Where is the love, Eric?

where is the love

A recent speech by Eric Pickles to the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners has just been uploaded onto the DCLG Troubled Families website. In the speech, Pickles talks about the need for more integrated, joined up working across public services, including the police. He mentions the Troubled Families Programme as an example of how this joined up approach can work. Below is the text of what he said about ‘troubled families’ with my emphases added:

And the final example of this more collaborative, preventative approach is the troubled families programme: sorting out the households who’ve got multiple problems who cause massive problems for their communities and who cost the public purse £9 billion a year.

We asked councils to identify these families, but they’ve often been known to the police for years with crime escalating from truancy to shoplifting to criminal damage, often mixed in with chronic worklessness, poor literacy, mental health problems, drug use, truancy – the list goes on and on and the cycle starts again with the next generation.  In Oldham, a single troubled family was responsible for nearly 100 call outs over a year.

We cannot keep throwing billions of pounds to contain the chaos these families cause so instead we are taking an assertive, intensive approach which is already turning families around.

And the challenging, authoritative voice of the police is crucial. Some of the most successful family intervention projects are those where the police are heavily involved. Because sometimes it’s only when a family is truly confronted with consequences – whether that’s the threat of eviction, of having kids taken into care, or criminal proceedings – that they start taking things seriously.

It’s an approach which involves tough love: workers who are sensitive and supportive when that’s needed but are also prepared to say enough is enough.

So, my question is, where is the love, Eric? I can’t see any…..

Listening? Or ‘discernment at a distance’?

A report published by DCLG last year called ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ caused a small amount of controversy. The report, based on interviews conducted by Louise Casey, was accused of not following ethical guidelines in research. The DCLG claimed it was not ‘formal research’ and Casey herself has claimed that she never ‘pretended that (it) was research with a capital ‘R’’ but the criticisms are, I would argue, still valid. Nick Bailey of the University of Glasgow has highlighted failures in regard to the free and informed consent of the participants, issues around confidentiality and non-disclosure and concerns around sound and appropriate methods and interpretation of findings.

Despite these criticisms of her approach on this occasion, Casey has consistently argued that it is vital to listen to the ‘Troubled Families’ in order to better understand them and help to ‘turn their lives round’. She talks, in the foreword to the report of wanting ‘to get to know these families’ and elsewhere of wanting to ‘connect with the actual families and get under the skin of what’s happened to them in their lives’. In a recent appearance before the DCLG Select Committee, Casey said

I do not believe that the policy for which you are accountable to Ministers should be divorced from the human beings on the receiving end of it … It is incredibly important, in roles like mine, to remember what all of this is for. There is nothing like meeting those families and realising just how difficult their lives have been and the backgrounds many of them have come from … Throughout the jobs I have had the privilege to hold, it has been important for me to remember, with some degree of humility, what this is all about.(my emphasis)

In terms of the work taking place on the ground, Casey also noted that

You are not in a fighting relationship with the families. When families talk about this work they refer to, say, Jayne, being the first person who has ever listened to what they wanted; nobody has ever helped them before. (my emphasis)

The report makes for very depressing reading and Casey notes that the families ‘had entrenched, long-term cycles of suffering problems and causing problems’ with a particular emphasis on violence and abuse:

The most striking common theme that families described was the history of sexual and physical abuse, often going back generations; the involvement of the care system in the lives of both parents and their children, parents having children very young, those parents being involved in violent relationships, and the children going on to have behavioural problems, leading to exclusion from school, anti-social behaviour and crime. (p1)

Whenever I read the report, I am reminded of writing by Steph Lawler to describe another set of wider interviews into ‘suffering’. She argued that the researchers had sought out the very worst of circumstances, conveying ‘little but hopelessness’, arguing that ‘misery was what they went looking for, and misery is what they found’ (2005, p434)

However, the concern with ‘listening’ to these families and some wider elements of the Troubled Families Programme such as a single dedicated worker for each family and an emphasis of ‘transforming lives’, look, at first sight, very similar to the relational welfare approach advocated by Participle. Note the similarities with the text below from a document by Hilary Cottam:

The constant visits and delivery of messages do not constitute a conversation, and the families do not feel properly listened to or understood. Asked to change, the families have no lived experience of what this might feel like; and, worse still, they know that these commands are accompanied by the dead weight of expectation that they can’t change – ‘this family will never change’, it was explained to us.

