Cameron and Pickles finally flipped this week. Only they could tell the world, without a shred of humour, that they were going to tackle ‘troubled families’ by appointing ‘trouble shooters’. Of course this might appeal to some of their backbenchers when they have finished with their Nazi-dress stag parties.
When interviewed, Pickles seemed not to have a clue what he was talking about and couldn’t even describe what the ‘trouble shooters’ would do. Frankly, he didn’t seem up to the task set by Cameron a year ago when he said he wanted to ‘turn round every troubled family in the country’ by the end of the current parliament.
There is of course a serious point here, and no-one would complain about developing the good work done in Labour’s family intervention projects. But many of the services that are most relevant to these families are precisely those that are being cut as the Government’s deficit reduction plan bites.
Serious doubts have emerged about the figure of ‘120,000 most troubled families’ who ‘cost the state £8 billion a year’.
Who are these families? Well, according to much of the media, they are the ‘Shameless’ families who live on benefits, refuse to work, don’t send their children to school, adopt ASB as the family sport, etc etc, the typical everyday Daily Mail stereotype of the feckless working class. John Redwood MP calls them ‘the worst problem families’ who use up ‘a small army of state employees’. Even the better news organisations said these were ‘dysfunctional’ ‘problem’ families. Sky News used examples of domestic violence, repeat offenders, people who have been in care, and children excluded from school.
Really, who are these families? Over at Fullfact they have tried to track down the figures, stretching back to research done for the Social Exclusion Unit many years ago. The ‘120,000 families‘ figure turns out to be a reworking of the SEU’s estimate of the number of households who scored on five out of seven indicators or disadvantages. But none of the indicators concerned ASB or criminality or school exclusions or benefit fraud convictions, and it would be possible to be one of the 120,000 without being on out-of-work benefits at all. The SEU indicators are not measures of bad behaviour but of poverty, overcrowding, disability, mental ill-health and low income as well as worklessness. It’s not even clear whether we are talking exclusively about families with children at all and whether, for example, older people are included.
Cameron said the Government has estimated how many troubled families are in each area but this sounds like a very dodgy bit of arithmetic, taking an old figure based on different criteria and dividing by the number of local authority areas. It is very different from having a list of households to work with and councils will struggle to operationalise the new policy even if they wanted to and even if they could afford to.
I’m happy to support more money being spent on co-ordinating services to low income households, although it is the height of cynicism for the Government to expect local government to put in 60% of the cost. There are a lot of agencies involved offering a bewildering array of services with different eligibility criteria, so better co-ordination and more targeted service delivery seems like a good thing to do. I suspect however that if the ‘trouble shooter’ starts by assessing the services received by the household then looking at what they need and what they are entitled to the cost will go up rather than down.
The ‘Shameless’ stereotype is now so strong that the automatic assumption in all debates is that it is a true depiction of the workless poor – see the newspapers but also watch/listen to the supposedly intelligent programmes like Any Questions and Question Time which are stuffed full of right wing demagogues peddling these myths.
Family intervention was indeed aimed at the tiny number of families who really could not cope with raising a family and needed intensive (and non-judgemental) support. But this is not what Cameron and Pickles are up to. They are on a propaganda mission, to convince the public (with the mighty media machine behind them) that the real issues are fecklessness and inadequacy and not poverty and unemployment. In short, blame the poor and not the bankers, and certainly not the Tories.
And slightly off-piste: was anyone else rather shocked to hear Boris Johnson on the Marr show this morning say that he expected one nation to drop out of the Euro, but then comment that the upside would be that ouzo would be lot cheaper. Hilarious or not, isn’t he meant to be leading our capital city with a little integrity and dignity? I wonder what the many Greeks living in London think of his little joke?