Written evidence to the Public Accounts Committee Inquiry

Written evidence submitted to the Public Accounts Committee into the Troubled Families Programme

Stephen Crossley

Evidence submitted in an individual capacity


I am a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy in the department of Social Work and Communities at Northumbria University and a PhD student in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University. I received funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for my PhD studies to research the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme in different local authorities in England. I have interviewed workers, managers and directors in three different local authority areas and have also spoken to or had contact with approximately twenty local authority officers involved in delivering the programme in their different local areas. Prior to entering academia, I worked in various local government and voluntary sector roles in the North East of England.

My work has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals and a number of online magazines (a full bibliography is attached at the end of the submission) and I have also written a widely used report for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies[1]. My work has been used by BBC Newsnight[2], Channel 4, The Guardian[3],[4], The Telegraph[5], The Mail Online[6], The Economist[7], The Big Issue[8] and the House of Commons Library[9]. I have presented my work on ‘troubled families’ to national and international conferences, and to academics, policy-makers and practitioners. I have a blog[10] on the Troubled Families Programme which has been visited over 23,000 times by nearly 13,000 people in over 70 countries, and I have also agreed a contract with Policy Press to produce a book on the Troubled Families Programme.

Summary of submission

  • I have made a number of criticisms of the development and implementation of the Troubled Families Programme in other publications (see above and attached bibliography).
  • The points addressed here represent an attempt to draw the Committee’s attention to issues I believe may be of most interest to them, and which remain unresolved.
  • The points are covered in chronological order, which hopefully helps to highlight what I believe is the flawed nature of the programme, from its inception to the ‘suppressed’ evaluation.
  • It is my contention that at almost every stage of the programme, there is a body of evidence that contradicts or undermines the ‘official’ ‘troubled families’ success story that has been advanced by the government.

Blaming the 2011 riots on poor parenting

  1. Before any inquiry into the 2011 riots was even announced[11], the then Prime Minister David Cameron stated that it was poor parenting that was largely to blame, with one only having to ‘join the dots’[12] to understand why the rioting occurred. Other factors such as police racism, social exclusion, unemployment and poverty were immediately discounted. Subsequent research[13] with people involved in the riots suggested that structural issues played a big part in their decision to participate in the disturbances and, of course, not all of those involved in the riots were young people living at home with their parents.

Misuse of the research behind the 120,000 families

  1. The figure of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ comes from research carried out under the previous Labour Government[14], looking at families facing ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as poor maternal mental health, low income, deprivation, poor quality of overcrowded housing and no adults with qualifications in the household. It is now widely accepted that this research was then misused to provide evidence for 120,000 ‘troubled families’ characterised by crime, ASB, and truancy/school exclusion. This issue – along with other limitations of the original research – is covered by Professor Ruth Levitas in her 2012 report There may be trouble ahead: what we know about those 120,000 ‘troubled’ families[15].
  1. Another report, In the eye of the storm[16], published by three charities, critiques the original research and shows the number of families facing multiple disadvantages fluctuating over different years. This undermines the idea that this is a ‘hardcore’ of families that is resistant to attempts by the state to ‘change’ them and strongly suggests that structural factors play a significant role in determining the ‘troubles’ these families face.

Misrepresentation of the research supporting Family Intervention models

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 that intense approach works, we know it works because we’ve already looked at studies that show that this works, basically, and also I’ve met countless families that have been turned around. (Louise Casey, 2 September 2013[17])

  1. The evidence supporting ‘family intervention’ as the best way of working with ‘troubled families’ has also been misrepresented. The most that can be taken from the official evaluations of Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) established under New Labour and widely recognised as the model on which the TFP is based is that some families appear to show some improvements in some areas of their lives at least whilst they are involved in the project, and according to their keyworker. The evidence also shows that FIPs are not very successful in getting people into work or in addressing health issues, which are two characteristics that affect lots of troubled families lives. The best known and most extensive critique of this evidence is from David Gregg, who called the evaluations of FIPs ‘policy based evidence’[18]. Gregg also highlights that many of the families worked with under FIPs were ‘vulnerable’ families, experiencing troubles, rather than being ‘troublesome’ families.

Ethical issues with regards to Listening to Troubled Families – dipstick information gathering

  1. Louise Casey’s influential report Listening to Troubled Families was criticised for not adhering to ethical standards by Nick Bailey, a researcher at Glasgow University[19]. This may appear to be an ‘academic’ critique but DCLG, stated that it didn’t meet the government standards for research and was, instead, simply ‘dipstick information gathering’. It is therefore unfortunate that the report was then published as an official government document, and accompanied by a press release[20] which generated widespread media coverage with Louise Casey giving numerous interviews on the back of a ‘dipstick information gathering’ process.

