‘Troubled Families’ reading list

I’ve put together a very brief introductory reading list on ‘troubled families’. That’s about it really. You can access it by clicking here  or on the image below

Reading list

If anyone has suggestions for other papers, please do let me know, via comments if possible so that others can also see them. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive list or a full literature review, just a list of some articles/books/reports which have been helpful to me in learning more about the Troubled Families Programme, where it came from and the model of ‘family intervention’ on which it is based.

If there’s enough good suggestions, I’ll update it at some point in the future.

Best wishes,


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.

Smashie and Nicey. And Casey


‘ … these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this’

(David Cameron, 15 August 2011)

‘There is an acceptance that the poor will always be with us. I spend my entire life saying that’s not how it has to be’

(Louise Casey, quoted in The Sunday Times, 17 August 2014)

David Cameron was adamant that the riots of 2011 had nothing whatsoever to do with poverty. They were about ‘behaviour’ and a ‘twisted moral code’. When he launched the Troubled Families Programme a couple of months later, the word ‘poverty’ got one mention and it wasn’t in relation to the aims of the programme.

But then, the person who Cameron appointed to lead the Troubled Families Programme last month proclaimed that she spends ‘her entire life’ telling people that we don’t have to accept that ‘the poor will always be with us’. One doesn’t need to look far for evidence of this commitment to anti-poverty work.

Admittedly, Casey has never actually worked for an anti-poverty organisation or in an anti-poverty role. Yes, she has worked for Shelter and in a homelessness role, but most people living in poverty aren’t homeless are they? She’s also worked as the ASBO tsar but then most people living in poverty aren’t anti-social either. But these are mere details. When you look at her record since taking up her current post, her anti-poverty credentials ‘literally’ leap off the page at you. OK, OK, OK. So there is nothing in the criteria or the outcomes associated with the TFP that relates to poverty or income or material circumstances. Yes, ‘troubled families’ can be deemed to have had their lives ‘turned round’ without any change or improvement in their material circumstances but that’s just splitting hairs. Yes, the multiple disadvantages that included ‘low income’ and ‘material deprivation’ indicators were replaced with behavioural ones but that was probably *really* against her wishes. I mean, take the Listening to Troubled Families report that she wrote. Poverty was all over that report wasn’t it? Eh? Oh. It wasn’t mentioned once you say? And nor was ‘income’, ‘deprivation’, ‘worklessness’ or ‘unemployment’? Hmmm…

What about the recent announcements about Understanding Troubled Families and the expansion of the TF programme? I appreciate that the Understanding report didn’t once include the word poverty either, but the data behind the report was dripping with indicators around the very obvious ‘problems’ of income and deprivation wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? It wasn’t was it? But, but, but, the expansion of the programme to include new criteria must change all of this? Unfortunately not, as poverty isn’t included as a criteria in Phase 2 of the programme…

Given the strategically agnotological approach to poverty and its impact on people’s lives in the Troubled Families Programme, it is interesting that Casey believes her ‘entire life’ is spent trying to do something about poverty. Although, of course, Casey didn’t talk about poverty – she talked about ‘the poor’ which is something entirely different…..

In summary, it is difficult to find any evidence that Louise Casey spends – or has spent – any of her working life doing anything about poverty. In fact, one could mount a fairly strong argument that her current efforts in paid employment have actually ignored or, even worse, concealed, the impact that poverty can have on people’s lives and have generally been very unhelpful to people living on low incomes in the way that she has talked about many of them.

In which case, one must conclude that, like legendary DJs Smashie and Nicey, Casey generally doesn’t like to talk about her good voluntary work for charidee……



“In a hurry”: Fast policy and ‘troubled families’

In today’s budget, it was announced that the Troubled Families Programme would be ‘accelerated’ and ‘expanding early to start working with up to 40,000 additional families in 2014-15’. The Guardian reported that this was a ’ministerial vote of confidence for the scheme’ although I would argue that this is a fairly uncritical reading of the situation.

