More trouble with troubled families

John Humphrys succeeded in the impossible this morning and left me feeling more generous towards the Troubled Families Programme – until I remembered all the problems with it.

Last month I blogged about the way that the government’s flagship programme was born out of a dodgy statistic and even dodgier assumptions about ‘problem families’. Today Louise Casey, head of troubled families policy at the DCLG, published a report comprising interviews with 16 families about the problems they face. They are powerful stories of abuse, care, problems at school, problems with drugs and alcohol, risks of eviction and more that illustrate the scale of the challenge and also the value of the work done by family intervention projects.

Under questioning by Humphrys on the Today programme, she did well to fight her corner against a presenter who always seems keener on giving his own opinions (especially on anything to do with welfare) than he does on listening to his interviewees. She is surely right – and evidence published by the Department for Education confirms this – that the family intervention approach has produced some impressive results.

The Today presenter (who also made a notably one-sided TV documentary about welfare last year) seemed more interested in arguing that ‘these people’ will never change. He also framed the discussion in terms of last year’s riots. This was how he introduced the interview:

‘When the dust started settling on rioting and looting in England last summer the government tried to find out why. Why did so many people seize the opportunity to behave in such an appalling way? One of the reasons they came up with is that many of them came from problem families or troubled families as they are now known.’ (Listen again here from 2 hours 10 minutes in).

So far then, give me Casey over Humphrys any time. But here’s where the problems begin.

First, the government is still sticking stubbornly to the claim that are 120,000 ‘troubled families’ and that they cost £9 billion a year. To recap, the 120,000 figure is a 2007 estimate of families with multiple disadvantages based on a 2004 survey (families with five out of seven disadvantages, see full detail in this paper by Ruth Levitas).

Second, the figure has nothing to do with causing trouble and no details have ever been published of that £9 billion figure. That has not stopped Eric Pickles and David Cameron from claiming exactly that. Here’s Cameron in December 2011:

‘I want to talk about troubled families. Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase. Officialdom might call them “families with multiple disadvantages”. Some in the press might call them “neighbours from hell”. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.’

Third, the coalition’s own austerity policies have increased the number of troubled families. A report for Action for Children, The Children’s Society and the NSPCC last month used the same methodology and concluded that the number of families with multiple disadvantages would increase to 150,000 by 2015 as a result of the coalition’s tax and benefit measures and spending cuts.

Fourth, there is no link with last summer’s riots. The independent Riots Communities and Victims Panel appointed by the government found that only 5 per cent of the local authorities it surveyed thought there was any overlap between the rioters and families they had provisionally identified for the Troubled Families Programme. The panel concluded instead that most of the rioters came from a group of 500,000 ‘forgotten families’ (defined as those with three or four of the seven disadvantages rather than five) and that the programme needed to be extended to them.

Fifth, the final version of the Troubled Families Programme uses completely different criteria (anti-social behaviour, children not in school, adult on out-of-work benefits and causing high cost to the public purse) to define the families but still manages to come up with precisely the same 120,000 figure. This beggars belief but then if you cut £448 million from local authority budgets and then make them bid to get it back based on the number of troubled families you tell them they should be identifying you should not be too surprised if they come up with the same answer.

Sixth, given the problems with the overall numbers, how can we have any confidence that the money will be spent effectively? Especially when it is based on payment by results – just look what is happening with that in the Work Programme so far.

Seventh, the successes quoted by Louise Casey are the result of family intervention projects but many have had their funding cut by the coalition. In October, Action for Children found that out of 22 of its centres, five had closed, two more were under threat of closure and three-quarters had seen their funding cut. The Troubled Families Programme is effectively trying the same approach with less money and, as Patrick Butler points out for The Guardian, at a time when rising poverty is going to make the job harder.

Louise Casey and everyone involved in the Troubled Families Programme are doing important work. Seen from the ground up, there are troubled families, high-contact families, families with multiple disadvantages, out there. Despite the sneering of Humphrys  (‘if society calculates these people are not capable, we as a society have to make a choice don’t we?) there is evidence that intensive support from a dedicated worker can produce results.

