Troubled Governments: Scapegoated Families

There’s so much wrong with the Government’s “Troubled Families” programme that my first instincts are to loudly hate everything about it. Except that – in common with pretty much every other local authority in the country – the local authority I work for has signed up to it. I’m pretty close to the work that’s going on, and I like what I see. 

Patrick Butler nicely dismantles the programme here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jul/18/louise-casey-troubled-families-problem?INTCMP=SRCH pointing out that it’s merely spitting in the wind to try to fix problems for these families when all around them the Government is dismantling the safety-nets for the disadvantaged. And Enver Solomon of the Children’s Society makes similar points at the end of this piece: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18881046. So, before everyone starts throwing things at me, let me explain. I like what I see in my area despite the Government’s programme, not because of it.

About three years ago I took up a post in the authority I work for, which involved helping to develop a partnership strategy for supporting children and families. The partners included the local authority itself, including vulnerable adults services, the police authority, the Youth Offending Team, the (then) PCT, the fire service, tenants’ services and housing needs teams, RSLs (social housing providers), schools, colleges, voluntary sector organisations, and others. A key part of that strategy was a plan to identify those families that all (or many) of the partners were working with; those families about whom a range of professionals had a variety of concerns – all for sound reasons; those families for whom the current arrangements weren’t making a difference and where we would need to take a more focused and sustained approach. We had to take some other steps first, before we could implement our planned programme, but we were heading that way. A few months later there was a general election, and after the election, there was an in-year cut to local authority budgets, with the largest cut by far to the funding that came from DfE (previously DCSF) for children’s services. Suddenly our strategy was in tatters on the cutting room floor.

Helping families that face multiple disadvantages before they reach crisis point and need very expensive statutory interventions (such as having a child taken into care, or prosecution for non attendance at school, or a custodial sentence following the breach of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order) is the purpose of Early Intervention services. But these services are generally not statutory. When funding is cut, they are often the first services to disappear, because funding to statutory services must be preserved, and because well-funded, well-motivated, well-educated families find it easy to mount pressure campaigns against the reduction of universal services. Early Intervention services are targeted towards families with high needs, so they don’t attract whole community sentiment, but they aren’t protected by legislation either.  

In the following financial year (2011-12) the DfE pulled together 22 separate grants into a single grant called the Early Intervention Grant and took a sizeable chunk out of it (a cut of between 14% and 19% in most authorities. See here for what it meant in your local area: http://www.education.gov.uk/childrenandyoungpeople/earlylearningandchildcare/a0070357/early-intervention-grant-frequently-asked-questions/?cid=LAemail&pla=25feb2011&type=email). My organisation reshaped (by which I mean reduced) our Early Intervention services further as a result. This financial year’s EIG is larger than the year before, but still lower than equivalent grants before the election. Our capacity to deliver against our original strategy and plans has still not recovered. So we were really pleased to hear of the “Troubled Families” programme because it will give us a chance to do what we planned to do anyway. The amount of money the Government is offering to pay us if we are successful is a paltry 25% (less in fact) of the amount that they cut from the EIG, but it’s better than nothing. 

Don’t we (local authorities) hate the label “Troubled Families”? Of course we do. It’s stigmatising, and unhelpful and likely to make it harder to engage families on the programme. Who wants to be known as a ‘Troubled Family’? Across the country, local programmes are taking on a fresh name in order to make sure the Government’s crazy rhetoric doesn’t damage the programme’s chances before it even starts.

Don’t we (local authorities) know the figure of 120,000 “Troubled Families” is bogus? Of course we do! (If you want to see the number thoroughly debunked, have a look here at Not the Treasury Viewhttp://notthetreasuryview.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/government-continues-to-abuse-data-on.html or here at fullfact.org http://fullfact.org/factchecks/David_Cameron_social_exclusion_problem_families-3194). There’s grousing and grumping every time the figure is touted; even more grumping when local authorities are criticised for signing up to the programme on the grounds that we are ignorant of this fact. Louise Casey claimed on the Today Programme this week (listen again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01ks651/Today_18_07_2012/ at 2hrs 10 minutes in)  that “ministers had identified 120,000 “troubled families”. They didn’t. They made up a number and then went to local authorities and said “you find ’em”. We. Know. It’s. A. Made. Up. Number! But it’s a made up number with £-signs attached. Money that will enable us to do the work that we know we need to do. Money to help us do the work we already had planned. The research that the 120,000 figure is derived from has been in circulation for some time. There’s lots of flaws in it, but also some useful pointers to risks and issues that make families more vulnerable. These are mainly the problems of poverty and / or ill-health. Working with these indicators helps us to identify families who may be vulnerable and need support. It doesn’t provide a basis for us to demonise them, attribute crime to them or to suggest that they “are troubled and cause trouble” as the Government likes to do.

