400,000 ‘high risk’ families – policy making by ‘estimate’

I posted a blog a few weeks ago about a Freedom of Information request I had submitted regarding the expansion of the Troubled Families Programme to include 400,000 newly identified ‘high-risk’ families. The response I got to my request for some more detailed information on how the numbers involved had been calculated basically told me it was early days and it wouldn’t be appropriate (‘in the public interest’) to disclose this information to me. I argued in the blog that this amounted to ‘decision-based evidence making’

So I submitted another email asking for a review of the original decision and I received the response to that review a couple of weeks ago. I stated that because the figure of 400,000 ‘high-risk families’ was in the public domain, this presumably wasn’t a figure that was still in the early stages of development. The review found that the initial decision not to disclose the information to me was correct and this decision was therefore upheld. What I found slightly surprising though was that the author of the letter informing me of this decision stated

it is clear to me from the relevant documents that 400,000 is an estimate based on information about a number of provisional criteria for identifying high risk families, and that these criteria may be subject to change following the conclusion of the policy formulation process.

Perhaps I missed something from the original announcements but I could see no information whatsoever which suggested this figure was merely an estimate and may be ‘subject to change’. On the contrary, the figure was repeated on numerous occasions and on no time was any qualification added to it. I had also enquired about the methodology that was used to arrive at the figure of 400,000 but it was explained to me that providing me with this info would not be possible without ‘divulging, as an integral part of that information, the provisional criteria used’. This, despite glimpses of the provisional criteria being offered in the press releases and statements accompanying the announcement and issues such as health problems, parenting issues, attendance issues  at school and children at risk of being taken into care were all mentioned. And surely the criteria could be anonymised in some way (e.g. A, B, C, D etc) whilst still explaining the methodology used?

So, this leaves me no further forward in trying to understand how the government identified these 400,000 families. In the meantime however, I did come across a quote from Stan Cohen which, I believe, will prove more helpful than the DCLG have been. In discussing what happens after the Inventory stage of a moral panic, he argues that the net is ‘widened’ to identify more deviants and elements of social control is extended to these ‘at risk’ groups. He states that ‘The targets are not, of course, chosen randomly but from groups already structurally vulnerable to social control’ (p64 2002)

And, on the other hand, we could argue that decision making based on ‘estimates’ is progress of sorts when one considers that the original figure of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ was essentially a factoid and Louise Casey’s ‘listening to Troubled Families’ report was called ‘dipstick research’ by the DCLG.

I’d be interested to hear any views on this and the responses I have had and whether people think this is worth pursuing or not.

Best wishes,


Cohen, S. (2002) Folk devils and moral panics (3rd edn), Abingdon: Routledge

9 thoughts on “400,000 ‘high risk’ families – policy making by ‘estimate’

  1. You could try further, but their response suggest that they don’t actually know the answer (to the first request at least).

    Should you pursue… yes, but maybe in the longer term. Perhaps through making it known in political lobbying circles or academic circles that you have got nowhere with the request. This may embarrass them into providing a valid reply.

    But who am I to advise an experienced campaigner and academic. I’m new to this.

    • George, many thanks for your comment. It’s really appreciated. I agree that they probably don’t know the answer or, perhaps more likely, the methodology will be pretty shaky.

      Just to let you into a little secret, I don’t think of myself as an experienced campaigner or academic at all. I’ve just started a PhD and I far prefer trying to pass myself off as a newbie so your comment is definitely welcome

      I might think about your ‘political circles’ suggestion…

      Best wishes,


  2. I have also recently began a p/t PhD, in community cohesion and accompanied asylum seeker children. So not directly your subject, but looking forward to your talk tomorrow at Newcastle.

    Best wishes


  3. Personally I think this is the kind of FOI refusal that the Information Commissioner would be quite interested in getting his teeth into. What section did they apply as an exemption? It really is wafer thin.

  4. Many thanks Chaminda. The exemptions were made under Section 35(1) (a) and (b) which relate to policy under development and ministerial discussions I think. I think they seem fairly poor excuses but it’s one of the first FOIs I’ve submitted so not entirely sure if this is standard or a bit different. I may send a tentative letter to the IC…..Best wishes, Steve

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