The phrase ‘turned around’

  1. When ‘troubled families’ live are officially ‘turned around’ under the TFP, a number of issues can still be present or ongoing in the house, under Phase 1. A family could be deemed ‘turned around’ even if, for example, members are still addicted to drugs or alcohol, excluded from school, involved in domestic violence, living in poor quality housing, committing crimes, experiencing poverty, etc. as long as a family member has moved off benefits. Parliament has been misled by former Secretary of State Eric Pickles over this[21]. It is also different to what Cameron said when he discussed the Payment by Results process at the launch of the TFP (emphasis added):

And crucially this payment depends on results. Simple tests such as… …are the children going to school? … how many people have they got back into work? …have they stopped – and I mean completely stopped – anti-social behaviour?[22]

7. I have offered an extensive critique of the phrase ‘turned around’ elsewhere[23]. My PhD research has also highlighted that local authorities often continue to work with families even after they have been claimed as a ‘success’, and despite there being no more funding available from central government for such work, because there are often still substantial unmet needs within the family.

‘Troubled families’ are not ‘neighbours from hell’

8.An interim report from the evaluation published in August 2014 highlighted the extent of the problems faced and caused by ‘troubled families’ entering the programme in its early stages. This data was misrepresented and misused to provide evidence for the existence of a further 400,000 ‘troubled families’ (and despite local authorities struggling to find the original 120,000). Anecdotes about individual families were presented to the media, resulting in a number of front page stories (Sunday Times and Daily Express) about the programme. When the data is actually examined however, it shows that most families were not involved in crime and ASB or were involved at very low levels[24]. Most families had children in school at least some of the time and most ‘problems’ were associated with a minority of families. As a further example, from the data collected, families were more likely to have an adult suffering from mental health problems than they were to have any of the following problems: any form of child protection/safeguarding issue; domestic violence; alcohol or substance addictions; at risk of eviction; in rent arrears; or children permanently excluded from school. The only characteristics shared by a majority of ‘troubled families’ appear to be that they were white, they lived in social housing, they had an adult on out of work benefits (usually as a result of health/disability/caring reasons, not unemployment) and there was a family member or members with health issues of some description.

 Local authorities are not entirely supportive of the programme

  1. Almost all local authorities call their local ‘troubled families’ by another name such as ‘stronger families’ ‘family focus’ etc. because they believe the term ‘troubled families’ is unhelpful and stigmatising. Similarly, most workers do not tell families they have been identified as ‘troubled families’ and sometimes tell them that they are ‘eligible for extra help under a new programme’ or something similar. This might not appear to be significant, but it does undermine the narrative that the programme has been widely supported across the country[25]. My PhD research suggests that the reception to the programme has been ambiguous and many practitioners are not whole-heartedly supportive of a programme that they feel sets out to blame families for living in poverty. Local authorities and practitioners effectively have to ‘tiptoe around’, and attempt to quietly subvert, a high-profile central government social policy, one that has reputedly been almost 100% successful and is now in an expanded second phase[26],[27]. It is also problematic that the relationships between local government officers and largely vulnerable and impoverished (as opposed to ‘troublesome’ families) have developed into ones that are not entirely open and transparent.

Data matching exercises to demonstrate 100% success rates

  1. An FOI request from The Guardian[28] showed that at least 8000 families that had been claimed as being ‘turned around’ had never had any form of ‘family intervention’ under the programme – they were families that once met the criteria of a ‘troubled family’ but then, at a later date, didn’t. A lot of this will have been about people finding work themselves and/or children either attending school more often (maybe their teacher changed or other factors improved) or reaching school leaving age and crime/ASB reducing, possibly as a result of other interventions. This practice was widespread under Phase 1 but is no longer possible under Phase 2 of the programme as there are new ‘principles’ that families have to be worked with in a specific way to be eligible for payments under the programme.

100% ‘turned around’ figures – pressure applied to local authorities

  1. The government published figures which suggested that local authorities had worked with exactly the number of troubled families that had been identified by the government at the launch of the programme and had, in most local authorities, turned every single one of them around – around 90% of local authorities claimed to have 100% success rates. This is obviously unbelievable. Many of my research participants talked of referring some families they worked with to children’s services and statutory social care departments because of concerns about the welfare of children. This outcome shouldn’t be considered as a success, but nor does it feature in the published government progress reports.
  1. A year before the end of the first phase of the programme, the government introduced ‘eligibility thresholds’[29] for participation in the second phase of the programme. All local authorities had to therefore reassure the government that they would turn around 100% of their ‘troubled families’ in order to be eligible for the second phase of the programme. Those that didn’t were effectively threatened with being named and shamed and also with the withdrawal of ‘troubled families’ funding from their authority.
  1. Officers in a number local authorities I have been in contact with have told me about pressure applied to them to provide faster ‘turnaround’ of families. Some have described this as ‘bullying’ and ‘threatening’ phone-calls from civil servants in DCLG and others have talked about officials speaking directly to chief executives of local authorities to demand better progress. In some instances, according to people I have spoken to, local authorities have been told that their progress was not good enough and they need to claim for more ‘turned around’ families – pressure effectively being applied to submit false claims in order to demonstrate the ‘success of the scheme’.

