I have always had a lot of time for the Labour MP Frank Field. We worked together on the campaign against the euro ten years ago and he has always been independent minded. That is why I was delighted when David Cameron put aside party differences and asked Frank to lead a report on ending child poverty and helping children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their full potential.
Last week I attended a debate in parliament which aimed to explore this area in more detail. Tony Blair set a target to halve child poverty by 2010. There was a focus on redistributing wealth through the tax system which helped to get some of those people just below the poverty line to being just above the poverty line. However, the approach failed to tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantage, the target was missed and those at the very bottom are still there.
If we are serious about breaking the cycle of disadvantage and serious about giving children from poorer backgrounds the best possible start in life then we need to tackle the causes of disadvantage, not just treat the symptoms. It also means taking a longer term approach.
Good parenting is the essential ingredient. Getting things right in the first five years is crucial. By the age of three, a toddler’s brain is already 80 percent formed and his or her experiences in those first few years will have influenced how their brain has grown and developed. The things that make a difference are a healthy pregnancy, a secure bonding between mother and child with plenty of love at home, clear boundaries and real attention to developing a child’s communication abilities through reading books and speaking to them.
Where this doesn’t happen, things go wrong. That is why the sorts of solutions put forward by Frank Field included refocusing government efforts on early years support. A lot of people say that they do not have enough help to prepare them for parenthood and the huge responsibility that carries. They would welcome more advice and help to become good parents, to establish a learning home environment for their baby and to have some support for childcare.
Councils have a role too by making full use of the voluntary groups and social enterprises out there in delivering their services. Last autumn, I visited Action for Children at Trevu Road in Camborne to discuss some of the fantastic work they do in this area, helping to support and advise families on how to become good parents.
A stitch in time saves nine and it is work like this that will really make a difference. While it won’t deliver overnight results, it is the right way to help those on the lowest rung of the ladder and we should make it happen.