“… a world that is almost unrecognisable…”

On Thursday of last week, there was a ‘motion to take note’ of women facing homelessness, domestic violence and social exclusion in the House of Lords. As a result of this notice, and it’s reassuring to know that the second chamber have noticed, the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) got some interesting coverage.

Lord Farmer, the Treasurer of the Conservative party, making his maiden speech said that ‘Domestic violence is an issue in the vast majority of cases’ of ‘troubled families’. He ended his speech by stating that ‘it is my intention to contribute to the work of this House, and especially in these vital areas of social policy’. Perhaps he could ensure he gets his facts right before he contributes again as the figures released by DCLG recently suggest that Domestic Violence, as assessed/estimated by Key Workers working with ‘troubled families’, affected around 30% of families.  So, in complete contradiction to what Lord Farmer said, the vast majority of families involved in the TFP were NOT experiencing Domestic Violence, according to the only ‘statistics’ that have been published.

Baroness Armstrong (Labour) attempted to claim credit for laying the foundations of the TFP arguing that ‘If noble Lords read the reports from Louise Casey around troubled families—much of that work, although it is never acknowledged, grew out of work that I was doing as Minister for Social Exclusion and that we did in the respect programme in the previous Government’.

Baroness Healy (Labour) highlighted a report by St. Mungo’s called Rebuilding Shattered Lives which called on government to ensure that the TFP was addressing the needs of girls at risk of homelessness.

But perhaps the most interesting remarks were by Baroness Grender of the Lib Dems. She said:

‘… anyone who has seen someone grow up under the shadow of domestic violence will know that those scars run very deep. That is why the Troubled Families project led by Louise Casey has such significance, trying to capture and work with those children and families, ensuring that families learn those small steps—getting up and being clean, fed and off to school or work each day—which are all part of re-engaging with society. The Government’s introduction of the project and welcome extension of the scheme to an additional 400,000 of the most problematic families will, I believe, be looked back on one day as a turning point for those who are currently in a world that is almost unrecognisable. The recent news that 70,000 families’ lives have already been turned around is something that we should watch and review with interest’ (emphases added).

The suggestion that ‘troubled families’ are somehow ‘cut-off’ from the rest of society, living in ‘a world that is almost unrecognisable’ and needing to take ‘small steps’ to ‘re-engage’ is one that is not supported by any available evidence, conveniently ignoring that most children in ‘troubled families’ attend school and many of the families are already in work. It is also noteworthy for other reasons, coming as it does from a peer who recently claimed that being a member of the House of Lords  was ‘unaffordable’ for ordinary people such as hairdressers and bus drivers, because the daily tax-free allowance of £300 per day leaves people reliant on a partner’s income. The Daily Mail helpfully pointed out that this allowance is equivalent to a pre-tax annual salary of around £60,000. Who needs to re-engage with society now?

Dan Silver recently wrote an excellent blog arguing that, instead of making more ‘poverty porn’, television cameras should be trained on those individuals and families that are located at the top of our society. If anyone is inhabiting a world that is unrecognisable, it is people like Baroness Grender where the equivalent of £60,000 leaves you feeling hard done by….

The discussion ended with Baroness King, who introduced the motion, highlighting the contribution that Lord Farmer (see above) made to the debate. She thanked him and said ‘The insight and understanding he brought to the debate were breathtaking’. Words fail me….


**** Baroness Grender’s remarks reminded me of some responses to Benefits Street where spatial imagery such as ‘twilight worlds’ and a ‘second Britain’ was used to ‘other’ people living in poverty. I wrote about this with Tom Slater and you can find the article here. The ‘being clean’ bit of her speech reminded me of George Orwell and this****


Has the Troubled Families Programme itself been ‘turned around’?

Now that the riots have happened I will make sure that we clear away the red tape and the bureaucratic wrangling, and put rocket boosters under this programme…

…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

(David Cameron, 15 August 2011)

On Wednesday of last week, The Guardian published a story, following a press release from DCLG that suggested that the government had met their ‘troubled families’ ‘target’ with 9 months to spare. The article stated:

Families have been brought into government programme nine months earlier than planned, local authority figures suggest

The government claims to have reached its target of starting to help 120,000 troubled families nine months earlier than planned.

