Back in 2012 Red Brick dubbed the Government’s ‘Troubled Families’ programme ‘policy-based evidence making’. The newly-released (and sneaked out) evaluation of the billion pound programme proves our point. Despite constant claims by Government that the programme was ‘turning round’ the lives of hundreds of thousands of families – to the point that they massively expanded the scheme after a couple of years – the much-delayed evaluation report says the programme had ‘no measurable impact’.
This is no surprise – if you set something up on a completely false premise you get the wrong outcomes. To justify the policy, Government took a range of statistics that reflected the disadvantage suffered by some families and misrepresented them as showing that the families were dysfunctional – not the victims of economic and social reality, or mental incapacity, or disability, or abuse, or bad housing, or poverty, but to blame for their own social pathology. They were feckless and the Government was going to force more feck on them. It enabled the Tories to stigmatise and demonise a group of families as being responsible for social breakdown and even for the riots.
Much as the media are intrigued by the unusual (for a senior civil servant) personality of the ‘Tsar’ appointed to run the programme, Louise Casey, the Troubled Families policy was another catastrophic failure by David Cameron.
Cameron was an extremely judgemental man, and many of his judgements were plain wrong. ‘You’re talking about blame’, he said, ‘about good behaviour and bad behaviour, about morals.’ He called it the ‘Shameless culture’. His launch speech was full of stereotypes ripped from the pages of the Daily Mail – sink schools, sink estates, choosing to live on the dole, rampaging teenagers. And the big lie: these families had been subjected to ‘compassionate cruelty, swamped with bureaucracy, smothered in welfare yet never able to escape.’
I wrote on Red Brick at the time: ‘Ultimately (it) reads like a script from the loathsome Jeremy Kyle Show: pointing at the Chavs and moralising about their sub-human behaviour.’ And it achieved one of its early aims: good media coverage, with the Daily Mail of course talking about the ‘Criminal culture at the heart of feckless families: Shocking report lifts lid on incest, abuse and spiral of alcohol abuse’.
The fundamental flaw in the analysis – that the government was taking a set of families who were undeniably poor and disadvantaged, and redefining them – without a shred of evidence – as dysfunctional and antisocial.
Of course there were good points about service delivery which will strike a chord with anyone who has been worked with ‘multiply deprived’ families. Too many agencies, too little coordination despite too many meetings, a failure to work with each family holistically, family plans that never get delivered, bizarre rules to access services. And the central solution – a key worker for each family – offered some hope that the system, if not the family, could be turned around.
The failure of the original analysis, and the use and abuse of statistics, was compounded by setting up the project on a ‘payment by results’ basis and an extraordinarily low threshold for allowing councils to say that a family had been ‘turned around’. If a child attends school a bit more often, probably coincidentally to any intervention, and the Government gives a cash-strapped council some money for it, guess what the outcome is? Yes, the headline claim that the Government turned round more than 105,000 troubled families, saving taxpayers an estimated £1.2 billion. And as Jonathan Portes of the NIESR, part of the evaluation team, says: ‘This was untrue: the £1.2 billion is pure, unadulterated fiction.’
Desperate for cash, councils ran rings round a complicit Government, and a programme with no measurable outcomes was deemed a success by all involved. Like Boris Johnson’s Garden Bridge, this was David Cameron’s vanity project designed to sort a problem that was defined by his own prejudice. We all pay and no one benefits. And just like Boris, not one word of apology: in the post-truth world one Government Minister even had the audacity to write an article over the weekend claiming that the programme had worked.
The real failure was that Cameron’s politics and his hubris meant that a large sum of money that could have been used to genuinely help families facing real problems was squandered.
Previous Red Brick pieces as the story unfolded