Rishi Sunak to announce £500m package for families

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mike Abrahams/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Mike Abrahams/Alamy Stock Photo

Hundreds of thousands of families are to receive extra support as part of a £500m package from the government that will include the creation of a network of “family hubs” across England, but concerns have been raised that the measures do not go far enough.

The government describes the centres, which will launch in 75 local authorities, as “one-stop shops” for advice and guidance. They are similar in some respects to the Sure Start centres introduced under Tony Blair, although ministers believe they will provide a more comprehensive service.

Related: Covid has exposed the damage caused to families by a decade of austerity | Ray Jones

The funding, which will be announced by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in Wednesday’s budget and spending review, will also go towards mental health support for new and expectant parents, and provide extra cash for targeted help for the most vulnerable households.

Labour, however, said the package was a smokescreen for the Conservatives’ failure to support families in the past. The shado w education secretary, Kate Green, said the family hubs were “a sticking plaster for a fractured childcare and children services landscape” and could not make up for the closures of Sure Start centres.

“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.

“This has come alongside the government stripping away early intervention children’s services, allowing problems to escalate into crises.”

She added: “This is a smokescreen for the Conservatives’ failure to deliver for families.”

The funding package includes around £82m to create the family hubs and a further £100m to go towards supporting the mental health of new and expectant parents. Some £200m will go towards supporting 300,000 of the most vulnerable families who face complex issues that could lead to family breakdown.

Another £50m will be spent on breastfeeding support, including antenatal classes and one-to-one support. Parenting programmes will receive £50m, and £10m will go to signposting the Start4Life initiative.

Before the announcement Sunak said: “I passionately believe that we have a duty to give young families and their children the best possible start in life.

“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.”

Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England, tweeted: “As someone who was involved in setting up Sure Start in the early 2000s & ran one of the biggest networks of Centres, I’m a grt supporter of family hubs. Extra funding for new hubs is v welcome, but we are still a v long way behind where we were 10 yrs ago.”

Neil Leitch, the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said that while the new money was welcome news for struggling families, “it beggars belief that there’s not a single reference in this proposal about providing critical support to nurseries, childminders, pre-schools when government knows they’ve been closing their doors in their thousands”.

Nearly 3,000 providers in the sector have closed their doors since the start of the year, and 16,000 have done so in the past six years, he told BBC Breakfast. “That tells you we have a crumbling infrastructure, so I come back to this point: it’s no good just having a bit-piece approach to this, it needs a revamp.”

Calling for an independent review of the entire early years and education sector, Leitch added: “If we fail to get it right effectively, it will cost us billions.”

Joe Jenkins, executive director, social impact from The Children’s Society, welcomed the funding, “given the significant cuts to early intervention spending in recent years”, but said it was “just one piece of the puzzle”.

“We need to see funds for a network of community mental health hubs for children and young people to go for support when they first struggle with their mental and emotional health. Far too many are waiting and suffering in silence as their issues get worse or they hit crisis point,” Jenkins said.

Alison Morton, of the Institute of Health Visiting, said the pledge did not go far enough in addressing shortages in health visiting. “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.

Highlighting the absence of investment for “the vital infrastructure” of health visiting, despite a workforce shortage of 5,000 health visitors, Morton added: “It’s fundamentally a lack of funding. We’ve had £1bn stripped out of the public health grant since 2015 and we’ve seen about a third of our workforce cut since then and no national plan to build back better despite multiple warnings [from] 700 leading organisations.”

Vicky Nevin, of the NSPCC, said: “Worryingly, health visiting is missing from this package. Health visitors are in a prime position to spot when parents are struggling with their mental health and families need additional support. But the workforce has been drastically cut by around a third since 2015.”

The NSPCC is calling for additional funding to train and recruit 3,000 health visitors so every new parent can access mental health support in their community.

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