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Eric's troubled families

By our guest blogger Monimbo
The latest Pickles obsession is troubled families: 120,000 of them costing the state (or is it the overall economy? – that’s a bit vague) at least £8 billion per year.
This sounds like a lot of money, and while the usually diligent Fact Check has looked into it, I’m not convinced that they have demonstrated that it’s anywhere near accurate.  A small part of the cost is attributable to services that all low-income families receive, while most of the cost is based on a global figure of £2.5bn which relates to a smaller group of 46,000 families considered by the Department of Education. These 46,000 families are the ones where, in addition to their other problems, the children are in trouble with the law. The £2.5bn is the cost of the ‘reactive spend’ these families require, such as children going into care, hoax emergency calls, vandalism and a range of other things which look very difficult indeed to measure in terms of incidence let alone cost.
What is a ‘troubled family’? Apparently it is one where ‘no parent in the family is in work; the family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity; the family has low income (below 60% of the median); or the family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items’.
The strange thing is that this says nothing about the ‘problems’ the family causes.  The Guardian said that one Salford family required 250 interventions in one year, including 58 police call-outs and five arrests; five 999 visits to A&E, two injunctions and a council tax arrears summons.  This sounds horrendous, but there must be many families that fit the Cabinet Office definition that aren’t causing this sort of mayhem.
Well, I’m sure it’s right that some families do cost a lot of money because of their anti-social behaviour and crime, but the Pickles approach suggests a fixed, potentially manageable social malaise which can be ‘solved’, which is the kind of problem beloved by civil servants and ministers but which often hides a range of more complex and challenging issues where the remedies require co-operation between different agencies.
What’s striking about the presentations on the scheme on the Department of Education website is not only how many agencies might be involved, but how – service after service – these are ones being affected by cuts in local authority and other budgets.  When times are harsh, it’s precisely the ‘extra’ services like Sure Start and the additional help which failing pupils get in schools that are likely to be affected.
So, as in other areas of government, Eric will give back with one hand what he first took away with the other one.
Almost at the time of the announcement, indeed, there was a report of how 73% of a sample of 22 family intervention projects have seen their budgets cut and have had to reduce the services they provide to over 1,100 families. It is a fair bet that many of these feature in the 120,000 national ‘total’, and of course family intervention, promoted by Labour, has been shown to work in many cases.
Another characteristic of Eric’s announcements is to blame problems on the failure of local authorities to realise that the issue (in this case, troubled families) is complex and requires multiple interventions.  It is almost as if behind each family is a set of blinkered council departments who have no idea that the family is demanding the attention of different agencies and are incapable of picking up the phone to discuss the issues with colleagues.  In Eric’s ideal world, local authorities would have staff who are as bright as he is and would see the virtues of joint working, or at least know how to phone the police.  In reality, I know most housing officers would say that they do try to co-ordinate action but when budgets are being cut so drastically it is extremely difficult.
The Daily Mail, of course, loved this story and signed up to the government’s simplistic approach. It said that ministers want one dedicated official to turn up at people’s homes to
get them out of bed for work, make sure their children go to school or ensure alcoholics or drug addicts go to rehab.
Do not despair! – that apostle of joined-up approaches, Louise Casey, will bang heads together and make them see sense.  She has been appointed as the Tsar that will sort everything out, set tight targets and ensure they are complied with.  Now Louise is a sensible person who has a track record of tackling these issues, so her appointment is
certainly not a bad one but she – more than anyone – must realise the complexities of the issues involved and the even greater difficulty of tackling them in a time of deep spending cuts.
She must also know that local agencies often do collaborate to find solutions, otherwise family intervention centres wouldn’t exist.  She is also aware of the pressures on many
agencies not to solve the problems but to pass them on, by excluding children from schools or evicting difficult families from social housing (something on which Eric’s colleague, Grant Shapps, favours tougher action, of course).  But this only sends them into the private sector where they’ll get less help.
As a point of reference, Tony Blair in a speech in 2007 said that 2-3% of families had deep and persistent problems, so perhaps Pickles could have made a passing acknowledgement of the previous government’s success in reducing the numbers so radically.  Of course, in 2007 the government had no more idea of the real magnitude of the problem than it does now, but I do wonder whether the scale has been brought down to a more manageable 120,000 for political reasons.
Times are harsh and public money is scarce.  If a smaller number of families are causing mayhem (even being blamed for the riots), at previously uncalculated and enormous cost, then perhaps Eric (aided by Louise) has more chance of riding to the rescue and sorting them out.  When he has, no doubt we will be given the evidence of how much money has been saved when the families are eventually put on the path of rectitude.
I’m sure we’ll read about it in the Daily Mail.