The trouble with troubled families

Behind the launch of the troubled families programme by Eric Pickles lies a sorry story of the systematic abuse and distortion of research evidence with an added bit of John Wayne.

Billed as part of ‘counter-attack Sunday’ by the Conservative Home website, the launch was trailed by Pickles in an interview in the Independent. The main point will be to end the ‘it’s not my fault culture’ that has allegedly enabled 120,000 troubled families to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives. Pickles said he would be ‘a little less understanding’ to families ‘fluent in social work’ who are responsible for ‘chaos that costs the country £9 billion every year’.

As a result, the 152 main local authorities in England will be incentivised to end on trouble-shooters to confront difficult families in their area as part of a £450 million payment-by-results scheme. The policy will be overseen by the government’s Troubled Families Team headed by Louise Casey, a former advisor to Labour on rough sleeping, anti-social behaviour and respect (and ex-colleague at Shelter) who Pickles says understands ‘that you have to roll up your sleeves and get the broom cracking on a lot of folks’.

As seen from the saloon bar of the Dog and Duck it probably all makes perfect sense. They’ve watched Shameless. They’ve read the Daily Mail. They’ve heard about Broken Britain. Everyone knows a few trouble makers cause all the trouble round here, the police know who they are, so let’s drop the political correctness and start sorting them out.

Except that it’s nonsense. Not the kind of nonsense that comes from ignorance but the much more dangerous kind that comes from finding ‘facts’ and then twisting them to fit your prejudices.

So what are the problems with what Pickles is saying? They are explained in detail by Professor Ruth Levitas of Bristol University in this paper and on Radio 4’s More or Less. In summary, the figure of 120,000 families comes from research estimating the number of families with multiple disadvantages. There is no evidence that they also cause trouble – although some of them may do, just as some without multiple disadvantages do too  – and no details have ever been published of the £9 billion figure. As Prof Levitas says the claim ‘turns out to be a factoid – something that takes the form of a fact, but is not’.

The 120,000 figure comes from secondary analysis carried out in 2007 of the Family and Children survey conducted in 2004. It showed that 2 per cent of the families in the survey had five or more of these characteristics and so were multiply disadvantaged:

  • No parent in the family in work
  • Family lives in overcrowded housing
  • No parent has any qualifications
  • Mother has mental health problems
  • At least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity
  • Family has low income (below 60 per cent of median income)
  • Family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items.

You’ll notice none of those factors has anything to do with causing trouble and everything to do with being poor. The 120,000 figure is also only a mid-point estimate from survey data: the sampling error could be plus or minus 3 per cent meaning that the actual total could be anything from -60,000 to 300,000. Sample bias (poor people are less likely to respond to surveys) means the total could be higher still. In addition, coalition policies are highly likely to have increased the number of families in at least four of those categories and so led to far more ‘troubled families’.

None of those considerations have mattered much to a succession of ministers who have steadily ratcheted up the rhetoric and turned families with multiple disadvantages into troubled families and then troublesome families and then trouble-making families.

In his Indy interview, Pickles complains about the problems he had trying to get civil servants to agree on what to call them:

‘Folks sat round this table, saying: “We can’t call these people troubled families because that’s stigmatising them.” Well, what do you want to call them? Mildly discomforted families? No, these folks are troubled: they’re troubling themselves, they’re troubling their neighbourhood. We need to do something about it.’

And David Cameron put it in similar terms in a speech in December 2011:

‘I want to talk about troubled families. Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase. Officialdom might call them “families with multiple disadvantages”. Some in the press might call them “neighbours from hell”. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations. We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money…but now we’ve come up the actual figures. Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families…that is around £75,000 per family.’

Cameron put the initiative squarely in the context of last summer’s looting. ‘As I said after the riots, I have a duty to speak clearly, frankly and truthfully about the problems in our society and an equal duty to do whatever it takes to fix them,’ he said.

You might have expected then that the troubled/troublesome/trouble-making families would have been at the heart of the looting and anti-social behaviour. Instead the independent Riots Panel concluded that the opposite was the case. A survey of 80 local authorities found that only 5 per cent found there was a great deal of overlap between the rioters and the families they had provisionally identified for the Troubled Families Programme. Instead the panel concluded that the majority of the rioters came from a wider group of 500,000 ‘forgotten families’ who were not being dealt with through the programme but were in need of better, more co-ordinated support from public services. When I asked where the 500,000 figure came from, I discovered that the source was also the 2004 Family and Children Survey, and constituted those families with three or four of the seven disadvantages.

In the meantime work has been going on across Whitehall, from the Department for Education to the Department for Work and Pensions to the Department for Communities and Local Government mixing together data on households and data on areas and different sets of disadvantages to produce estimates of the number of ‘troubled families’ in each local authority area. The DCLG has produced a financial framework for a payment-by-results scheme for local authorities and private companies to intervene with the ‘troubled families’. Unbelievably, although this uses four completely different criteria (anti-social behaviour, have children not in school, adult on out-of-work benefits and causes high costs to the public purse) there are still precisely 120,000 troubled families. All of which begs some questions about whether £450 million spent on the basis of such a mixed bag of ‘evidence’ is really good value for money.

Nobody denies that there are families with multiple problems or that some of them cause trouble for themselves and for others. The point of the Social Exclusion Unit and all the other initiatives under the last Labour government was to try to do something about it by helping individual families.

However, regardless of what you thought of that, there was always a danger that a future government would simply conclude that if there are problems out there then they must be caused by ‘problem families’. Pickles says that politicians from all parties have run away from ‘categorising, stigmatising, laying blame’. He now seems proud to a politician prepared to do all three.

At one point in the Indy interview he apologises for using anecdotes to illustrate his point. At another he refers to a photo of John Wayne in the film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘just in case I get feelings of self-doubt’.

Fans will know that it was of course really Wayne’s character who shot the gunslinger Liberty Valance while it was James Stewart that got the credit and created the legend. As the newspaper man might have put it at the end of the film: ‘This is England, Sir. When the anecdote becomes fact, print the anecdote.’

Go here for my updated blog on troubled families.


2 Comments on “The trouble with troubled families”

  1. [...] from Eric Pickles to crack down on 120,000 troubled families, unfortunately we did not realise there was no evidence of how many of these cause trouble, they were simply poor.  Mr Cameron explained he had a few bob so we released him.  He promised in future he will [...]

  2. [...] month I blogged about the way that the government’s flagship programme was born out of a dodgy statistic and even [...]


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