Budget 2021: Ministers pledge £500m to support young families

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Ministers are to fund a network of "family hubs" in England as part of a £500m package to support parents and children.

The centres in 75 different areas will provide a "one stop shop" for support and advice, the government said.

The funding, to be announced by the chancellor in Wednesday's Budget, will also go towards breastfeeding advice and mental health services.

Labour called the plans a "smokescreen" for failing to deliver for families.

Kate Green MP, Labour's shadow education secretary, said family hubs were "a sticking plaster for a fractured childcare and children services landscape".

"This supposed commitment rings hollow after 11 years of Conservative cuts have forced the closure of over a thousand children's centres, cutting off the early learning that sets children up for life," she said.

The funding includes £200m to support 300,000 families who face complex issues that could lead to family breakdown.

Some £82m will be given to 75 local authorities to fund the new family hubs, while another £100m will go towards mental health support for expectant parents.

And £50m will be spent on breastfeeding support - including antenatal classes and one-to-one support - to build upon best practice from areas such as Tower Hamlets in London, which has the highest breastfeeding rates at six to eight weeks in England.

Parenting programmes will receive £50m and £10m will go to signposting the Start4Life initiative, which offers help and advice from the NHS during pregnancy, birth and parenthood.

Ahead of the announcement, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he "passionately" believed in giving children the "best possible start in life".

He said: "We know that the first thousand and one days of a child's life are some of the most important in their development, which is why I'm thrilled that this investment will guarantee that thousands of families across England are given support to lead healthy and happy lives."

The government said the funding package addresses a report from March on improving the health and development of babies in England, which recommended more joined-up, welcoming support for families.

Neil Leitch, of the Early Years Alliance, said the new money was "welcome news for struggling families" but criticised the government for failing to address existing problems within the early years sector, specifically among nurseries, childminders and pre-schools, where almost 3,000 providers have closed down since January.

He called for an independent review of the entire sector. "It's no good having a bit-piece approach to this, it needs a complete revamp," Mr Leitch told BBC Breakfast. "If we fail to get it right effectively, it will cost us billions."

His concerns were echoed by Alison Morton, executive director of the Institute of Health Visiting.She said: "We've had a really challenging time during the pandemic. Families have really faced the brunt of it - and whilst the government have poured a lot of money into other sectors, zero pounds, literally, has been spent on babies, young children and families.""The government needs to go an awful lot further if they want to build back better for our babies and children," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will get an equivalent funding boost. The devolved governments will then decide how they want to spend the money.

A separate £153m investment announced as part of the £1.4bn education recovery package in Summer 2021 will enable nursery staff will to access more high-quality training.