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Leadsom AndreaAndrea Leadsom is the Member of Parliament for South Northamptonshire. Follow Andrea on Twitter.

There are times in history when a reform that has been ushered in has profoundly changed our society for the better. Our National Health Service and free education for all were the great 'game changers' of the twentieth century. But however life-changing they were, they are but two legs of a three-legged stool – a stool that will be destined to keep falling down if we don't address the huge challenge that faces us in the 21st century.  And that is the mental health of our people.

As human beings, we can only experience the full advantage of learning, and we can only enjoy the delight of excellent health, if we have sound mental health.  And it is our earliest life experiences that determine our lifelong emotional resilience and capacity for sound mental health. So I believe that the great challenge for our society is to enable a secure beginning for every child, and that if we want to meet that challenge, we need nothing short of a revolution in perinatal support for families – otherwise, the scourge of insecure early attachment leading to unhappy and unfulfilled lives will continue to inflict huge damage on our society.

The Coalition Government has already achieved a great deal for families. Shared parental leave will go a long way towards tackling discrimination and levelling the playing field for working women. The professionalisation of the early years workforce will ensure that those working with young children are better qualified and understand early child development.  We are making determined efforts to help families with the huge costs of good childcare. There is, however, so much more that can be done to help families avoid stress and breakdown and the appalling consequences of it for our society.

Having been a member of the Children and Families Bill Committee during the past month, it has struck me that we have this life-changing piece of legislation making its way through Parliament, that will do so much to help families, and particularly vulnerable children, yet we do not have a Minister for Families – the Minister for Employment and the Minister for Children both shared the responsibility instead.  A Minister for Families would put the focus on the importance of the family unit at the heart of all policy making, which is where Conservatives believe it should be.

At no point is the stability of the family more crucial than at the very beginning of life, and a major step many who work in the perinatal sector would like to see is for all Children’s Centres to offer the registration of births within their premises. It makes complete sense for families to be welcomed in to celebrate their new addition with other new families living in their area, providing them with access to a new support network, while enabling Children’s Centre workers to meet those families who might be struggling with the pressures of parenthood.

However, promoting this policy has been difficult, because of the number of Departments it falls under, from Education to the Home Office. If we had a Minister for Families, he or she could take ownership of a project like this and see it through to completion. Such a change would be just the first tiny step in a move towards a truly holistic approach to support and care for families during the fragile peri-natal period.

Only recently, an excellent road-map for a holistic approach to support for new families has been drawn up. A Report commissioned jointly by the DfE and DfH and written by the WAVE Trust has made some significant policy proposals which could truly change the mental health landscape of the next generation.

The report, The Age of Opportunity, makes a raft of suggestions for helping new families.  it proposes offering all pregnant women a non-intrusive mental health questionnaire before the baby is born, in order to identify potential issues with maternal mental health, family relationships and other factors that could be dealt with before baby is born. It also recognises that training in the importance of infant brain development and the crucial importance of secure early attachment should be delivered to all frontline health professionals, again to improve the understanding of problems which can arise in the parent-infant relationship.

You might wonder why this is so important, and also why it should be the business of anyone but the parents. The reason is simple. It is precisely our early brain development which will determine whether we lead a resilient and fulfilling life able to meet the challenges life throws at us, or quite the opposite.

A loving relationship between a baby and an adult care-giver (usually Mum) literally teaches the baby to believe that the world is a good place.  The neural pathways in the baby's brain will be made in accordance with his earliest experiences.  So a baby who is neglected, abused, or whose needs are not met will not have healthy brain development. At best in later life they may struggle to hold down a job or a relationship, or to deal with life's ups and downs; but at worst their distorted view of the world may lead to violence, substance misuse, or depressive episodes.
The greatest opportunity to turn this around is at the very start of life.

Addressing the scourge of post-natal depression and the effect it has on mums would demonstrate to women that we are the Party who cares. The Age of Opportunity report outlines that preventative measures are far more effective and cost beneficial than later interventions. At £105 billion per year, poor mental health is a bigger cost to the NHS than diabetes and obesity. [1]

The importance of the family is and always has been a central tenet of why I and many others choose to be a Conservative.  David Cameron rightly won widespread approval in the early months of his Party Leadership for insisting that restoring family values was key to rebuilding a broken Britain, that ‘families are the most important institution in our society.’[2] This sentiment still, of course, holds true – families are critical to a cohesive society. But we also could do more to better reflect this. The family must constitute the heart of policy making. Appointing a Minister for Families would be a great start.

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