The report published this week by Louise Casey, the Government’s ‘Troubled Families’ Tsar, has attracted a fair amount of criticism, but what it does illustrate is the chaotic lives these families lead – and the implausibility of thinking that their problems can be solved by the kind of flagship social policies traditionally favoured by either Conservatives or Labour. As Isabel put it, Conservative ‘reform of the welfare system will pass many of the families by. In these stories there is no calculated decision to opt out of the labour market because of generous benefits, more an endless failure to cope with life and the way it has worked out’. Likewise, when the Labour government opened a Sure Start centre down the road, these were the families least likely to take advantage of it.
There is, in fact, clear evidence about what kind of state intervention actually works in ‘turning these families around’. The evidence is stronger than the present Government is able to say, because it is reluctant to admit the degree of continuity with the approach adopted by its predecessor in its final years. What is needed is trained caseworkers, with a small caseload, adopting an approach which is more ‘intensive’ (frequent, even daily visits) and ‘assertive’ (pushing help on these families rather than waiting for them to come and find it) than the approach taken by mainstream public services. The caseworkers need to take responsibility for ensuring that the different public services are working together to help deal with the family’s problems. A single ‘troubled family’, for example, will often be recognised as such not only by the police and social services, but also by the local council, their GP, their children’s school and so on. But left to their own devices, all these agencies will deal with the family separately, rather than working together (a problem which has been exacerbated by the excessive fastidiousness which civil liberties groups have demanded of public bodies wanting to share information with each other). The caseworkers can harness all the resources which are already being spent on these families in a far more coherent and strategic way. They start by working with the parents to bring some order and stability into their lives, which then enables them to provide the stability, consistency and love their children need to stop them going off the rails, and give them a chance to flourish.
These Family Intervention Projects (as they used to be called) started at grassroots level in the 1990s, and were picked up by Tony Blair towards the end of his premiership. Gordon Brown was initially less enthusiastic, but after a year or so came round to the same view, and rapidly expanded their roll-out. By the time of the 2010 election they were reaching around 3,500 families a year, with impressive results.
What Conservative ministers are now doing is expanding this approach again, while saying they believe it can be done more cheaply per family, and more effectively, by using payment-by-results – and with a greater emphasis on work as a route out of poverty. This makes sense: pragmatically continuing a policy which was working pretty well, even if they can’t bring themselves to admit it, while giving it a distinctively Conservative twist. I have my doubts about the specifics of the changes they are making, which I rehearsed here. I hope I’m wrong: if it can be done more cheaply, that will enable scarce public funding to go much further, which would be hugely welcome.
The real shame is that two years have been wasted. If ministers had piloted these changes in a few Family Intervention Projects two years ago, they would have known by now if they were working. Instead, it remains a leap of faith – and potentially a very expensive one. It will also be a shame if the divisive rhetoric employed by Conservative ministers – and the unfortunate tendency to conflate families suffering from poverty and ‘multiple disadvantage’ (the real definition behind the 120,000 figure which ministers keep parroting) with families responsible for anti-social behaviour and other trouble in their neighbourhood – turns the Left against these programmes. Many on the Left have inferred something more than carelessness behind this conflation: the old Right-wing prejudice that poor families are responsible for their plight; or, as some have put it, a calculated attempt to ‘demonise’ the poor.
These are legitimate concerns, but some on the Left have gone further, attacking the whole idea of intensive, assertive interventions as ‘stigmatising’ families, and arguing that the answer is more Sure Start centres. Casey’s follow-up yesterday – in which she suggested that some ‘troubled families’ are having too many children for their own good (and that of their children) – provoked predictable howls about the return of eugenics. These were the same arguments and attitudes relied on by the Left (as well as by the majority of Whitehall officials working on education and families) which helped prevent Labour making any real progress with these families between 1997 and 2006. The Left should not allow itself to be provoked into retreating into this comfort zone. There is a serious problem here which needs a long-term solution. That means both main parties being willing to learn from experience, and from each other – not falling back on lazy assumptions, of Right or Left.
Matt Cavanagh is a visiting fellow at IPPR.Tags: Crime, David Cameron, families, Labour, Poverty