Cristina Odone: The government engaging with parents is crucial in improving early years education

16 Mar

Cristina Odone heads the Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

Children arriving to school in nappies, unable to eat with a spoon, properly articulate simple words, or even play. Even before the pandemic struck, schools were struggling with children lacking basic skills.

Covid-19 accelerated this. On average, 50 percent of children were not ready to start school in 2021 – as opposed to 1 in 3 pre-pandemic. The new YouGov survey of almost a thousand primary school staff, carried out for the Kindred2 foundation, exposes a terrible truth: a government unwilling to help our youngest.

The Government cannot fail to have learned that the first 1001 days shape a child’s brain. Andrea Leadsom consulted experts throughout 2021 to produce her Early Years Healthy Development Review report, highlighting the need to invest in early years. Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, is calling for the same. The Royal Foundation, with the Duchess of Cambridge, travelled to Denmark to report on their critical early years education programme. The Education Endowment Foundation has been preaching since 2011 that what happens at home at this time promotes children’s cognitive development. 

These efforts focus not on pastel-coloured nurseries and cuddly toys, but neuroscience: a child’s brain is formed during their first two years, particularly through communication with their primary carer. Developmental progress at 22 months serves as an accurate predictor of educational attainment at 26. Consequently, messing up then impacts a child’s life: 40% of the attainment gap evident in GCSE outcomes at 16 are established before children starting school.

Preventing this disaster doesn’t need the Government to establish kibbutz-style nurseries or Stalinist creches. It does not need to step into the family home, but should focus on parents. What happens at home counts four times as much as a formal setting in affecting a child’s cognitive development. A Government wanting to promote toddlers’ progress needs to engage with their parents, prioritising equipping them with the know-how to care for their children. Yet ministers remain reluctant about intervening.

Parents of toddlers feel short-changed. Those working to pay the bills sense that they should not leave their child with a babysitter slumped in front of her Ipad; and that nurseries, over-subscribed and over-priced (UK childcare is the third most expensive in the world) should offer more than finger painting and mud fights. They suspect their children should be encouraged to speak better, listen more, and exercise self-control. But they are unsure how to achieve this, and would welcome guidance.

We need policies to supply it.  Many schools already have family liaison officers, who prove indispensable in linking hard-to-reach families to their child’s school. Crucially, they can deliver parenting classes. Parents can learn how to stimulate their child’s development and regulate their behaviour. They can appreciate the need for give-and-take and understand the brain’s basics. Feeling better-equipped, they become confident. This lubricates their relationships with their children but also with their spouses, parents, and others.

These programmes are popular, as Matt Buttery, CEO of the Triple P programme has highlighted “It would be a mistake for the Government to assume parents (and voters) want to be left to raise their children. Our online offering, Triple P Online, received a three-fold increase in enrolments during the pandemic…parents are eager to learn strategies and skills.”

Training family liaison officers is a few hundred pounds: a daunting sum for primary schools already feeling financially squeezed. The government would not have to pay, but they could nudge schools into allocating their budget to cover this investment. The Pupil Premium, received by schools with very vulnerable children, would be one source.

Family hubs, a concept the CSJ introduced in 2007, are already integral to the Government’s vision for supporting parents, and the Chancellor has pledged £500 million to promote them. They provide accessible settings for classes and – as Robert Halfon MP has called for – support for local parents struggling with bringing up Baby. But roll out should be accelerated and budget-holders steered towards investing in the early years. 

Childcare must also shift focus. The present system fails to support the most needy. It should deliver free early education for the under-twos in low income households, and not worry about subsidising a few hours (15 per week) of babysitting for well-off 3-4 year olds. Presently, take-up of free childcare is higher among higher income families; only 67% of low income parents are aware of their entitlements. After streamlining this system, the Government should spend more communicating its offer.

Spending on early years is an investment. Failure to do so affects us all. When half the children in a classroom do not have basic skills, they compromise everyone’s learning. As one teacher surveyed by Kindred2 reported, if she is constantly leaving the classroom accompanying a six year old in nappies to the lavatory, how does that affect their classmates’ learning? Every extra hour of instruction accounts for significant improvement in academic performance.

But the impact is long-term, too. It is scary that half of our Reception-age children are ill-prepared to learn, and continue to be so for GCSE and A Levels. Poor educational outcomes are associated with everything from permanent absences (as the CSJ’s Lost but not Forgotten report showed last month), through mental health issues to homelessness and gang membership. The government must learn about the way the brain works – parents’, as well as children’s. 