When the programme was first floated as an idea, but before the criteria for programme inclusion were firmed up, we had a professional discussion among partners about the families that we knew were in the greatest difficulties and we would want to work harder with if we could afford to. Within the scope of that conversation we were able to name so many families we would want to engage in our programme that we exceeded the Government’s made-up number by some 30-40%. We know of more than enough vulnerable families dealing with multiple disadvantages. Who cares what the Government’s imaginary number is when we might now have a chance to help them?

Doesn’t the so-called “Troubled Families” Tsar make this programme a nightmare to work with? (Warning: Rant follows). Yes, of course it does. Louise Casey ignores years of important, relevant research, dabbles a little, like a tourist, in the lives of 16 families, pops up with a ‘report’ which tells us nothing new, claims it as an evidence base (yes she does, listen to that Radio 4 extract again) and gets a load of unhelpful airtime to stigmatise poor and vulnerable families once again. 

I characterised her descriptions in the orignal Guardian article (of which this is a later, updated rendition http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jul/18/report-englands-most-troubled-families?INTCMP=SRCH) as Sweeping generalisations-R-us. Not content with Cameron’s labelling of 120,000 (approximately) families in poverty as trouble causers, Casey also chose to label them as child rapists. So let’s be clear: child rape and incest doesn’t occur just in families who are workless, or those whose children don’t attend school, or those who are engaged in anti-social behaviour and crime (the criteria for actual inclusion in the programme) and it particularly isn’t confined to those families who fit the poverty and disadvantage criteria applied to create the made-up number. 

If we really want to understand the lives of families who need our help to break cycles of intergenerational misery, why not read something like the Social Innovation Lab for Kent [SILK] report Just Coping? (http://socialinnovation.typepad.com/silk/2008/10/just-coping-rep.html), instead of Casey’s lightweight, judgmental production?

And if the Government really wants to make a difference to families where sexual and physical abuse and incest are the key issues, why would they create a programme where the largest rewards are for getting an adult in the family into work? And subsidiary payment-by-results rewards are for cutting crine and ASB and getting children into school? The only logical inference to draw from the Government scheme would be that it didn’t care if you raped your children, as long as you only do so while you have a job. Casey’s tabloidisation of a real problem is to be deplored.

But, nightmare though she is, we swallow hard and we do our best to ignore Casey’s provocative and damaging (though crowd-pleasing) nonsense and reach again for our moral compass which tells us that there are families who need challenge and support from people who care about what happens to them, in order to help them change their lives. The need is real. It’s just the way that Casey characterises it that is false. The programme in my area sets out to meet the real need.  

Hang on a minute! What’s that about education, worklessness, crime and anti-social behaviour?  Oh. you noticed those criteria? Yes, if you thought the “Troubled Families” programme was about families that met the criteria that created the 120,000 number, you’re wrong. And if you thought (based on most recent rhetoric) it was about families that abuse their children, you’re also wrong. It’s simply, and clearly (currently, at least), about 3 targets:

  • getting parents into work
  • getting children into school
  • getting crime and anti-social behaviour down

Local authorities are allowed to define their own, additional criteria for involvement in the programme, but payment-by-results payments won’t be available for helping families to transform these aspects of their lives. What a shame. Will those narrow criteria prevent us from using this programme as a catalyst for a programme with broader, more purposeful intentions? No. Eileen Munro, in the important final report of her Review into Child Protection in England draws out three important reasons for early help and early intervention into families in need and for children at risk. (p69 http://www.education.gov.uk/munroreview/downloads/8875_DfE_Munro_Report_TAGGED.pdf) These are:

  • Cost effectiveness (it’s cheaper to intervene early)
  • Now or Never (late interventions may not be able to reverse damage already caused)
  • Moral argument (it’s right to minimise adverse experiences of children & young people)

Of these, the most important is undoubtedly the moral argument. But if it takes a little bit of financial help to nudge the moral case forward, so be it.

