excellent Graham Allen review, but I want to say something to those who say that early intervention smacks of the nanny state. It is quite ironic that those who seem to rail most against the nanny state are usually those who enjoyed the benefits of a nanny. A nanny helps children whose parents are not available to help them. I do not see why it should be only well-off children who receive that resource or, at the very least, I cannot understand why people should recoil from extending that help to the children who need it most. It is not just about those in greatest need; it is an issue that affects us all. If people talk about broken Britain, they should realise that they are more accurately talking about anti-social behaviour perpetrated by those who most often have had broken childhoods, whether in a one-parent family, a two-parent family or any other shape of family.

In seeking solutions, I mention the work of the charity 4Children. It is a national charity that provides services within Sure Start children's centres, nurseries, youth programmes and other family services. In its submission to the Graham Allen review, it stated that,

    "early intervention is not a programme, a scheme or a project. It is an approach which should run through all work with children and families ... whilst there are excellent examples of early intervention projects and programmes around the country, we have not yet changed the fundamental mindset or approach-to one based on early intervention".

Much of the work the state does with families does not take that approach. Its proposals include putting universal services at the heart of any early intervention strategy, ensuring families and communities play an important role, recognising and building on the success of children's centres and the critical need for a whole-family approach, as that is what makes the difference.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, reminded us that by the time a child reaches the age of three 85 per cent of their brains have developed. Let us just hope that our own minds are not too inflexible to deliver the resources that early intervention desperately needs.

Hansard link: Children: Early Intervention

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