Why some Tory MPs remain determined to overhaul Parliament’s disciplinary process

13 Mar

It is, shall we say, difficult to credit John Bercow’s claim that he has been somehow stitched up by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. The full report, which can be read online here, is damning.

Yet as we noted earlier this week, his claim that the disciplinary procedure is a ‘kangaroo court’ does echo the arguments put forward by Owen Paterson’s supporters back in November, when they decided to rig some explosives to the Government’s public standing with a fantastically ill-timed bid to change the rules on how MPs are investigated.

And whilst most involved will probably concede that the timing was abysmal – and may well have poisoned the well for any future reform effort – there are still MPs prepared (behind the scenes) to defend Andrea Leadsom’s amendment and what it was trying to do, and trying to find a way to bring forward reforms. Why?

Even her own attempt to justify the original move back in November (here is the video, here the Hansard) is dominated by other MPs asking variations on the theme of “why are you doing this now?”. But wade through that, and we get the following argument:

“…the question of whether our investigatory process should more closely reflect the laws of natural justice, where an accused Member can expect to have their own evidence taken into account, to put forward witnesses in their defence, to be interviewed early in the process and provide their own explanation and, vitally, to access an independent appeal process.”

According to those MPs still minded to support what Leadsom was trying to do, the root of the problem is that the way the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (as an institution, rather than Kathryn Stone as an individual) currently operates undermines the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (ICGS), which Leadsom set up whilst Leader of the House and is meant to provide something like a proper HR complaints procedure.

Those advocating for the ICGS point out that, because it applies to everybody working on, or visiting, the parliamentary estate, it has the potential to create a uniform standard of accountability. The PCS, by contrast, applies only to MPs. Moreover, the ICGS employs specialist staff and logs more data about complaints, meaning it is better able to identify patterns of poor behaviour (or potentially malicious complaints), whereas the PCS is a lay individual with no legal background.

Some of the complaints raised by these MPs do seem legitimate. It seems strange, for example, that an MP wishing to appeal a PCS decision does so to the Committee on Standards, which as a select committee does not have compulsory attendance. This means that committee members could simply miss the evidence on which they’re supposed to judge an appeal. They also can’t have legal support.

Even stranger is the fact that once an appeal has been made, it falls to the PCS to advise the committee on how to assess the defence. From the outside, this looks a bit like having a prosecutor advise a jury (who may or may not have been actually present for important bits of the trial) on how to find the defendant.

However, MPs should be careful about pleading the case for reform on the grounds that the existing arrangements don’t mirror normal workplace procedures.

Yes, being forced to apologise to the House of Commons is not analogous to any corporate disciplinary procedure. But any system will have to reflect the unique role of MPs as elected representatives. They are not mere employees of the House, and their status necessarily means that they must have more leeway in certain areas than a normal employee might expect.

Such lassitude obviously doesn’t extend to bullying their staff. But any MP who refused unconscious bias training, or oppose the idea of having to sign up to a statement of principles, should be very careful about sabotaging their own claim to special status.

Nonetheless, one can at least see the case for a simultaneous review of the PCS and ICGS, not least to address concerns that they’re currently treading on each others’ toes. One MP put it that the former has started picking up the latter’s cases, serving to ‘gold-plate’ its punishments rather than policing a different class of behaviour. In theory, as originally envisioned the ICGS would have grown to cover normal HR matters – including sexual harassment and bullying – whilst the PCS covered behaviour specific to the role of MPs, such as lobbying and bringing Parliament into disrepute – although they concede that the ICGS has not grown into that role yet.

But given the abysmal handling of the issue last year, and the risk that any move now will just end up looking like a bid for vengeance, any such move will probably have to wait until at least the next Parliament. When you shoot yourself in the foot, proceeding at a crawl is sometimes the only option.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: “Sometimes to do the right thing one has to accept a degree of opprobrium”

3 Nov

“Let justice be done though the heavens fall,” Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House, said at the start of his speech.

He proceeded to contend that “the basic principles of natural justice” were broken when a defendant was given no proper right of appeal.

He was not there to defend Owen Paterson, who sat stony-faced on the Conservative benches, but to uphold the proposal in Andrea Leadsom’s amendment for a new committee which would look into how, in cases such as Paterson’s where an MP has been censured, the right of appeal can be upheld.

Rees-Mogg ended by saying that “the system must provide justice tempered by mercy”, and pointed out that Paterson has already suffered terribly: “the suicide of his wife is a greater punishment than any House of Commons committee could inflict”.

In the course of his speech, Rees-Mogg took numerous interventions, including many from Opposition members who accused the Conservatives of rallying round to defend one of their mates.

