There is nothing wrong with a Government setting up a special programme to help those families facing the most disadvantage to overcome the problems they face. Indeed it is laudable to see resources devoted to this objective. So why is it that the Coalition’s ‘Troubled Families’ programme makes me feel very uncomfortable and even hostile?
The unusually high profile civil servant who runs the scheme, Louise Casey, was on Newsnight this week (from 11.50) to discuss it following an interview she gave to the Sunday Times. Professional though she is, I was left with the strong impression that the Government will be claiming to have ‘turned round’ increasingly large numbers of families on the basis of rather flimsy evidence and a low threshold for measuring success. The measure of success also seemed to be rather bureaucratic, based on local authorities making claims under the scheme’s ‘payments by results’ system.
Statistics have been published that assert that 40,000 families were ‘turned round’ by March 2014. But we are left in the dark as to what this exactly means. Has a family really been ‘turned round’ because a child’s exclusion rate from school has declined? Have they been ‘turned round’ permanently? If they have been ‘turned round’, how long will they stay on the scheme? And why have some authorities been so much more successful than others? There is a very wide disparity. Is it because some are better at turning round families – or better at claiming the money?
There was the usual confusion in the media about the figures involved. Full Fact is investigating where the latest and widely-used figure that these families cost £30 billion a year has come from and whether it has some kind of official endorsement. David Cameron has extended the scheme from 120,000 families to a staggering 500,000 families. The £30 billion may well be a grossing up of the official estimate made at the start of the programme that the 120,000 families ‘cost’ £9 billion a year – a figure which was strongly questioned by Full Fact at the time. No evidence that I have seen has been produced to show who the extra 400,000 families are or what their problems might be.
Figures like these feed the media frenzy about ‘Shameless’ families sponging off the state – ‘the rise of the underclass’ as the Daily Mail called it this week. But it is important to point out that there were serious doubts about the methodology from the off, including on Red Brick, here and here. The initial criteria suggested that these families faced unemployment, living in poor accommodation or mental or physical ill-health or disability. This is far from the ‘Shameless’ stereotype which focuses on fecklessness and wilful bad behaviour rather than the underlying causes of poverty. None of the criteria for counting the families capture dysfunctionality in the way the Government claims – families who are ‘off the barometer in the number of problems they have’ as Louise Casey described them.
There are many and good reasons for supporting family intervention programmes, and there is good research to back up the claims for their effectiveness. But as the Government scheme progresses, and in the run-up to the Election, we should be very wary and sceptical about the claims Cameron makes for it.
* ‘I’m troubled and I don’t know why’ performed by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in 1963.