Earlier this week, an article on the Mail Online suggested that, on Thursday of this week, Eric Pickles would announce that the government ‘are on track to turn around 120,000 troubled families’. Now, for once, I’m tempted to believe something in the Mail. So, if the Mail is right and there is to be an announcement tomorrow on the ‘success’ of the programme, here’s some background info which might help to frame it.
In his ‘fightback after the riots’ speech, David Cameron stated that
‘I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme (to help ‘troubled families’)…
…with a clear ambition that within the lifetime of this Parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country’
In launching the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) as we now know it a couple of months later, Cameron stated that
‘my mission in politics – the thing I am really passionate about – is fixing the responsibility deficit’
‘We are committing £448 million to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by the end of this Parliament.’
With such a personal commitment from the Prime Minister no-one should have been in any doubt that the TFP was always going to be a ‘success’. There are also other developments and announcements which highlight how important the ‘success’ of the TFP is to the government. The ‘massive expansion’ of the programme to include 400,000 newly identified ‘high-risk families’ was announced last June before any evaluation had reported on the success of otherwise of the programme and when the most recent publicly available information at the time showed that just 1675 families (or less than 1.5% of the total) had been ‘turned round’. The programme also received extra funding during the Budget, enabling ‘high performing’ councils to work with an extra 40,000 families in the coming financial year. Eric Pickles has previously suggested that progress with the TFP has been ‘phenomenal’.
In raising the profile of ‘troubled families’ and making them a visible social problem, Cameron (and, by extension, the government) invested a lot of personal and political capital in the programme. It was never going to fail, be allowed to fail or, more specifically, be seen to fail. As Spector & Kitsuse noted in their influential book Constructing Social Problems:
‘the belief that something could be done about a condition is a prerequisite to its becoming a social problem. People do not define as problems those conditions they feel are immutable, inherent in human nature or the will of God … Every experience of displeasure and dissatisfaction has its origins in the availability, if not promise, of remedies, cures, reforms and solutions for such troubles’. (1977: 84)
This leaves the small problem of actually demonstrating that the programme has been a success in ‘turning round’ the lives of the families. Leaving aside the arbitrary, short-term, narrow behavioural focus on what the government constitutes ‘turning round’ a family (there, technically speaking, is no need to address health issues, living standards, even Domestic Violence if it’s an issue – these problems don’t ‘count’) the numbers returned by local authorities are an interesting case. As Ruth Levitas points out in her recent Troubled Families in a Spin, ‘Local variation in the criteria used to identify troubled families generates statistics that are not comparable across the board’. She goes on to note that the DCLG state that the numbers provided by local authorities do not constitute ‘official statistics’ and:
Since the figures were collated from returns from the 152 upper tier local authorities, so they were not ‘produced’ by the DCLG, even if the Department was responsible for placing them in the public domain and trumpeting them as evidence for the TFP’s success. More importantly, the 2007 Act also set up the statistics watchdog, the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), which among other things has ‘a duty to monitor, and report publicly, on areas of concern about the quality, good practice, and comprehensiveness of all official statistics across Government and its arms-length bodies’. Although local authorities might be considered to be ‘arms-length bodies’, the real meaning of denying that these are official statistics is that they have not been assessed by and are not subject to the scrutiny of UKSA: the DCLG does not want to be held to account either for the quality of the data or its political (mis)use.
As such, it is impossible to verify the numbers that local authorities submit. Not only do the local filter criteria differ between authorities, but internal audit processes, the only scrutiny process that all of these figures are subject to, also differ markedly between authorities. Official guidance for local authorities in the Financial Framework for the TFP states that central government oversight of the numbers will be confined to ‘a small number of ‘spot’ checks:
We are asking for self-declarations of these results by your local authority and the Troubled Families team will issue results payments on the basis of these declarations. This should be approved within your own Internal Audit arrangements and under the authority of the Chief Executive. In addition, Department for Communities and Local Government will carry out a small number of ‘spot checks’ in a sample of areas (p11)
Louise Casey has also spoken about her ‘worry list’ of local authorities who are not making the progress required by the programme and who, as a consequence, receive extra attention from her, maybe even a visit. It would appear then, that as long as authorities are seen to be making good ‘progress’, they may be rewarded with extra funding, but those who do not show sufficient progress receive extra scrutiny… As I said at the start, the programme was never going to be portrayed as anything other than a ‘success’ from the moment it was launched.
My leap of faith in believing the Mail may, of course, come back to haunt me and I may have got this very wrong. Eric Pickles may hold his hands up on Thursday and say ‘You know what, we tried and we didn’t quite get there. We aren’t going to make good on the Prime Ministers personal ambition in respect of these families and, in the run up to the General Election, we need to be clear with the public about or shortcomings.’ But I wouldn’t put money on it.
Spector, M. & Kitsuse, J. (1977) Constructing Social Problems, New York: Aldine de Gruyter