Caroline Lucas, for the Greens, was one who of those who said that was how the whole thing would look to members of the public. Rees-Mogg replied that “sometimes to do the right thing one has to accept a degree of opprobrium”.

Thangam Debbonaire, the Shadow Leader of the House, accused the supporters of the amendment of seeking to “turn the clock back before 1695”, when rules forbidding paid advocacy – the offence of which Paterson is accused – were first introduced.

She argued that “just changing the system when someone doesn’t like a result is not acceptable”.

Pete Wishart, for the SNP, said the supporters of the amendment were just trying to “turn back the clock to the worst excesses of 1990s Tory sleaze”.

He admitted this would suit the SNP. One could see that Wishart himself, along with many others who condemned the amendment, was longing for the Tories to live down to the low opinion which so many on the Left have of them.

Leadsom insisted her amendment was “not about letting anyone off”, but  Aaron Bell (Con, Newcastle-under-Lyme) said it “looks like we’re moving the goalposts”, so he could not vote for it.

Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda), who chairs the Committee on Standards, expressed sympathy with Paterson but strongly defended the sentence of 30 days’ suspension passed on him, and said “retrospective legislation to favour or damage an individual is immoral”.

The Leadsom amendment was passed by 250 votes to 232, which meant over 100 Tory MPs had either abstained, or in 13 cases had voted against it.

What an uneasy afternoon this was, which was as it should be, for it ought not to be easy to wreck a duly elected MP’s reputation and career, and the responsibility for doing so must ultimately rest with the House of Commons itself.

Benedict McAleenan: We have to go negative to beat climate change

8 Jul

Benedict McAleenan is Senior Adviser, Energy & Environment at Policy Exchange.

I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but we’re about to completely blow the budget. We had planned to stay within no more than 1.5°C of global warming by the end of this century, but we’re about to hit that mark in 2040, if we don’t use all the tools available.

When we go beyond 1.5°C, things really get out of control. Permafrost thaws, releasing methane that worsens the rate of change (this has already begun). Polar ice caps lose their ability to reflect energy back into space, so things speed up again (also already underway). Greater evaporation causes a more humid atmosphere, again raising the heat.

If this was an asteroid heading for earth, we would be pouring resources into a hundred possible solutions, from simple nudges right through to high-tech warheads. But on climate we have so far not used an important secret weapon, and it’s time to get moving.

According to a report last week by McKinsey launching a new ‘Coalition for Negative Emissions’, we need to start deploying ‘Negative Emissions Technologies’ at scale. This are systems that can suck carbon dioxide out of the air and store it away. They include some very old techniques and some very new ones. Some can be used now at low cost (like tree planting), but other more technological solutions need investment now so we can use them before 2030 at megaton scale.

Restoring peatland and planting trees are the most obvious and least technical options, capturing carbon in tree trunks and sphagnum mosses for decades or hundreds of years – including, of course, in sustainably harvested timber. We need to start now, because these options take decades to deliver, though they are also the lowest cost in this range.

Moving up the technological scale, there’s ‘enhanced weathering’, where rocks are crushed to encourage them to absorb carbon from the air through chemical processes. They’re then spread over fields and beaches or ploughed into soil. Soil carbonation is also at the heart of another negative emissions technique: using waste to generate gas also creates a carbon byproduct known as ‘biochar’. The gas goes to heat homes or generate electricity, the carbon biochar is ploughed into soil, storing the carbon and boosting soil fertility.

Finally, there are the industrial players of negative emissions. Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS) and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) both suck carbon out of the atmosphere and either store it away or use it – although only the former is strictly negative emissions.

DACCS uses huge fans and filters to capture the carbon from the air, and the firm Carbon Engineering already has plans to build a DACCS plant in Scotland. BECCS lets trees and plants do the carbon capturing naturally, but then uses parts of those plants for energy production, capturing the emissions before they escape.

These are not uncontroversial solutions. Greta Thunberg calls them “unproven technologies”, and she casts such doubt because she thinks they are a fig leaf for oil companies. If we just suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, her thinking goes, then there will be less pressure to stop putting it there in the first place. Her solution is something called ‘Absolute Zero’, as opposed to ‘Net Zero’.

Net Zero means accepting that we can’t stop absolutely all carbon emissions by 2050 and using negative emissions to address the shortfall. Greta’s Absolute Zero means no aeroplanes if they’re not zero-carbon, no steel if it’s not zero-carbon, no exceptions for myriad fiddly details that are the reality of life.

Not only that, but this ‘unproven technology’ line is bizarrely luddite. If we accepted its logic, then we would be tying our hands behind our own backs. In climate terms, we’d have no wind turbines beyond those featured in the art of Monet. In pandemic terms, mRNA vaccines were unproven less than 30 years ago. Climate change is urgent enough for us to try the options available.