Seen from the top down though, the programme is founded on made-up ‘facts’ and the systematic distortion of research evidence. The more they are repeated, the worse it gets, and Casey’s 16 interviews do little to counteract that. It is trying to make things better at a time when cuts and rising poverty are making things worse regardless of Casey’s threat to use a ‘very big stick’ and even eviction.  And it has political bosses who think that if there are troubled families then common sense says that they must also be trouble-making families and who, as Eric Pickles puts it, want ‘to be a little less understanding’ to families who are ‘fluent in social work’.


12 Comments on “More trouble with troubled families”

  1. […] here for my updated blog on troubled families. Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponLike this:Like2 […]

  2. acareo says:

    A fair reflection on what is on the public domain. Behind the scenes DCLG officials are pretty open that the PbR criteria are just a device to get the money out there in a way which keeps the three principle funding departments happy; namely DWP, MOJ and DfE. It enables said departments to monitor progress through their own datasets. Localism eh?

    DCLG are working on a far more holistic evaluation framework that will morally compel councils to look at the REAL problem families, not just the youth offender who bunks off school with a mum on Income Support.

    • julesbirch says:

      Thanks, interesting comment… This is obviously happening on several different levels. Hopefully some of the real work will get done despite the dodgy stats and the even dodgier assumptions

      • acareo says:

        Bottom line is FIPs that are well resourced work and they work well. Jury is out on sustainability of outcomes and there’s a real need for the other sectors of gov/wider public sector who will really benefit to step up on the funding side. Councils alone cannot sustain 60% of the costs.

      • julesbirch says:

        Which explains why Louise Casey was quite so keen to encourage housing organisations to get involved at the CIH conference in Manchester last month.

  3. DB says:


    Really excellent stuff, thanks for this. So refreshing to see a presentation of the facts rather than the rhetoric.

    Please keep going on these points, I will also. It matters because the kind of things we hear about “troubled families” while as you say based on elements of truth, get amplified to a level and scale that public opinion will continue to harden against those less fortunate. And that’s a worrying direction for society to be heading in….

    • julesbirch says:

      Thanks – it’s a little outside the subjects I usually cover so good to hear. Interesting how concern with ‘social exclusion’ has been replaced by ‘social justice’ and this is the part of the result. Lots of connections with Labour’s approach but with added pathologising of the problem.

  4. Paul Smith says:

    The debate about numbers is a little arid. Don’t see why it matters, if a programme works lets get it going, the numbers can be altered up or down based upon experience

    • julesbirch says:

      On one level I agree – many areas already doing good work and I guess a programme with a factoid as a premise, a programme doing the same thing for less money and even a programme that accepts the dodgy political and moral preconceptions of Pickles is better than no programme at all – you can only work with things as they are. On the other, how can payment by results work when the results will be judged against such an unreliable number?

  5. […] the next spending review and the recommendations of the Montague review of private renting. The troubled families programme and its use of payment by results would surely meet with her […]

  6. […] More trouble with troubled families – a John Humphrys interview with Louise Casey got my goat but the problems with a programme […]

  7. maggoo266 says:

    What I find disturbing is that councils that identify and then access the the funding don’t actually tell the family they on now on their systems as a “troubled family”. I have been doing some research In Stoke-on-Trent, and over 600 families have been identified and are listed on their housing IT system and social care IT system as a “troubled family”.

    In an FOI I did they admit that not a single family is aware of this tag.

    This information is also shared with police and health partners.

    When interviewing social workers, they seem to be very uncomfortable in helping to label a family as troubled to help the council access this extra funding without the knowledge of the family themselves.

    What are the impacts of being labelled on public body databases in this way – with no way of knowing you have been labelled and therefore no means to challenged such a label?

    Could this have an impact on how they are treated in the future when engaging with these bodies?

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