But, on slightly closer inspection, some slippages between the two approaches begin to appear. On the next page of the relational welfare document, Cottam writes

Ella and another mother were asked to be part of a panel who interviewed and selected a team, from existing front-line workers in Swindon, who could work with one hundred families in similar circumstances. These mothers had no time for those they thought would be ‘soft’ with them, and even less for those they saw as somehow dehumanised representatives of the system. They chose professionals who confessed that they did not necessarily have the answers, but who convinced them they would stick with it …

These new teams have been allotted only a sliver of the former budget. What they can do is spend this money in any way the families decide – on their very first family outings in some cases, in others as a float to start very successful social enterprises. All initiatives are chosen and driven by the families themselves, which is key to transformation.

This approach contrasts sharply with the centralised approach adopted by the Troubled Families Programme. For all the talk of localism, it is a programme where the outcomes, decided in Westminster, are prescriptive, narrow and focused on short term behaviour change. Funding to support the work stays with central government until they are satisfied that, according to their criteria, ‘transformation’ has taken place. On top of this, Casey herself has, on occasion, used very different language to describe the approach adopted by the TFP:

What we know works is this thing called family intervention and what it does is basically get into the actual family, in their front room and if actually the kids aren’t in school it gets in there and says to the parents I’m gonna show you and explain to you exactly how to get your kids up and out every single day and then I’m gonna make you do it.  And if you don’t do it, there are gonna be consequences.

They walk into these families’ lives; they do not invite them to an office for an appointment with a letter. They walk through the front door and into the front room past two extraordinarily difficult and dangerous-looking dogs that they hope are locked in the kitchen. They have to sit on a settee, often in a pretty rough environment with some very aggressive people, and, with kids not in school and people all over the criminal justice system and so on, they have to get them from there to there.

On occasions she has publicly suggested that, even after listening to the families, she has decided that she didn’t necessarily believe what they were saying:

Some families think that their problems are often because of just one child when that is clearly not the case and that child is neither the only problem nor the starting point of where the problems in the family began. (DCLG 2012)

So, all this stuff about “I can’t control him” and those sorts of things just isn’t true. (my emphases)

It would appear, then, that there are two very different models of ‘listening’ to ‘troubled families’ or ‘families with multiple disadvantages’ and that those models have implications for how these families are talked about, represented and, ultimately, treated as human beings. Dan Silver of the Social Action Research Foundation has argued that co-production of policies and services is vital if we are to truly tackle poverty and disadvantage, suggesting that ‘we need to transform the very nature of public policy by locating technocratic and citizen knowledge on a more equal footing’. He goes on to say:

This requires a shift in the model of governance and public policy that currently exists, which privileges statistical data and economic performance management, towards a model that draws more upon the experiences of people living in poverty. 

Mark Peel, in a chapter called ‘Hope’ in The Lowest Rung (a book that shares the voices of people living in poverty in Australia) sums up the difference between these two approaches brilliantly:

The point is to listen to what they are saying. It won’t be easy, because it depends on getting close enough to hear words that aren’t about pain, suffering and heroic endurance but about hope and anger. It demands an approach based on working with people, not on them. It is the difference between what activist Pam MacShane called ‘the model of discernment at a distance’ and ‘empowering them, trusting them’. It is the difference between telling them what to do and asking them what needs to be done, in the belief that they know best. (my emphasis) (2003, p170).


DCLG (2012) Listening to Troubled Families, London: DCLG

Lawler, S. (2005) Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities, The Sociological Review 430-446

Peel, M. (2003) The lowest rung, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

This post was first published on the Relational Welfare blog on 11/10/2013

‘High risk’ families and ‘decision-based evidence making’

On 24th June 2013, the government announced that the Troubled Families Programme was going to see a ‘massive expansion’ that would lead to an extra ‘400,000 high risk families’ receiving ‘intensive help’. There was a lack of further detail in the announcement, and so I sent a Freedom of Information request to DCLG to see if I could find out a bit more about the 400,000 newly identified families. The main bulk of the text from my request is below