Yet the UK is a very small player in global GDP and in carbon emissions. Why should we invest in such moon-shot technologies as BECCS, DACCS and enhanced weathering? Why not leave it to the US and China, who both pollute far more than us? There are three special reasons for the UK to lead on negative emissions.

Firstly, this is a massive opportunity in a high-growth sector with the potential to sell our solutions around the world. As the saying in Silicon Valley goes, “the best way to make a billion dollars is to solve a problem for a billion people.” Countries around the world are signed up to targets for emissions reductions and they want solutions including electric cars, wind turbines and, yes, negative emissions. As Andrea Leadsom and Amber Rudd have pointed out for Policy Exchange’s COP26 programme, we have excellence in engineering solutions that we can sell to the world.

Secondly, as Policy Exchange’s Future of the North Sea report noted, we have some legacy assets that make us very well placed to do that. We have an oil and gas industry with world-leading expertise in transporting gases to and from geological storage sites, and it’s currently looking for a new role to play in the world. Not only that, but we’ve spent forty years emptying gas and oil from such storage sites in the North Sea and we can refill them with our unwanted carbon. That’s a facility we can also sell to others, creating jobs along the North Sea littoral.

Finally, we, as a nation, made a big contribution to climate change, even if it has been the by-product of huge contributions to global prosperity and progress. They’ve been two sides of the same coin, so it’s logical that we take the lead again in solving the next part of the problem.

We need negative emissions technologies to stave off climate change, that much is known. The Climate Change Committee has supported that view and Ministers have followed suit. They should stay the course by investing in a suite of these emerging technologies, but also support much greater deployment through market solutions, such as a market for negative emissions, which can eventually work within the UK’s new Emissions Trading System. Without these ‘unproven technologies’, the carbon budget will be blown and the targets of the Paris Agreement will be a pipe dream

Leadsom awarded a damehood in the Queen’s birthday honours list

12 Jun

Today’s papers bring word that Andrea Leadsom has been made a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her service to politics. The one-time challenger for the Conservative leadership has previously served as Leader of the House, Environment Secretary and Business Secretary before leaving government last year.

Leadsom was honoured alongside Oliver Lewis, the Vote Leave veteran who was fleetingly in command of the now-defunct Union Unit, who received a CBE, and Brexiteer donor Will Adderley. Earl Howe, the party’s deputy leader the House of Lords, was made a Knight Grand Cross. Labour MPs Meg Hellier and Mary Creagh also received awards.

Outside politics, the Queen’s birthday honours list is “heavily weighted towards recognising contributions to the fight against coronavirus”, with damehoods and knighthoods for Kate Bingham and others who played a key role in developing and rolling out the vaccine.

Andrea Leadsom: The first 1001 days of a child’s life are critical

27 Mar

Andrea Leadsom MP is chair of the Early Years Healthy Development Review, which has just published a six-point action plan.

Campaigning for every baby to get the best start in life has been my passion for more than 20 years. From founding parent infant charities to help families who are struggling with their new baby, to establishing the 1001 Critical Days Manifesto with cross party parliamentary support, I am profoundly aware that the period from conception to the age of two is the foundation of our lifelong potential as human beings.

Babies cannot fend for themselves at all until they are at least two years old, making them uniquely susceptible to the environment around them. Most families provide the loving attentive care that their baby needs, but for every new family it is a challenging and often exhausting time, and for some, problems ranging from poor mental health to substance misuse, and from deprivation to domestic violence will get in the way.

Better support for every family can transform those earliest experiences, and that’s what the Vision for the 1001 Critical Days will achieve.

Securely attached infants are much more likely to go on to become adults who cope well with life’s ups and downs, build strong relationships at work and at home, and are better equipped to raise their own children.

There is no doubt in my mind that we must invest in universal, joined up Start for Life services, so I was delighted when the Prime Minister asked me last July to chair the Early Years Healthy Development Review.

When we started work on the Review, I was clear that the needs of the baby must be at the heart of everything we do. The coronavirus pandemic has put even more pressure on already struggling families and, just as we need to level up economic opportunity across the country, we need to level up the health and care provision for the very youngest in our society.

Our plan sets out 6 key areas for action:

1. Seamless support for families: a coherent joined up Start for Life offer available to all families.
2. A welcoming hub for families: Family Hubs as a place for families to access Start for Life services.
3. The information families need when they need it: designing digital, virtual and telephone offers around the needs of the family, including a digital version of the Red Book for every new baby.
4. An empowered Start for Life workforce: developing modern skilled workers able to meet the changing needs of families.
5. Continually improving the Start for Life offer: enhancing data, evaluation, outcomes and proportionate inspection.
6. Leadership for change: ensuring local and national accountability and building the economic case for more investment in the start for life.