Fast policy, slow evaluation: suppression of the evaluation report

14The publication of the evaluation is the only aspect of the programme that has been delayed or carried out slowly. The programme has otherwise been implemented and expanded at a relentless pace. By way of example, the ‘massive expansion’[30] of the programme was announced when just 1% of the original 120,000 ‘troubled families’ had been ‘turned around’ by local authorities[31]. The figure of 400,000 new ‘troubled families’ was merely ‘an estimate’[32] when it was formally announced by the government, because the ‘policy formulation process’ had not been concluded at the time the expansion of the announcement. This rush to promote ‘positive’ stories associated with the ‘success’ of the programme stands in marked contrast to the delays associated with the publication of the evaluation.


Select Bibliography

Peer-reviewed articles and book chapters

Lambert, M. and Crossley, S. (2016) ‘Getting with the (troubled families) programme’: a review, Social Policy and Society, Available at https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/social-policy-and-society/article/getting-with-the-troubled-families-programme-a-review/255BB8F01117D2E8B1319C7B7E39E598

Crossley, S. (2016) ‘Realising the (troubled) family’, ‘crafting the neoliberal state’, Families, Relationships and Societies, 5, 2, 263-279 Available at http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/frs/2016/00000005/00000002/art00006

Crossley, S. (2016) The Troubled Families Programme: in, for and against the state? In M. Fenger, J. Hudson & C. Needham (eds) Social Policy Review 28: Analysis and Debate in Social Policy, Bristol: Policy Press, pp 127-146

Crossley, S. (2016) Featured graphic. The ‘troubled families’ numbers game, Environment and Planning A 48, 1, pp4-6 Available at http://epn.sagepub.com/content/48/1/4.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr

 Reports and online publications

Crossley, S. (2015) The Troubled Families Programme: the perfect social policy? Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, Briefing 13 Available at http://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/sites/crimeandjustice.org.uk/files/The%20Troubled%20Families%20Programme%2C%20Nov%202015.pdf

Crossley, S. (2014) “Joining the dots”? The role of research in the ‘troubled families’ agenda, Discover Society, 9, [online] Available at http://www.discoversociety.org/2014/06/03/joining-the-dots-the-role-of-research-in-the-troubled-families-agenda/

[1] https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/sites/crimeandjustice.org.uk/files/The%20Troubled%20Families%20Programme,%20Nov%202015.pdf

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-37010486

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/11/troubled-family-programme-government-success-council-figures

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jun/22/troubled-families-scheme-outcomes-miraculous-success-or-pure-fiction

[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/08/ministers-accused-of-suppressing-report-which-found-troubled-fam/

[6] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3730503/Cameron-s-1b-help-problem-families-flop-Flagship-scheme-failed-cut-crime-benefit-dependency-despite-huge-bill.html

[7] http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21688873-controversial-government-programme-trying-help-poorest-families-there-may-be-trouble

[8] http://www.bigissue.com/features/6919/the-trouble-with-troubled-families

[9] http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7585#fullreport

[10] https://akindoftrouble.wordpress.com/

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/aug/16/downing-street-riot-inquiry

[12] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pms-speech-on-the-fightback-after-the-riots

[13] http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/46297/1/Reading%20the%20riots(published).pdf

[14] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100416132449/http:/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/cabinetoffice/social_exclusion_task_force/assets/families_at%20_risk/risk_data.pdf

[15] http://www.poverty.ac.uk/system/files/WP%20Policy%20Response%20No.3-%20%20’Trouble’%20ahead%20(Levitas%20Final%2021April2012).pdf

[16] https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/media/3212/in_the_eye_of_the_storm.pdf

[17] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-hampshire-23896776

[18] https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/family-intervention-projects-classic-case-policy-based-evidence

[19] http://www.poverty.ac.uk/news-and-views/articles/policy-built-unethical-research

[20] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/report-highlights-chaos-of-troubled-families-lives

[21] https://akindoftrouble.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/the-short-answer-is-in-fact-yes/

[22] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/troubled-families-speech

[23] https://akindoftrouble.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/what-does-turning-around-a-troubled-family-really-mean/

[24] https://akindoftrouble.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/misunderstanding-troubled-families-working-paper-v2.pdf


[26] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/11/troubled-family-programme-government-success-council-figures#comments

[27] https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/frontline-worker-troubled-families-fraudulent-scam

[28] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/11/troubled-family-programme-government-success-council-figures

[29] https://akindoftrouble.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/response-all-information-to-be-supplied.pdf

[30] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/massive-expansion-of-troubled-families-programme-announced

[31] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/expansion-without-evaluation-the-troubled-families-programme-is-fast-policy-in-action/

[32] https://akindoftrouble.wordpress.com/2013/12/03/400000-high-risk-families-policy-making-by-estimate/

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