People, Place and Policy themed Issue: state intervention in family life

A themed edition of the open access, online journal People, Place and Policy, has just been published, examining state intervention in family life in the UK. The journal is edited and published by Sheffield Hallam University. There are four articles and an editorial in the journal, and while I won’t summarise all of them, as they’re easy enough to find, I’ll bring a couple to people’s attention.

Michael Lambert takes issue with Adam Perkins controversial (to put it politely) theory of a ‘welfare trait’ and re-examines historical evidence that Perkins draws on to conclusively undermine the theory and accuse Perkins of ‘recycling deprivation and reproducing depravation’. Sue Bond-Taylor has also written another compelling and nuanced theoretically informed account of the possibilities that intensive family support mechanisms can offer, if only they were freed from the ‘domestic surveillance’ shackles of the Troubled Families Programme and other neoliberal discourses. And I’ve got an article in there that examines how disadvantaged families interactions with the state have shifted ‘from the desk to the front room’ under austerity in the UK.

Best wishes,


The lady doth protest too much…

It’s a couple of weeks since the Troubled Families Programme hit the news again, thanks to the publication of the official evaluation and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) inquiry into the programme.  At the PAC hearing on 19 October, the three civil servants called to give evidence (Dame Louise Casey, Melanie Dawes, and Joe Tuke) attempted to provide a robust defence of the programme whilst simultaneously taking aim at the messenger, in the form of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) and Jonathan Portes, one of the foremost critics of the programme who was involved the evaluation, in its latter stages.

Casey attempted to blame the delay in publishing the report on NIESR. When it was put to her that the timing of the publication of the evaluation was suspicious (Q36 here), she replied

Indeed. Neither does it help people like me and others who believe we have nothing to hide and nothing to be worried about here. I would just say that what has been in the headlines for the last few days is the one element that we had problems with in the Department—I was not responsible for the Troubled Families programme at the time, but I am now fully aware of it—which is that when the draft report first came through, the organisation had put through data that was inaccurate and flawed.

Essentially, when they looked at the information—this is the analysts, not people like me or, indeed, Joe Tuke—they found things like they had put three local authorities’ flawed data through their system. They accepted it; the Department did not. They ended up having to go to the University of Cambridge to take this information to an entirely different person and say, “Is this okay? Is this not okay?”   

Casey namechecked Portes and NIESR and stated that ‘after a lot of correction and sorting out, I accept the findings of the research’ (Q52) but then went on to say

Sorry, I’ve got nothing to lose in a scenario like this. Lots of comment made by those closely involved with the evaluation, who have been leading on the press in the past few days, has been unedifying.

I don’t want to make it a personal thing because I accept that, within the strictures of this one piece of research, it doesn’t prove what I hoped it would prove. Q53

Still, at least no-one from NIESR  verbally abused government ministers and threatened to ‘deck’ anyone who contradicted their worldview. That would be really unedifying… Casey then, rather comically, and bringing images of pots and kettles to mind, accused them of misrepresenting their own research

I am disappointed that an individual seeks to undermine the programme in the way described—an individual who has had access to the programme through one of the six reports as part of the evaluation. If I am completely blunt and honest—I always am in this building—I actually feel that in the last couple of days, they have misrepresented their own research by not putting the caveats in the public domain or being very clear about what we cannot prove, of which this is part. Q127

NIESR have submitted further evidence to the PAC here, and Portes has also responded here, which offers up a different view of how the problems with the data occurred and how they were managed. It won’t surprise many readers to hear that I find their version more compelling than Casey’s, especially given Casey’s and the government’s contempt for academic research in relation to ‘troubled families’. And especially, as they did put the caveats in the public domain. But then, Casey herself has offered very positive views of the organisations involved in the research consortium on previous occasions. At an earlier PAC inquiry into the programme, when the National Audit Office had raised some concerns about the programme, Casey was confident that the scope of the evaluation and the quality of the research consortium would provide a comprehensive overview of the impact of the programme

We have let a huge, in my view, evaluation contract to a consortium called Icarus (sic). Within that, there will be a cost-benefit analysis done by—I can’t remember who they are, but they are terribly good at their job. There are other people, but we have got the best. We have MORI doing some stuff and whatever-they-are called doing the finances. (p41)

I think you are absolutely right. I am nervous about things like this, so I talk about what I think the programme is about, which is the children and the families, but I am also very hard-headed about the fact that the programme has to prove itself. It has to prove its worth, otherwise we need to find a different way to work with these families. (p41)