The implementation phase begins now, and I will continue to lead the work on behalf of the Government for the next year, in close collaboration with local partners across England.

Investing in the 1,001 critical days will have a truly transformational impact on our society, and I am confident that delivering this Vision will help millions of families to give their baby the very best Start for Life.

Dolly Theis: It is the Conservatives who have brought about the big opportunities for women in Parliament

21 Nov

Dolly Theis is the Co-Founder of 50:50 Parliament’s #AskHerToStand Campaign. She is completing her PhD at Cambridge University’s MRC Epidemiology Unit and contested Vauxhall in the 2017 general election.

Today marks 102 years since Parliament passed the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918. Thanks to a Conservative, Lord Robert Cecil, who introduced the Act, women in Britain had finally won the right to become Members of Parliament for the first time. The Act is remarkable, not only for what it did, but it is the shortest British statute at just 27 words long. Us women do not need many words to make stuff happen. As Thatcher said, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

Regarding women in Parliament, we Conservatives have a lot to be proud of.

First woman MP to take her seat in Parliament

It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. Nancy Astor won her Plymouth Sutton seat in a by-election in December 1919 and served as MP until 1945 when she stood down. Her husband, Waldorf Astor, had also been an MP and worked hard to advocate for the admission of women to the House of Lords during the 1920s. (Countess Constance Markievicz was technically the first women elected, but as a member of Ireland’s Sinn Fein party she did not take her seat in Parliament.)

First women Leader of the House of Lords

It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman Leader of the House of Lords. Baroness Janet Young served as the first woman Leader between 1981 and 1983. Unfortunately, it was another Conservative woman, Margaret Thatcher, who asked her to stand down from the position, writing in her memoirs that Baroness Young “had turned out not to have the presence to lead the Lords effectively and she was perhaps too consistent an advocate of caution on all occasions.” That is not to say they did not have great respect for one another.

When Baroness Young died in 2002, Lady Thatcher said:

“Janet Young was not only a good friend but she was one of the most courageous and effective woman politicians of her generation. She devoted her whole life to public service, and public life is diminished by her loss.”

First woman Prime Minister

It was a Conservative woman who was the first woman Prime Minister. Lady Thatcher requires no introduction. She made history, not only for being the first British woman Prime Minister, but for many other reasons too. I believe she will remain up there as one of the most highly cited Prime Ministers in British history and being the first woman Prime Minister was far from what was defining about her. However, it is no less important. It paved the way for women and girls around the country to not only dream of becoming Prime Minister one day, but to know that that is an achievable dream.

In fact, ALL women Prime Ministers

It was another Conservative woman who became Britain’s second woman Prime Minister. Theresa May won the Conservative Party leadership contest in 2016 (beating another woman, Andrea Leadsom MP, who was the other candidate in the final two) and became Prime Minister in July that year.

First woman Leader of the Scottish Conservatives

I imagine many of you will be expecting me to write about Ruth Davidson here. In fact, Ruth was the second woman leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. Annabel Goldie was the first, serving as Leader from 2005 to 2011, when Ruth then took over. However, Ruth was the first woman Scottish politician to be a panellist on BBC One’s ‘Have I Got News for You’ show, so that’s a pretty big deal.

Women in Cabinet

Theresa May’s government was one of two in history to have the most women in cabinet positions at one time: eight (the other being under Gordon Brown). Other cabinet firsts include Dame Cheryl Gillan who became the first woman Secretary of State for Wales in 2010 and Liz Truss who became the first Lord Chancellor in 2016. The numbers are still pretty bad though. Only 45 women have been appointed to cabinet positions since 1929 and currently, only six out of the 25 members who attend cabinet are women.

Future firsts

The new intake is full to the brim with talented women MPs and I have many predictions about where many will end up, but for now, I put my money on Claire Coutinho becoming the first woman Chancellor.

Much to be proud of, but we still have a lot of work to do

As proud as we should feel of the above, we are still lagging woefully behind the other major political parties in terms of women MPs. While we have 24 per cent women MPs, Labour has 51 per cent, SNP has 33 per cent and the Liberal Democrats have 64 per cent women MPs. Yes, some parties have reached this with mechanisms the Conservatives are unlikely to adopt, such as all women shortlists, but that does not mean we should sit back and do nothing. With just 24 per cent we need to more than double this to reach proper representation.

