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An incoming Labour government must revive the 1997 spirit of Sure Start and put babies at the heart of policies if it is to achieve its goals, a coalition of charities has said.

The First 1001 Days Movement, a coalition of more than 200 charities and professionals, said a five-year decline in toddler development was a “a ticking timebomb” for the UK, and called for vulnerable babies and their families to be seen as “mission critical”.

The movement has published a “manifesto for babies”, which includes an urgent call to the NHS to support 60,000 vulnerable infants over the next five years. It also pleads for a cross-department strategy to combat a development crisis in children, which has resulted in one in four school-starters in England and Wales not being toilet-trained.

“We need something of the ambition of Sure Start from Labour,” said Keith Reed, the chief executive of the Parent-Infant Foundation. “They fought the 1997 election on changing the future for generations of children, and they need to do something that echoes that vision again.”

Reed pointed to recent research which found that one in five two-year-olds in the UK are already below expected levels of development, while the London School of Economics found that poor early-years care and education cost England more than £16bn a year. The Academy of Medical Sciences said last month that the UK was betraying young children.

There has been an increasing policy focus on early years by all major political parties in recent years, with a shift towards free childcare, and the importance of early childhood in shaping adulthood and society as a whole is a priority of the Princess of Wales.

Speaking at a symposium on early-years development in November organised by the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, Tony Blair stressed that “the evidence [for intervention in early years] today is much stronger than it was back then. So there’s an even stronger case for acting.”

Reed said that Labour, which is keeping its early-years policy cards close to its chest, needed to follow the science which “clearly says that this is the most important and fastest stage of development in anyone’s life”.

“There’s good news as well, because you can make a fundamental change to future generations over the course of a parliament. So this should be music to Labour’s ears, but as yet there are no clear plans published,” he said.

Charities wrote to the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, before his spring budget to urge him to extend funding for Start for Life, a programme championed by the senior Conservative Andrea Leadsom, which has opened family hubs in 75 areas.

With funding due to run out in 2025 and no promise of renewal, services are worried that the rug is going to be pulled out from under their feet, said Reed. “Start for Life cannot be allowed to suffer the same fate as Sure Start,” he said.

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Warning that an estimated 10% of babies in the UK are living in fear and distress because of disturbed or unpredictable care, the charities have also called for a cabinet-level committee reporting directly to the prime minister to support infant development, an increase in paid paternity and parental leave, and training for nursery staff on infant mental health.

The chief executive of the NSPCC, Sir Peter Wanless, urged all parties to put babies at the heart of their plans. “The first few years of a child’s life are a time of growth and opportunity, but it is also when they are at their most vulnerable to abuse and neglect,” he said.

“It’s vital that families have a community of support around them, alongside sustainably funded, preventative services that help foster a healthy parent-infant relationship.”

#Charities #evoke #spirit #Start #call #bold #Labour #earlyyears #policies

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