I am really proud that my local authority is stepping up to take on this work of important moral purpose at a time when budgets are being cut and every penny of expenditure scrutinised.   

But all of that payment by results stuff – isn’t that just a way of getting money to government cronies like A4E, G4S, Serco and the rest of the private sector favourite who get our money and fail to deliver? Well, in this case, no. Local authorities are leading this work; co-ordinating this work and funding this work. (Funny how if you want to deal with a really intractible problem that no-one’s managed to solve before, you put public service in the frame, not the private sector ‘providers’, eh?) There is scope for ‘outsourcing’ under this programme, I suppose, but that depends very much on each local authority; local discretion is wide, and I’ve not yet come across a contact in any other authority who plans to outsource the programme, although many do plan to commission some specific, small scale programmes with a track record of success. 

You mention ‘discretion’ but isn’t this all about family intervention projects [FIP]? One family, one key-worker? There’s lots of evidence for the success of FIPs for working well with some families in certain circumstances; but they aren’t the answer to every family’s problems or issues. FIP is one, but NOT the only (or even necessarily the best) way to work with families facing many disadvantages. The local engagement; the relationships that are built; the efforts that are made; the support & the challenge that’s put in place in response to families’ needs, all need to be flexible and responsive to deal with the unique issues that each family is experiencing.

Policy-makers (sometimes) and politicians (always) look at the ways that these families in difficulties are the same as each other. They seek to sort, categorise and label. Good practitioners look at the ways that families are unique. Each family’s own composition of strengths and failings, flaws and points of resilience, can lead to a differently constructed intervention (what Eileen Munro describes as “requisite variety”) which will have the greatest chance of success. These prospects are further enhanced if families are enabled and allowed to pull towards them the resources that work, rather than told they must be shoe-horned into a particular programme just because the lastest Tsar, on the basis of 16 interviews, has said it must be so. So it needn’t be FIP, or what Patrick Butler’s article describes as an amalgam of punitive sanctions with intensive parenting classes and resilience counselling.

Zoe Williams also has an excellent article on this subject in this week’s Guardian (here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/18/problem-families-poverty). In it she absolutely recognises the pernicious rhetoric of all members of the Government on this issue, pointing to the ulterior motive of the “demonisation of the poor”, “the sheer discourtesy of trying to shunt people out of society for nto being rich enough”, the neat con-trick – in which Iain Duncan Smith excels – “whereby poverty is conflated with poor parenting”. She goes on to say:

There is plenty of existing evidence that if you want to intervene with families, you do so in a voluntary, unstigmatising way, with a local hub providing many different services, from parenting advice to English lessons.

I’m a Zoe Williams fan, so one of the better moments of my week was an e-mail from a colleague in another team with a link to her article and the remark “this is exactly how your team’s programme is working, isn’t it? Well done.”  

It’s true. We are – with a real sense of purpose – using this opportunity to work in a voluntary, unstigmatising way with the families we know for whom early intervention can make a powerful difference.

We won’t be deploying the threat of sanctions as the Telegraph so gleefully reports in this article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9416535/Problem-families-have-too-many-children.html

We won’t be labelling the families that we work with “the worst”, however much they cost us. You only have to look at the sad tale of the Rausings – parents to four children but absent from the “Troubled Families” coverage this week despite the obvious parallels in all aspects but wealth – to know that cost to the state and level of personal and family problems are not related. 

We won’t be telling family members “you are the nightmare”, like Casey did. The evidence-base for this technique is not strong! 

We won’t be opening schools in the evenings and weekends and holding children prisoner there (although we might have diversionary activities in place for the times when school is closed.) Our own data shows no correlation in our area between school absence rates and youth offending.

And we won’t be inviting neighbours to call the police for every disagreement. Again our local data shows that many of the families who meet the criteria for inclusion in the programme are victims of aggression by their neighbours, who are canny enough to make sure they make the first call.   

So, it seems as though our programme may not be exactly the programme the Government had in mind at all. Although it has a much better chance of being effective. Yes, the payment-by-results payment is a bit of an incentive, but we are intent on providing the support and challenge that families most need to enable them to transform their lives. Wish us well. And please don’t throw things at us every time those big-mouthed politicians and celebrity fixers pontificate in unhelpful ways.      

 

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