With her background at Shelter, Louise Casey understands the power that a strong case history can have in humanising and illustrating a complex policy issue. But her report on interviews with 16 families, in her current role as Head of the Government’s ‘Troubled Families’ project (or Troubled Families Tsar if you prefer), published this week, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
The problem lies not so much in the project itself, which builds on the previous and successful work on family intervention, but in the spin and the dirty politics that lie behind it. A potentially useful programme is being dressed up for media consumption to make a point.
We have commented before that Ministers seem absolutely determined to portray these ‘troubled families’ in a particular way, to caricature them as depraved not deprived. That way they hope the public will conclude that all we have to do is address the personal behaviour of a tiny minority, heaping the blame on the so-called dependency culture rather than poverty and failing services.
The original estimate of the size of the problem, which led to the adoption of the oft-repeated ‘120,000 families’ figure, was based on 2004 data which took a much wider view of indicators of multiple deprivation, including poor housing, no qualifications, mental health problems, disability, and inadequate income to cover basics. The criteria for the selection of families are now much more targeted at involvement in crime, risk of going into care, school truancy, and domestic violence, factors that have very little to do with the original 120,000. This has been expertly exposed by Jonathan Portes and by Fullfact. As New Statesman says ‘This zombie statistic refuses to die’.
The excellent Fullfact have challenged the way CLG spins the 16 as being somehow representative of the 120,000, which they aren’t, and then spins the 120,000 as being somehow representative of a whole underclass, which is misconceived.
It looks like the project itself is being steered away from families experiencing multiple deprivation (which might require public resources to resolve) towards the Prime Minister’s idea of neighbours from hell (and he has experience given what we have discovered about his neighbours in Chipping Norton), and towards Eric Pickles’ notion of people we should understand less and condemn more. Gone are the criteria relating to poor housing and disability and low income. And nowhere is there reference to the fact that existing Family Intervention Projects have been subject to cuts so there are fewer services not more.
Casey’s report on the selection of 16 families is undoubtedly grim. The stories of violence and abuse are shameful and disturbing. As always, there are a few families that fit the Shameless stereotype and you do wonder what young people are being taught about contraception. But ultimately the report reads like a script from the loathsome Jeremy Kyle Show: pointing at the Chavs and moralising about their sub-human behaviour. Despite being mainly in the families’ own words, it feels like it has been put together by a redundant News of the World journalist.
I couldn’t get past case study 7 and jumped to the end. Here we find an assessment of the evidence that is largely balanced and occasionally insightful. But most journalists didn’t get that far and so more lurid headlines are generated. ‘Criminal culture at the heart of feckless families: Shocking report lifts lid on incest, abuse and spiral of alcohol abuse’ said the Daily Mail. No wonder that Zoe Williams in the Guardian concluded: ‘I believe the ulterior motive is the demonisation of the poor’.
The problem with the whole underclass theory is that many of the behaviours that are identified are classless. Undoubtedly they have a much harsher impact, and are a lot harder to resolve, when the family is also badly housed, poorly educated, and very poor – but that is the bit the Government doesn’t want to recognise. Having a child with ADHD, or a parent with mental ill-health, as many of the 16 families have, would devastate most middle class families with good incomes. Alcohol and drugs can have a huge impact on even the wealthiest families, witness the Rausings; but children from wealthy homes don’t normally end up in the disastrous care system. Sexual abuse and violence have been perpetrated by the most religious as well as the most godless. And as for incest…..
The problems faced by the 16, or the 120,000, and indeed many more families, are rooted in poverty and bad housing whatever their individual pathology or personal failures. The latter will not be treated without also treating the former.