To ensure we make this meaningful rather than a tick box exercise where we end up scrambling to find women, any women, to stand at the last minute, we must start early. We need to be reaching out to top women who may not be ready now, but they could at least begin learning about the process of becoming a candidate and building up relevant skills. We must ensure our candidates process develops candidates to the highest possible level and does not let top women slip through the net. We cannot have a truly meritocratic system that elects the best of both men and women, if women are not in the selection pool in the first place. Outreach is key and it is easier said than done. When was the last time you asked an incredible woman you know to stand for election? I mean seriously ask her.

Well, today could not be a more perfect day. Send an incredible woman you know this link right now and tell her that 50:50 Parliament is here to support her. Or are YOU a woman reading this and interested in politics? Well, of course you are interested in politics. You wouldn’t be reading this if you were not! I am asking YOU to stand. Whether you’re ready to stand now or you’re curious to find out what getting more involved entails, 50:50 Parliament helps women at every stage. There is no expectation for you to know anything about standing either. More often than not, we find that women will assume they need to have all sorts of political knowledge and experience under their belt before they can even get involved. It is not true! We just want passionate women, keen to have a positive impact.

Now what are you waiting for? Click the link, sign up to stand and let’s work together to achieve a Parliament full of the very best men and women MPs.

Andrea Leadsom and Frank Field: Registering births in children’s centres will boost support for struggling families

11 Nov

Andrea Leadsom is a former Business Secretary, and is MP for South Northamptonshire. Lord Field of Birkenhead is a former Labour MP.

Frank is one of a small number of Labour MPs, and now a life peer, who is admired and respected as much on Conservative benches as he is on Labour benches for his long contribution to social justice. Andrea has for more than 20 years been involved with early years campaigning, and is currently chairing an Early Years Healthy Development review for the Government.

We first worked together in 2013 on the children and families bill where we co-signed an amendment calling for birth registration to take place in children’s centres.

Separately, we had both seen through our work with early years practitioners how difficult it was to engage with some of the neediest families when they have a baby – registering the birth in a children’s centre would provide a unique opportunity for family practitioners to meet parents, carers, and other children in that family, and to showcase the support that is available.

Birth registrations are most often carried out in the local registry office, often at a town hall. If the father is not married to the mother, then he should be present at the registration if he wants his name on the birth certificate. Often, because Mum is dealing with the new baby, the other partner will go alone to register the birth.

Back in 2013, the APPG on Sure Start launched a year-long review into best practice in children’s services. Our report showed a very mixed picture: some of the best children’s centres were those focussed on outreach to the neediest families, rather than expecting new parents to find their own way at a stressful time.

What was totally clear from talking to new parents is that they need to be told what help is available – too many have no idea where to go for help. Vitally, they need support services to be joined up. If you are depressed, or facing domestic violence, or worried about your baby, the last thing you need is to be passed from one service to another, each time having to start and again and explain your problems.

At the time, we identified what we thought would be a ‘laser intervention’ – one that was totally simple, cheap to implement, and could provide a massive improvement for new families. Birth registration in children’s centres would mean the family could be invited along together, whilst there they could meet the staff, start to understand where to go for help, and meet other new parents.

It would also allow the children’s centre staff to assess who is likely to need the outreach support. Do the family seem healthy and well fed? Are parents in work? Do they speak English? Do they appear happy?

Identifying the so called ‘hard to reach’ families early could have a hugely positive impact on giving every baby the best start in life, and in turn that could transform the happiness and wellbeing of our nation’s families. It is during the critical period from conception to the age of two that the building blocks of lifelong emotional and physical health are laid down, and right now we are missing the chance to support strong early foundations.

At our instigation, the Department of Education at the time agreed to carry out a review of where birth registration currently takes place in children’s centres, and how effective the location is in engaging with families.

The Benchill Children’s Centre in Manchester was one example of best practice for birth registrations included in this APPG report. By offering this service, its ‘re-engagement rate’ with new families increased to 87.5 per cent. Once a week, they would register births, inviting families and chatting with them to find out how they were doing with their new baby. As a result of this qualitative look at the family, the parents could raise questions and issues directly with professional staff, who in turn could prioritise which families need support.

As part of our research, the APPG invited the head of the registrars service to talk to us. He made clear that although it would be perfectly possible to carry out registration of births in children’s centres, it would mean an impact on his staff timetabling so he would not consider such a change unless they were required by government to do it.