I hope that the evaluation will show us whether we are getting it right, and if we are not, where we can improve it. The thing to reassure the Committee about is that the evaluation goes far wider than the simplicity of the PBR, so it is looking at a much wider set of data. (p41)

When the evaluation was first commissioned in March 2013, DCLG issued a press release highlighting how the contract had been awarded to ‘a consortium of experienced, independent research groups’ and the then Secretary of State Eric Pickles said

it is important we learn the lessons of this work for the future and leave a legacy beyond the lifetime of this programme in 2015. This study will help do that by looking at what works most effectively with troubled families and how we best spend public money on turning them around.

So, before some of the independent organisations – and individuals – involved in the evaluation expressed some concerns about the worth of the programme, they were ‘terribly good at their job’ and ‘the best’, but when they offered their opinions, after the publication of the evaluation, they were accused of ‘misrepresenting their own research’ and being ‘unedifying’.

There are numerous other inconsistencies in the evidence provided by the witnesses, but it is soul destroying trying to document it fully. Below are a few examples, from the many that could have been chosen.

Casey:   We need to be clear: we know that 116,654 families basically had their lives changed by the programme according to the payment-by-results system. Q104

Casey:   Did we change the lives of 116,000 families? Yes, we did. Q146

No. The evaluation quite clearly states that any changes in the lives of 116,000 families can’t be attributed to the programme so it is simply incorrect to claim that ‘we’ [DCLG or other people involved in the programme] or ‘the programme’ changed their lives. The first page of the Executive Summary (p18) of the Impact Study states that ‘any changes (positive or negative) cannot be attributed to participation in the programme, because similar changes were observed for comparable non-participants.’ We also know from previous research that local authorities admitted that at least 8000 families were ‘turned around’ without ever being visited by a worker involved with the programme.

Casey:   No one disputes the fact that 116,000-plus families had problems and now have fewer problems. Nobody is disputing that; Q55

Yes, they are. People’s lives change. Just because, at some point in the last three or four years’ family has been claimed as being ‘turned around’ it does not mean that they still, ‘now’, have ‘fewer problems’, even if they did at the time. Problems could emerge at the same time, or immediately after a ‘turned around’ claim was made. In fact, problems could actually escalate, but as long as someone moved off out-of-work benefits they were deemed to be ‘turned around’ and, with ‘fewer problems’. But the research doesn’t tell us how any ‘turned around’ families are doing now.

Chair: You had a nearly 100% success rate.

Melanie Dawes: In fact, we have never said that Q67

In June 2015, DCLG issued a press release regarding the Prime Minister praising the success of the programme stating ‘In a speech in the north west on Monday he announced that the programme had succeeded in turning around 99% of the actual number of families targeted.That, to me, sounds like the Melanie Dawes’ department saying they had a ‘nearly 100% success rate’.

Casey:   I would just caution that in order to meet the criterion on education a child had to be in school for a full school year. Q112

Again, this is simply incorrect. Children leaving school could also help local authorities to meet the education criteria. DCLG issued guidance in October 2013 to local authorities who asked about children reaching school leaving age that stated

School leavers originally identified under the education criterion can still attract full results payments as long as all other relevant outcomes are achieved (ASB/ youth crime) and any other children in the household have achieved the required education outcomes. For the school leaver, the education measure becomes ‘neutral’ due to the child leaving school during the course of the programme.

Casey, and the other civil servants, basically protested too much and ended up, wittingly or unwittingly, lying to the Public Accounts Committee. As I said, there are many more examples similar to those given above.

I take no pleasure in highlighting how incompetent our democratic system is, where the only witnesses called to give evidence about a high-profile government policy targeting some of the most disadvantaged families in our society are those who are or were responsible for delivering it, or that those called then misled the inquiry. It is also unfortunate, in my opinion, that the focus has been on whether the programme works or not, and not on the insidious ideological assumptions underpinning the programme. It appears that it is perfectly acceptable to conflate families experiencing severe disadvantages, with criminal and anti-social families, as long as you are working towards ‘systems change’ and ‘cost savings’. But, in attempting to find a silver lining to this particular policy cloud, I have, thankfully, stumbled upon some common ground that I, and perhaps Jonathan Portes, may share with Dame Louise:

Casey:   In every single social policy job I have done, systemically, we fail multiple-need families Q87

On that, we can all agree…