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Prioritising Early Childhood: Academy of Medical Sciences Report

Volume 836: debated on Monday 11 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report of the Academy of Medical Sciences Prioritising early childhood to promote the nation’s health, wellbeing and prosperity, published on 5 February, particularly regarding children under 5.

The Government welcome the report. We have taken significant action to improve children’s health in the early years. This includes reducing sugar in children’s food, supporting healthy diets for families from lower-income households through schemes such as Healthy Start, and investing record amounts into children’s and young people’s mental health services and around £300 million in the family hubs and Start for Life programmes. We are also improving children’s oral health through our dentistry recovery plan.

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord McAvoy, who was an incredible parliamentary servant in both Houses over many years.

I thank the Minister, but he will be aware that we have a frightening number of people of working age who are not able to work because of long-term illness. The implication of the academy report is that we are storing up huge problems for the future. As one example, 20% of under-fives are obese or overweight. If the Government are so keen to take action, why have they postponed the implementation of their obesity strategy, which would start to take action against unhealthy food and encourage young people towards more exercise and a healthier lifestyle?

First, I add condolences from myself and this side of the House for Lord McAvoy.

Secondly, I am grateful for the direction of the report. I think that we all agree that early investment in childhood, and in young people, is vital. That is what our vision for the first 1,001 critical days is all about. A lot of the things in the report are helpful. I must admit that I did not recognise that particular stat, because rather than it being one in five children suffering from obesity at age five, the latest report—and it is an extensive study—shows that it is less than one in 10. It is the lowest number since 2006-07. So, in the area of obesity, we can show that our plans are working. I say again: we have the lowest level of obesity among reception age children since 2006-07.

My Lords, the Food, Diet and Obesity Select Committee, which is one of the new ad hoc committees, took evidence last week from specialists in childhood, early years, and school food. The situation is grave, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said. Some 80% of the food that children eat is ultra-processed—we have no idea what the long-term consequences will be. May I encourage the Minister to look again at the figures and the ultra-processed foods that we are feeding children—the health consequences of which are not yet understood?

I assure my noble friend that the numbers are correct; they are the lowest since 2006-07. I can also assure her that free school meals are at their highest level ever, at 33%. The whole idea behind those programmes, as well as the Healthy Start in school and the five-a-day, is to give children healthy diets early on, exactly as my noble friend says.

My Lords, I echo the condolences to Lord McAvoy’s family from these Benches. I always enjoyed working with him in another place.

On the Question before us, the Government have rightly been bigging up the digital revolution in the NHS, but many of the basic building blocks are still not there. Does the Minister agree that it would be helpful for the health of infants for there to be a digital red book, rather than relying on parents carrying around a physical one? Can he give a timescale for when we will move on from endless pilots and aspirational announcements to this being widely available?

I totally agree. Funnily enough, I was talking to Minister Leadsom about this subject just this morning. It is complex, because all parents need proxy access so that they can get those digital records for their children automatically. It is something we are working towards. The Pharmacy First initiative, whereby you can write data from a pharmacist immediately into GP records, will help because it will give a road map to do that for children and babies from hospital. It is something we are working on, and I will give details of the timeline in writing.

My Lords, I declare an interest. I am a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, which produced this seminal report addressing issues related to child health. I will pick up two points that the Minister might comment on. Although he is implementing what we already know from research works in improving children’s health, we have no strategy for the implementation of good practice. My second point is about research into the early years. Diseases that people may develop later in life can occur as a result of epigenetic influences during the early years that alter the genome, yet research into childhood accounts for 5% of total government research funding.

I totally agree about the importance of research and data. We have spent about £580 million on research in the children and young persons’ space since 2020. As per the earlier question, data is vital to this. I saw a fascinating example just a couple of weeks ago in the Cambridge Research Centre concerning young children. It is using data to construct what it calls “virtual children”, to look at rare diseases, how they progress and different treatments that can be tried. It is truly revolutionary and something I totally support.

My Lords, I distinctly heard my noble friend Lord Hunt describe these children as obese and overweight. The Minister has addressed only obesity. You can be overweight without being obese, but it means you are on the way to obesity. That is the serious problem.

I think we all agree that it is a very serious problem, so I do not want to diminish that. I was trying to demonstrate that the steps we are taking—there is a lot to do in this space—are having an effect. Noble Lords have heard me say before that our reformulation efforts mean that everything from Mars Bars and Snickers to all sorts of other foods are having the sugar content taken out, so we can make sure they are healthier for people to enjoy.

My Lords, have the Government looked at the idea of bringing back something like Sure Start? I was involved in Sure Start, and I saw people breaking down poverty in their lives because of children coming in and mixing with other healthy children. It was wonderful. Can we look again at Sure Start?

One of the recommendations of the report is a cross-cutting approach of the kind the noble Lord mentioned to avoid silos. The family hubs we are investing in alongside the Department for Education are trying to do exactly that sort of thing to make sure the healthy start for life exists.

My Lords, these Benches will greatly miss my noble friend Lord McAvoy. I had the pleasure and education of serving with him as a Whip in the other place. May his memory be for a blessing.

The Academy of Medical Sciences report highlights the importance of continuity of maternity care, which can reduce the likelihood of pre-term birth by 24%. Given that premature babies are more likely to have complications that affect vision, hearing, movement, learning and behaviour, which will all impact later life, what steps are the Government taking to increase the number of women receiving dedicated midwifery support throughout their pregnancies?

I agree with the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lady Cumberlege about the importance of continuity of care in the maternity space. We are investing resources as part of the long-term workforce plan to increase the number of people trained in maternity and in this area generally. To give another example, we are investing in family nurses by increasing the number of training places by 74%, because it is understood that we need the workforce to provide all these services in an ever more complex world.

My Lords, is not one of the problems that children today do not get anything like the exercise we used to do in the old days?

Wearing the tie I was awarded for being man of the match in the rugby against the Irish parliament this weekend, which we won, I totally agree about the importance of exercise in all walks of life. Social prescribing is vital. We are expanding the number of PE services available for children, because exercise is vital.

My Lords, there is strong evidence that in the early 2000s increases in child benefits led to an increase in the amount parents spent on fruit and vegetables and books and toys for their children. What assessment have the Government made of the impact of the two-child limit on benefits and, in particular, on the health and well-being of the 1.5 million children affected?

We recognise very much, as said in the report, the importance of poverty in all this. We have seen the number children in absolute poverty decrease by 400,000 since 2010, which is a significant reduction. The Chancellor’s announcement last week showed the importance we place on child benefit in getting money to people to help. It is a very important area.