Pressure must be placed on NHS trusts to reverse cuts in health visitor numbers and services if Tony Blair’s plans to identify and support babies at risk of developing antisocial behaviour are to be successfully implemented, unions have warned.
Amicus and the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association said it welcomed the prime minister’s interest in identifying and acting on possible problems, beginning as early as pre-birth, but wanted to know where the extra health visitors to deliver this service would come from given that numbers were at their lowest for 12 years.
“Our members are either losing their jobs of having their caseloads increased dramatically because of recruitment freezes caused by the deficits in debt-laden primary care trusts,” said Amicus health sector lead professional officer Obi Amadi.
“The greatest service that the prime minister could do for the next generation of yet-unborn children is to ask the health secretary to order PCTs and other health sector employers to reverse their cuts to health visitors and the services they provide.”
Moves to predict likely problems and intervene in children’s lives at an earlier stage form part of the government’s wider social exclusion plan, due to be published next week in a bid to reach those families failed by existing universal services and anti-poverty measures.
The plan will be targeted specifically at helping looked-after children, families with complex problems, teenage parents, and people with severe and enduring mental health problems.
Trailing its publication, Blair said early intervention was crucial to accessing and improving the life opportunities of these hard-to-reach groups. Extending the use of individual budgets and lead professionals would also help improve co-ordination of services.
Predicting that early intervention could involve more intense health-visitor programmes, parenting classes or family placements, Blair denied that this amounted to so-called ‘baby Asbos’ or unnecessary state interference in family life.
“I am saying that, where it is clear – as it very often is at a young age – that children are at risk of being bought up in a dysfunctional home where there are multiple problems, say of drug abuse or offending, then instead of waiting until the child goes off the rails we should act early enough, with the right help, support and disciplined framework for the family, to prevent it,” he said.
“This is not stigmatising the child or the family. It may be the only way to save them and the wider community from the consequences of inaction.”