There is no doubt this decision should be reviewed. In the Early Years Healthy Development Review that Andrea is chairing and Frank is supporting as a member of the Parliamentary Advisory Group, we want to promote this idea as one whose time has come. It would be relatively easy for a registrar to take their laptop into the children’s centre, and for families as a whole to be invited in to celebrate the new arrival, and register its birth. But importantly, those new parents could be shown the services on offer in the centre and the staff could identify those who may be struggling.

This new approach could play a valuable role in delivering a new vision for the critical first 1001 days from conception to the age of two, with a joined-up service focused on the baby and the family to ensure that every baby gets the best start in life.

Javid is Chancellor. Tugendhat, Foreign Secretary. May, Home Secretary. Introducing the Alternative Cabinet.

2 Sep

The Cabinet is widely and correctly dismissed as weak.  So we’ve had a go at assembling a stronger one.  Here is the result.

Our only rule is that no Commons member of the present Cabinet can be listed in this imaginary one. Some of those named below are very familiar to this site’s editors.  Others we don’t really know, and one or two we’ve never met.

The aim of the exercise isn’t to suggest that the entire Cabinet should be swept away, and this one appointed.  Nor that all the alternatives to the present incumbents are better.

None the less, We think that, person for person, this is a better and certainly a more experienced mix of potential Ministers – all of whom are waiting in the wings either in government or on the backbenches,

– – – – – – – – – –

Chancellor of the Exchequer

Sajid Javid

Javid never got a chance to deliver a Budget.  In our imaginary scheme, he would.  His economic instincts are dry, pro-current spending control, lower business taxes, and more infrastructure investment

Foreign Secretary

Tom Tugendhat

Undoubtedly a gamble, since he’s never held Ministerial office, but the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairman and former soldier is one of the country’s leading foreign affairs thinkers.

Home Secretary

Theresa May

Whatever you think of her period as Prime Minister, May gripped a department that famously is “not fit for purpose” and, with some of her Tory colleagues campaigning against her, worked to keep net migration down.

Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office

John Redwood

He is more than capable, as his blog confirms, of thinking creatively about policy, the civil service and delivery – as one would expect from the most effective Tory head that the Downing Street Policy Unit has ever had,

Defence Secretary

Penny Mordaunt

Steeped in defence through family background and her Portsmouth constituency, Mordaunt had less than three months to prove herself in this post.  There’s a case for her having more.

Justice Secretary

Geoffrey Cox

Cox is a Queen’s Council as well as a convinced Brexiteer, and would bring heavyweight credentials to dealing with the judiciary, prisons, human rights and judicial review.

Business Secretary

Greg Clark

Clark is the sole former Cabinet Minister left in the Commons who lost the whip over Brexit, and under this plan would return to his old department.

Trade Secretary

Liam Fox

If Boris Johnson thinks Fox is capable of running the World Trade Organisation, he must surely believe that he could make a success of running his former department again.

Education Secretary

Robert Halfon

Our columnist is now Chair of the Education Select Committee, is a former Minister in the department, and has a populist, work-orientated passion for the subject.

Health Secretary

Jeremy Hunt

The appointment would be risky, because Hunt is bound to be caught up in the Coronavirus inquiry, but he has consistently been ahead of the game on social distancing plus test and trace.

Work and Pensions Secretary

Iain Duncan Smith

Universal Credit has been a quiet success story of Covid-19, and Duncan Smith has the seniority and experience to take it to the next level, given its indispensability as unemployment soars.

Housing, Communites and Local Government Secretary

Kit Malthouse

Former local councillor, London Assembly member, Deputy Mayor to Boris Johnson in London, Minister of State for Housing and Planning – and so well-qualified for the post.

Environment Secretary

Owen Paterson

Paterson knows almost everything about the brief, having held it under David Cameron, and as a convinced Leaver would have plenty of ideas for the future of farming post-Brexit.

Transport Secretary

Jesse Norman

Would be a promotion for a Minister who’s worked in the department before, and did a committed job there as Roads Minister.

Culture Secretary

Tracey Crouch

Knows everything there is to know about sport, and would be a popular appointment, were she willing to take the post on.

Scottish Secretary

Andrew Bowie

Young, personable, and seen as close to Ruth Davidson, which would help with a row about a second Scottish independence referendum coming down the tracks. A calculated gamble from a limited field.

Welsh Secretary

Stephen Crabb

Senior, thoughtful, knows the brief from first hand, will be across the internal Party debate in Wales about the future of devolution.

Northern Ireland Secretary

James Cleverly

Successful on conventional and social media as a Party Chairman, a strong communicator, and now gaining diplomatic experience at the Foreign Office – Northern Ireland would represent a natural transfer.

