Parliament is widely criticised as a place where petty politicking and points-scoring occupy a higher priority than the betterment of the country. Occasionally, MPs provide an eloquent rebuttal of that view. So it is with the health select committee's wide-ranging report on the promotion of children's wellbeing. Ten MPs, including five from National, have achieved a consensus on a series of major recommendations, some of which would involve a large measure of government intervention. The success of their efforts can be measured by high praise from child health experts, including the Medical Association, which said it was delighted by "the most impressive set [of recommendations] we have seen in a long time".
The report traverses sexual health, maternal health, nutrition, alcohol abuse and early childhood education. At the core of its suggestions is the view that early intervention holds the key to saving money and giving people longer, healthier lives. Influential in this is Nobel Prize-winning American economist James Heckman, whose research points to the importance of good parenting, even to the extent of it compensating for an upbringing in a poor economic environment.
The greatest social and economic return can, therefore, be achieved by the Government shifting its focus, funding and support to the period between preconception and 3 years of age.
In that context, a review of the Counties Manukau region has prompted the committee to recommend a national target of 90 per cent of all women having an antenatal assessment within the first 10 weeks of conception. To reduce an alarmingly high unplanned and teen pregnancy rate, there is a call for improved access to contraception.
The committee also suggests that "best practice" sex education should be mandatory in all schools, but that may be one recommendation which will prove difficult to implement. Schools should not be forced to teach sex education if they, and the parents who send their children through their gates, do not want that. For example, some of the new charter schools are likely to object to compulsion.
The Government may also be reluctant to insist that strong warning labels are placed on all beer, wines and spirits as part of a plan to stop pregnant mothers from drinking. This would do no more than bring liquor into line with tobacco, and, as such, is well merited. But the Government denied a Labour Party amendment that would have introduced such labelling when alcohol reform legislation was passed. The committee's recommendation, with another backing a higher excise tax on alcohol in the long term, underlines the missed opportunities associated with that law.
One suggestion with which the Government should not quibble is the transfer of responsibility for fluoridating community water supplies to the Ministry of Health and district health boards. This would ensure there is no repeat of the farcical withdrawal of fluoride in Hamilton and New Plymouth. A noisy minority would no longer be able to prey on the ineptitude of councillors. Decisions on fluoridation would, instead, be made on the basis of overwhelming scientific opinion. Referendums in Whakatane and Hastings last month confirmed that the switch from council control would be welcomed. Children's oral health is at stake.
The cross-party consensus achieved by the committee places pressure on the Government, which must respond within three months. So, too, does the report's equating of this country's early intervention practices in some parts to those in the Third World. That stark language, backed by the widespread applause for the report, underscores the need for stronger leadership from the Government. For the sake of our children's wellbeing, it should adopt the vast majority of the 130 recommendations.