Andrew speaks on the debate: Children and Families: Early Years Interventions

My Lords, for 35 years my colleagues and I have supported East End families and children and worked with them at the coalface. We have spent our lives operating within the machinery of the state and have witnessed countless promises made to these families and communities, many of which did not turn out quite as expected. It takes a family and a community to raise children well. If we want to be serious in this debate, given all the money that Governments spend on research that few people read, we might like to look back over the last 30 years and learn from the programmes that the state has run. In our experience, government is not a learning organisation. It has little memory, and this fact has unintended consequences for many of our most vulnerable families.

We had a rich ecology of childcare providers in our area 30 years ago, often with strong relationships with parents and families. Then Governments started disrupting this. They said that they would encourage children to enter school one or two years earlier, thus destroying the business model of many small nurseries and support networks. Then they set up Sure Start and children’s centres. The launch of these centres was at the Bromley by Bow Centre, which I founded. They were all our ideas. We were told that we were the model for what should happen nationally, and now, of course, we are saying that we cannot afford them. The Bromley by Bow Centre had its children’s centre contract cancelled at short notice. What is the net effect on childcare and support services over the last 30 years? How much money has been spent, to what overall effect? One experienced children’s officer in one London borough described to me recently the present overduplication in her borough, the outdated silo systems incapable of real integrated working and staff waiting out their pensions and poor leadership.

Our work—often despite government—is starting to go national and my colleagues and I are today working in challenging communities across this country. I was in Skelmersdale last Monday at one of our innovation platforms with the NHS civil servants who are writing the new Green Paper on prevention. Local people and I shared with the civil servants the long journey of state intervention in this town and the unintended consequences. I do not know Dominic Cummings—I have never met him—but if he is really interested in the dysfunctionality of so much of the machinery of government systems and their countless interventions, he would do well to spend some time in Skelmersdale. This community, like countless others, is littered with three-year government programmes that spent loads of money and came to little. Local families know this fact. The civil servants we met seemed more interested in policy than implementation—classic Oxbridge culture. It is the impact that counts.

As a Christian community in east London, we took these families seriously and created four nurseries—a network of integrated health centres—which now have 42,000 patients because we saw that the health services were not joined-up locally around them. We have set up 87 businesses with local people and countless programmes and projects. We began to understand the state only when we tried to bend it and make any of the machinery work for these families. You only really understand and learn by practical engagement, not through policies, research and the paraphernalia the Government seem to spend so much money on—most of it, in our experience, simply does not work. The Word becomes flesh in John’s Gospel, not policies, not research, not minutes—flesh. You learn by doing.

There is an awful truth: the poor will always be with you. I was listening to a woman on the radio in Rotherham recently, another town where my colleagues and I are working. Even after all the sex scandals there, the horrific effects of a PC religious culture and ideology in that Labour council and all the statements about lessons being learned, she said that nothing had fundamentally changed. In poor areas, the state struggles too—that is true. It will only ever be part of the solution. It is the traditional Catholic message; it is what the Pope would say. He, of course, has the long view.

When we began working with families and children, we decided not to follow the then trendy approach in the 1980s focused around equal opportunities and an advert in the Guardian when it came to employing a person to work with these families. We knew we would end up with a bright young graduate with all the right papers, who had done all the right courses but had never had a child. We chose Jackie, a brilliant East End mum who had had four children by the time she was 21. She was a brilliant mother and role model, and she did a great job. She eventually introduced us to a 35 year-old mother called Jean Vialles, a friend from school, who had two kids aged 16 and two, sleeping in the same bed. Jean was dying of cancer and the NHS was busy writing four reports about her, but no one was giving her a bath. Through Jackie, we discovered a Baby P scenario on our doorstep—the profound dysfunctionality of the state. Jackie forced us into a massive confrontation with the NHS and we have the scars to prove it. Out of it came the first working model of a fully integrated primary healthcare centre in the country. Nowadays we have 2,000 visitors a year coming to see what this all means in practice. It was all about focusing in a joined-up way on the complicated lives of local children and families and believing in them, and that they could achieve great things, as many of them have gone on to do—learning by doing.

It is easy to blame the state, but what about the behaviour and interventions of our own institutions? Let us start there. I am listening to too many bishops telling us that the solution is for the state to spend and do more, and all will be well. They are listening to too many academics who have never built anything. I worry about all this research our politicians are quoting, emanating from our universities. They all seem to be saying the same thing. I do not believe in these too tidy by half solutions. The clinical psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson, the Ezekiel of our day, is raising some rather awkward questions about the state, our universities and their Marxist/liberal consensus that is infecting a generation. He is worrying away about the simplistic ideological glasses through which so many academics, whose salaries rely on the next research document, view the world. Few of them will spend real time with these children and families. Go and look at the many millions of pounds being spent on the Born in Bradford study and ask yourself: where is the money going and how much of it will stick to these families and communities in Bradford? Will we be able to point to the name and address of one family in the city who will have benefited from all this research funding?

This is not about policy but about implementation. I encourage the Minister to come with me to Rotherham to have a look at what that means in practice. I have had the invite out for a while, but maybe after this debate we might have coffee.

Link to the debate  published on 27 February 2020