There had been scepticism, including from the National Audit Office and public accounts committee (PAC) that central and local government would be able to identify as many as 120,000 families in need of help. The 120,000 needed to be identified between April 2012 and May 2015

This ‘success’ was also reported in an article in The Independent this morning (3/11/2014). Such ‘success’ in reaching the government’s target would indicate that the target had changed since the inception of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP).Then, the target was to ‘turn around’ the lives of these families by the end of the current parliament, not merely identify and start working with them, as David Cameron noted in his fightback speech following the 2011 riots, at the top of this post, and at the launch of the TFP in December 2011, below

We are committing £448 million to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by the end of this Parliament.

As the piece referred to both the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and National Audit Office (NAO) reports, I revisited them to check that I hadn’t missed anything. The NAO report is very explicit that the ‘objective’ of the TFP is to ‘turn around the lives of 120,000 troubled families between 1 April 2012 and 31 May 2015’ (p4). This is repeated in different ways a number of times and the report also interestingly notes that DCLG have advised authorities to work with more than their indicative number of families in order to help ensure that they turn round the target number (p20). The PAC report is equally unequivocal

In 2012, DCLG and DWP each introduced separate programmes to help these families. DCLG’s Troubled Families programme, with a central government budget of £448 million, aims to ‘turn around’ all 120,000 families by May 2015.

We welcome the commitment shown by all those involved in the DCLG’s programme to achieve lasting improvement in the lives of 120,000 troubled families by May 2015. The target set requires each of the 152 local authorities in England to identify and then “turn around” families that meet the definition of a troubled family (p5, emphases added).

So, there is nothing in the reports that suggest that the target has changed and there has been no official announcement about a change of target. The article in The Guardian is also all the more surprising given that the paper has often been gently critical of the TFP and, in June of this year, they published an article which was highly critical of the potential of the programme to reach the target.

The source of the misunderstanding, then, might be traced to what I would argue is a duplicitous statement in the DCLG press release accompanying the latest publication of local authority figures. The press release states

The Communities Secretary on Wednesday (29 October 2014) welcomed the latest success of the scheme, which has now succeeded in reaching almost all of the hardest to help homes in the country that the Prime Minister pledged to help (emphases added).

Of course, the statement doesn’t state that the/a target has been met, but it does, at the very least, suggest a ‘success’ in meeting the Prime Minister’s ‘pledge’. The release also states that ‘99% of families targeted (are) being worked with by local teams’. The fact that, with around 9 months left to reach the actual target set by the Prime Minister the nearly three years ago, around 42% of the families have not been ‘turned around’ yet, didn’t stop Eric Pickles saying ‘It’s a triple-win; an amazing programme; and we’re going to extend its reach as far as possible’

The amount of positive spin being placed on this programme shouldn’t surprise us. I blogged earlier this year that the Prime Minister had too much political capital invested in the scheme to allow it to be viewed as a failure and we should remember that ‘troubled families’ were a ‘problem’ created and constructed by this government precisely because they believed that they could solve the ‘problem’. There have been numerous misrepresentations of data and figures both in the construction of the perceived problem and, now, in the extent of the government’s success in solving it. This is merely the latest in a long line of misinformation which plays a core part of this ‘policy racket’ and which, unfortunately, on this occasion, has been swallowed by two respected national newspapers.

The ‘unpolitics’ of child poverty

‘Some issues are organized into politics while others are organized out’ (Crenson, 1971)

I’ve had an article published in the latest edition of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) journal Poverty on the ‘unpolitics’ of child poverty. Basically, I try and suggest that whilst there has been a lot of activity around tackling child poverty in the UK, there has also been a lot of inactivity in potentially important areas. There are things that are very effectively kept off the political agenda – such as wealth and the amount of unpaid tax and the corporate welfare system  – which, if included in discussions about why poverty occurs and how we can end it, might help more than focusing on guff such as ‘raising aspirations’ and tackling ‘cultures of worklessness’….

The article can be found here

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