Eric Pickles has claimed on a couple of occasions that the government is ‘in a hurry’ and the announcement today – along with other elements of the ‘troubled families’ approach – reminds me of the ‘fast policy’ approach that Jamie Peck has written of. In an article from 2002 that focuses primarily on workfare policies, Peck talks about the ‘confident rhetoric of fast-policy solutions and the conviction-speak of neoliberal politicians’ (p348). This fits with the frequent claims regarding the ‘success’ and ‘phenomenal progress’ of the Troubled Families Programme and the decision to ‘massively expand the programme to 400,000 ‘high risk families, despite no evaluation findings or in-depth analysis having been carried out. Peck argues that

translocal fast-policy transfers are being established as one of the principal means of policy development. In workfare discourse, much is made of localized learning, but ironically, what this term usually means in practice is the importation of off-the-shelf program techniques from other locations (p344 my emphasis)

This should remind us that the ‘Family Intervention Project’ (FIP) model has been touted around as the way to deal with ‘troubled families’, with all local authorities expected to use the model, despite rather flaky evidence to support the claim that ‘it works’. Peck also suggests that

the importation of off-the-shelf policy fixes becomes a way of shortening the development phase of new programs, while a new emphasis on systemic innovation and almost perpetual reform ensures that the turnover time of policy cycles is accelerated. (p349)

This, again, provides an insight into how and why the TFP got up and running so quickly and Louise Casey has regularly suggested that the TFP is about ‘radical reform’ of public services as much as it is about the alleged 120,000 families. Perhaps the most relevant quote from Peck’s article, however, is the one below:

Fast-policy regimes help secure a clumsy form of crisis displacement through space and across scales as macrolevel problems of underemployment and poverty are rescripted as matters of local institutional determination, if not personal failure, while local policy failures are managed through a combination of interlocal competition, technocratic translation, and serial emulation (p350 my emphases)

Louise Casey’s report ‘Listening to Troubled Families’ does not include the words ‘poverty’ or unemployment’ once. The approach to addressing the problems that these families face is one that works ‘from inside out rather than outside in’ (p26 of the DCLG report ‘Working with Troubled Families’). The Guardian argued that ‘successful local councils will be entitled to bid’ for extra money relating to the acceleration of the programme, whilst one local authority issued a press release celebrating the fact that they had ‘smashed’ the ‘national target’ for ‘troubled families’ and, as a result, had ‘been awarded £475,500 in ‘success money’.

The reason for my scepticism about this ‘acceleration’ being a reward for success or a vote of confidence hinges on the magic number of 120,000 families. Ruth Levitas recently argued that the original ‘estimate’ of 120,000 families is now being ‘treated as a target’ and I wrote recently about the ‘numbers game’ in the TFP, where I argued that the primary concern with the programme appeared to be achieving the Prime Ministers ‘clear ambition’ of ‘turning round’ the lives of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ within the lifetime of this Parliament.

One relatively easy way for the government to ensure it fulfill the Prime Minister’s ambition might be to increase the number of families the ‘best performing’ local authorities work with – and increase the funding available to them to do it. Of course, I’ll gladly accept that I’ve made a gross misjudgment if the Prime Minister revises his ambition upwards in light of today’s announcement. But I can’t see that happening at the moment, because, he has so much at stake with the original 120,000 figure and, as John Macnicol has written:

proponents of the underclass concept seem only half aware of its conceptual flaws and completely ignorant of its long and undistinguished pedigree. Indeed it is they who have displayed the strongest present-time orientation, with little ability to defer gratification until the past debate has been examined. (p 315 my emphasis)

***It will also be interesting to see what the criteria for the new 40,000 families will be – whether it will remain the same as the 120,000 families or whether new criteria will be developed/added. Louise Casey stated recently that domestic violence ‘will become a focus of the extended scheme’.***

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


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.