Malcolm explores the importance of early years in people's development
Debate on National Parenting Strategy Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab):
One of the pleasures of growing older is a return to the early years through looking after and playing with grandchildren. Apart from the pleasure that I get from that, it has reinforced my belief that how we treat children in the early years of life - in particular, in the first three years - is absolutely crucial for the development of individuals and the future of society. That is why I welcome the emerging strategy from the Government. In the past, people would probably have said that parenting is not the business of Government, yet I can think of little that is more important for Government to address now.

I particularly welcome the minister’s statement that strand 3 of the strategy would be about preparing young people to be the parents of the future. I am sure that most of us in the chamber - the younger ones and the older ones - did not really have any preparation for being a parent. I am looking forward to that part of the strategy because I think that it is a desirable prerequisite for the support that parents need once they have children. The fundamental principle underlying the strategy should be support for all families but with more intensive support, and sometimes very intensive support, for those families that need it most.

There is perhaps a distinction to be made between supporting families in general, which can be formal or informal and is offered by a variety of people and professionals, and specific parenting support that is delivered by people who are trained to ensure high fidelity to a specific programme.

There are many outstanding examples of support for parents in the first sense. I mention in passing organisations for young parents in the Pilton and Granton parts of my constituency, such as Circle and Stepping Stones, and, in Leith, Home-Start and Dr Bell’s family centre. I apologise to those that I have not mentioned. Dr Bell’s is an interesting example of a family centre on a fairly small scale, and I am pleased that the Government is considering family centres as part of the support given to parents.

On specific programmes, the positive parenting programme, the incredible years and the family-nurse partnership have the strongest evidence behind them. I am particularly interested in the family-nurse partnership because it focuses on the very early years. As I said, I have come to believe - and I think that many in Parliament share my view - that the years nought to three are the most fundamental years in anyone’s life, and that how people are treated then will determine their life outcomes. I was reflecting the other day that, sadly, many people spend the rest of their lives trying to undo the damage that has been done to them in those first three years of life.

In that regard, there is an issue about the balance between universal and targeted services. Health visitors have a key role to play in identifying the most vulnerable children and allowing other services to move in to give them support. Perhaps we went too far in targeting health visiting under the “Health for all Children 4” arrangements, although, as they were introduced when I was the responsible minister, I will hardly criticise them. However, I am pleased that the Government is now talking about implementing the new Hall 4, which involves continuing visits to a larger number of families. I welcome that.

Giving support at an early stage is fundamental. If we do that, more children can stay in their families. However, we recognise that in some cases children have to be removed from families. When that has to take place, the earlier it happens, the better. I recently had an interesting conversation with a constituent who has had difficulties in adopting children. She explained to me that the process has taken two years and is still not complete. I wrote to the cabinet secretary about that and eagerly await a reply. I hope that the issue of adoption can be looked at because when adoption is necessary it should take place as speedily as possible.
May 16th 2012