… could you please provide me with the following information regarding the expansion of the Troubled Families Programme to include ‘high risk families’

  1. Information relating to how the figure of 400,000 high risk families was calculated –  including details of the methodology and any data sources used.
  2. Will the 400,000 high risk families be broken down into individual local authority areas as the Troubled Families have been and, if this has already happened, could you please provide the details of these numbers and how they were calculated.
  3. What the criteria for being identified as a ‘high risk family’ is. i.e. what is the definition of a high risk family?
  4. How many families the £200 million is expected be spent on. i.e. how much money per family does the government expect to be allocating to local authorities in 2015-2016.
  5. Clarify if the £200 million is ‘for’ 2015-2016 or is ‘available from’ 2015-2016. If it is the latter, could you please provide details of the term that the funding covers. (there is some ambiguity on the gov website regarding this)
  6. Details of the Payment By Results framework for high risk families. What outcomes will need to be achieved for councils to access the PBR programme and when will the government contribution be allocated?
  7. Information on the ‘new incentives for services such as the police, health and social work to work more closely together in order to reduce costs’ that are mentioned on the government website published on 24 June 2013 relating to the extra funding.

I received a response from DCLG just over a week ago and, unfortunately, it didn’t provide me with much extra detail. The response included clarification on point 5 – the £200 million funding is for the financial year 2015-2016, with further allocations presumably subject to future spending reviews

Unfortunately, that was the only real clarification I received. The response from DCLG states

In relation to the remaining questions, I can confirm that the Department does hold some of the information falling within the terms of your request.  However, it is being withheld because it is exempt from disclosure under section 35(1)(a) and (b) of the Freedom of Information Act.  This relates to the formulation or development of government policy and ministerial communications. 

The response went on to state that

the development of the detail of the expanded programme is still in its early stages and further work is required to ensure that the vision set out in the Government’s announcement is translated into a rigorous policy framework and delivery model.

Whilst I can appreciate that this may be the case for points 2, 4, 6 & 7, it seems a bit unsatisfactory when applied to points 1 and 3. The figure of 400,000 is used 6 times in the 2 ‘news story’ documents on the DCLG website promoting the expansion (here and here) and was widely reported in several newspapers at the same time. I would propose that his number appears to have already been formulated and, therefore, is no longer under development. If the number has been agreed (which, I would suggest, it obviously has) there must have been some methodology supporting it (point 1) and that methodology must have included criteria or a definition (point 3). You surely cannot count something unless you are clear about what it is you are trying to count.  Again, there were some references to the ‘troubles’ that families might have been experiencing and which might identify them as ‘high risk’  in both of the DCLG ‘news story’ documents. Danny Alexander stated that

Extending this intensive help to 400,000 more families will enable us to tackle problems such as truancy, anti-social behavior and crime

whilst Louise Casey said

It is great news that the momentum we have built up on the Troubled Families programme can continue by extending the approach to a wider group of families who, for example, are struggling with health problems or parenting, where their children are not in school or are at risk of being taken into care.

Of course, as the response from DCLG states, the government may well have this information, but have chosen not to release it because it “the public interest is best served by protecting the need for the necessary degree of internal discussion, during which suggestions can be made and considered” and “there is a powerful public interest in ensuring that there is space in which ministers and officials are able to discuss policy making and implementation”

All of this reminded me very much of a phrase used by Tom Slater (which he attributed to Rob Penfold), that of ‘decision-based evidence making’ (Boden & Epstein have also called it policy-based evidence making).

A decision has been taken to ‘massively expand’ the TFP and it has been announced in a very high profile way. However, at present, there is no evidence in the public domain that allows the public the opportunity to scrutinize this policy, which isn’t very transparent or accountable. One could conclude, if one were slightly cynical about the TFP, that civil servants were currently trying to produce evidence that supported the policy that had already been decided and announced.

But then, we know that statistics and criteria isn’t the strong point of the TFP and, as Eric Pickles himself has said in relation to this programme, ‘I’m in a hurry.’  Why let facts get in the way of a good story?


Slater T (2008) “A literal necessity to be replaced”: A rejoinder to the gentrification debate. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32(1) 212-223

I am planning to ask for an internal review of the decision, and will post again when I hear the outcome of this review.