What does ‘turning around’ a ‘troubled family’ really mean?

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Last week DCLG announced that ‘The Troubled Families scheme has turned around the lives of 14,000 of England’s toughest to tackle households in just 15 months’. Eric Pickles suggested that this number was ‘phenomenal’ and ‘a huge achievement to have turned so many around in such a short space of time.’ So, great news all round then.

But does it all sound a bit too good to be true? Most press coverage that I have seen repeats the phrase ‘turning around’ without examining or explaining exactly what it means, so that is what this post is about.

The 14,000 number comes from figures released last week which show that, across England, local authorities have claimed the performance-by-results payment from DCLG for certain outcomes achieved by this number of families. In total, nearly 50,000 ‘troubled families’ have been worked with, but only 14,000 have so far achieved the outcomes required for the ‘incentive’ payment.

Let us, at this point, remember that the initial figure for how many ‘troubled families’ there were in England was based on the number who, in the Family & Children Survey 2005, reported having 5 out of 7 of the following ‘disadvantages’:

a) no parent in work,

b) poor quality housing,

c) no parent with qualifications,

d) mother with mental health problems,

e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness,

f) family has low income,

g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items

The table below (taken from p9 of the TFP Financial Framework) shows what outcomes are required for local authorities to claim for the result based payment. You will note that none of the criteria in the table relate to housing, qualifications, maternal mental health, disability/illness, income (being in work doesn’t always guarantee you a higher income – think zero hours contracts) or deprivation. (See Ruth Levitas’ paper ‘There may be trouble ahead’ for a full discussion on what this ‘discursive shift’ means). Clicking on the table should open it in a larger format.

TFP financial framework

What is interesting is that local authorities can – and many have – claim to have ‘turned round’ the life of a ‘troubled family’ if certain aspects of their behaviour changes, even though they may not have found work. In other words, their material circumstances may not have improved and may even have got worse. So, if the TFP is about stopping families behaving badly, that might still seem like a positive result, but if the payment is based on their kids starting to attend school a bit more for a 6 month period or things ‘quieten down’ for a bit, it doesn’t, I would argue, amount to their life being ‘turned around’. Positive, welcome steps, yes. Complete turnaround, no.

But it is also possible for a local authority to claim money (£800) if at least one adult in the family moves into continuous employment, without any other behaviour change. So, these families can continue behaving exactly as they have done (it may or may not have been troublesome behaviour) and the government will claim their lives have been turned around, as long as they have ‘moved into continuous employment’ for 6 months. Continuous employment is variously defined as 26 weeks out of 30 (is this continuous – or a possible example of ‘churning’ in and out of employment – a low-pay, no-pay cycle?) or 13 consecutive weeks (3 month temporary contract anyone?) depending on which benefits were originally being claimed.

There is a third way of claiming £100, linked to the crime/ASB/education outcomes if an adult in the family ‘progresses towards work’.

One thing worth noting here is that money can be paid out on an ‘either or’ basis – but not twice. So if a family meets the crime/ASB/education criteria and an adult finds work, the local authority will only be paid £800, not £1500. So there is, one could argue, no incentive – perhaps even a disincentive – to adopt a holistic ‘whole family’ approach to a resolving ‘troubles’. However, the way it is often reported, ‘turning around’ a family often appears to include ALL of these things. A good example is a written statement Eric Pickles gave to Parliament. He said:

Up to the end of July 2013, upper-tier local authorities have reported that they have turned around nearly 14,000 troubled families. The figure represents a seven-fold increase from January which means children are back in school for at least 3 terms where they were previously playing truant or excluded; high levels of youth crime and anti-social behaviour are down over at least 6 months; and adults are getting off benefits and into work for at least 3 months. (my emphasis)

Another example can be found in an article in The Telgraph which states that ‘Families are considered to be “turned around” if several measures are met, including if children go back to school, adults are taken off benefits and levels of criminal behaviour are reduced’ (my emphasis)

So, a troubled family’s life can be counted as being ‘turned around’ even if there remains no adult in work in the household or, if one adult does find work, they can commit as much ASB/crime/truancy as they like and the government will still pay out as they’ll be deemed ‘trouble-free’. In fact, looking at the release of the figures, in less than 5% of those families that had been ‘turned around’ did an adult move into ‘continuous employment’. In the North East, it was closer to 2.6%. In Newcastle, the city council ‘turned around’ the lives of 303 families, none of whom found work or achieved the ‘progress to work’ outcome. What would Jim Royle say if he was asked if these families lives had been ‘turned around’?

I’m also intrigued by how the government is able to claim that all of the ‘success’ that has been achieved is the the result of the TFP approach. How many of these families would have found employment without the support of the ‘key worker’? How many would have been supported to change their behaviour through other (perhaps existing) approaches or without any help atall? The answer is we don’t know. A guide to evidence and good practice in working with ‘troubled families’, published by DCLG earlier this year notes that

There are some notable limitations to the evidence base. The first is that most studies are limited in what can be concluded from them about the degree to which improvements for families are attirubtable to the intervention specifically, when external factors are taken into account. (p34, my emphasis)

An independent evaluation of the TFP has been commissioned (which may examine control groups or other approaches) but it hasn’t published any findings yet. So how can Eric Pickles claim that ‘these figures show that our no-nonsense approach is changing families for the better’?

A final problem (for now) is that people’s lives are complex, they are dynamic and much as the government would like to portray these families as a lumpen, static underclass, their circumstances (or behaviours if you want to see it in that way) can and do change over time, as the results suggest. But, such is the ‘burden on the taxpayer’ from these families, the government wants to ‘deliver maximum value for money’ and so they have stated in the TFP Financial Framework that ‘we need to ensure as far as possible, that we don’t pay twice for the same family’ (p10) and the TFP funding is only available for ‘turning around the lives of five out of every six troubled family in each local authority area’ (p11). So, there is no financial incentive if, after receiving payment for turning around a family’s life, a child from that family stops attending school, or ASB incidents start to happen again or if the working adult finds themselves out of work again. If achieving these outcomes count as turning around their lives one must also accept that a lapse or lapses must be devastating and must have serious consequences.

All of this raises concerns about PBR and ‘incentivising’ methods in public services, which have been articulated elsewhere but it does mean that public sector bodies will be expected to work with families with serious and multiple disadvantages without the dangling carrot of £700 or £800 at the end of it. Pretty much like they and their workers have been doing for many, many years before the TFP came along – and will still be doing long after it has gone.

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