Party Chairman

Kemi Badenoch

Right-wing, and not afraid of thinking for herself on culture issues – as she has shown as a Minister in sweeping up in the Commons on race, justice and Black Lives Matter.  Would make a strong spokesman.

Leader of the Lords

Natalie Evans

The Lords leader is the exception to our rule, on the ground that the Government’s problem with top Ministers is focused in the Commons, not the Lords – where what’s needed is wider reform.

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Entitled to attend

Leader of the House

Andrea Leadsom

Leadsom was an excellent Leader of the House, standing up to bullying John Bercow, and well up to dealing with the knotty complex of bullying/harrassment issues.  No reason for her not to come back.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Steve Baker

Adventurous choice – but, contrary to the fashionable noise about tax rises, what’s really needed is a proper zero-based review of public spending, a task to which Baker would commit himself zealously.

Attorney-General

Lucy Frazer

This QC consider herself unlucky to miss out last time round, and if there has to be a change in post she would slide in seamlessly.

Chief Whip

Graham Brady

The long-standing Chairman of the 1922 Committee Executive knows the Parliamentary Party as well as, if not better, than anyone, and would be perfect for the post were he willing to take it.

Iain Dale: How many Cabinet members would your fantasy Cabinet. I count five. And it gets worse.

20 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to defend what’s happened over the last week or ten days with exam results.

Clustershambles doesn’t really cover it. And the trouble is that it has affected a huge number of people, not just the students and teachers concerned, but their parents and grandparents too.

Add them up, and we’re talking several million people, I imagine. Like the Dominic Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, it’s had cut-through.

The latest YouGov poll, out on Wednesday should a four point dip in the Tory ratings to 40 per cent. While that is still a two point lead, it’s not difficult to imagine that next week Labour could be ahead for the first time in, well, many years.

Optimists might point out that we are three and a half years away from a general election and that time is a great healer. Maybe, but once a Government gets a reputation for crass incompetence it is very difficult to shake off.

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It was reported by The Independent (yes, it still exists online) that Gavin Williamson offered his resignation on Monday, but that it was rejected by the Prime Minister. Only they know the truth of this, but it certainly hasn’t been denied by the beleaguered Education Secretary.

If he did indeed do the honourable thing, all credit to him. But surely if you resign, you, er, resign. It’s all very well for the Prime Minister to have said (if he in fact did), well, you got us into this, you get us out, but in the end once a politician loses the confidence of his or her client groups, it’s very difficult to get things back on an even keel.

Your Cabinet colleagues look at you as a dead man walking. Your enemies can’t wait until your inevitable denouement, and your “friends” melt away at the first whiff of grapeshot. If you’re going to survive, you don’t have long to plan how to do it. In Williamson’s case, he has until Christmas, given that I am led to understand that the reshuffle is now planned for January.

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The trouble with this Cabinet is that it has a distinctly second-rate feel about it. How many of them would make it into a Thatcher or Major cabinet. Very few, I would venture to suggest.

I interviewed Alastair Campbell on Wednesday (it will be on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast next Wednesday), and he reckoned that most of the current crew wouldn’t have even made it to Minister of State in Mrs T’s day.

Do it yourself. Go through the whole cabinet, and think how many of them would make your own fantasy cabinet. I just did so and came up with a total of five. Lamentable.

But it gets worse. Look down the list of Ministers of State – the ministers who would normally be next in line for the cabinet. I count five that are cabinet material. This is a dire state of affairs.

But it gets even worse. Normally you have a range of former ministers who you could think about bringing back to add a bit of weight and gravitas. Trouble is, most of them left Parliament at the last election. Looking at the greybeards on the Tory benches with cabinet experience you have Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, John Redwood, Maria Miller, Greg Clark, Stephen Crabb, Liam Fox, Cheryl Gillan, Chris Grayling, Damian Green, Mark Harper, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Esther McVey, Andrew Mitchell, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Now, how many of those could realistically be restored to cabinet status to bring something extra in terms of political weight, gravitas or character? I’ll leave that to your impeccable judgement.

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So far this year, I haven’t taken any holiday at all. However, next week I’m on holiday in Norfolk – apart from the fact that I’ll be writing this column, doing several podcasts and appearing on Any Questions.

I realised last week that I’ve lost the art of doing nothing. If I’m watching TV, I’ve got my laptop open and I will be flicking through Twitter or something.

Next week, I’m going to try to do some reading, and I mean reading for pleasure – not reading something because I have to for my job. Talking of which I have just done an hour-long interview for my Iain Dale Book Club podcast with Danny Finkelstein. He’s just published a book of his collected columns. What a truly fascinating man he is. The podcast will be released on Friday 4 September.