Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Troubled Families and a Pickled Troubled Initiative

History shows that every so often there is moral panic about an alleged underclass who it is claimed subvert the nation's moral fibre.  It goes right back through the centuries.

The problem is that when the evidence for such claims is presented, it simply fails any half-decent scrutiny, consisting as it does of weakly correlated estimates and assumptions.

So shame on the civil servants who have allowed ministers to get away with the latest "Troubled Families" initiative.  By lumping a pile of health, social care and criminal justice costs together and then cross referencing it to some data on poverty (yes, poverty, not anti-social behaviour), we are told there are 120,000 "Troubled families" and we are told that this underclass costs us a small fortune. 

Using poverty data and then equating it with anti-social and criminal behaviour is an appalling slur on the thousands who live by society's standards and bring their children up to be good citizens despite their dreadful economic circumstances.  Yes, people who are poor are more likely to become offenders, addicts or unwell, but it does not follow that multiple deprivation makes you a nuisance neighbour any more than great wealth makes you a kind-hearted, generous person or a mean, old Scrooge.

Of course, originally, the government claimed there were 150,000 Troubled Families, but then even they couldn't get the figures to justify this number and the figure was quietly reduced by 20%.

So "troubleshooters" are going to go and cajole these people into becoming better citizens.  One of the indicators is that someone in the family moves into paid work.  Well, if these families really are that dysfunctional and their kids so feral, do we really want their parents working long hours and the kids not having a modicum of parental restraint as a result! 

How about cajoling a few employers to create jobs for them or cajoling a few credit companies into cleaning up their act?

No, this is a Troubled Initiative which will fail because it is based on blaming the poor rather than the socio-economic causes which either cause or exacerbate complex social and inter-personal problems.  It is also the height of naivety to think that troubleshooters, whoever they may be, can somehow outperform professionally trained and supervised social workers, teachers and youth workers.

The British Association of Social Workers has a very perceptive assessment of the Troubled Initiative which I reproduce below:

"Commenting on plans unveiled by the Westminster secretary of state for communities, Eric Pickles, for all 152 councils in England to be incentivised to send in “trouble-shooters” to deal with problem families, Nushra Mansuri, professional officer, British Association of Social Workers, has suggested the move is indiscriminately picking on families with low incomes.

Speaking after Mr Pickles outlined the plan to encourage councils to take steps to tackle problems said to emanate from 120,000 families, Ms Mansuri said: “Is the government saying that being poor is a crime? This figure of 120,000 ‘problem families’ being bandied about is cobbled together from research that was conducted 8 years ago, and was based on families having 5 out of 7 characteristics, including no parent in work, and having a low income.

“In today’s economic climate, that could apply to many, many families. A family having problems does not automatically equate to them being labelled a ‘problem family’ and causing a nuisance to anyone else. This is particularly unfair when the government’s austerity programme is driving so many more people into poverty.”

The Pickles plan is based on the government’s wish to “turn around” the lives of the so-called “problem families” by 2015. The government estimates that the 120,000 families are currently costing the state around £9bn each year in costs to the NHS, the police and social services.
Ministers have earmarked £448m from existing departmental budgets over four years to help pay for a network of people who will identify families in need of help, make sure they get access to the right services and ensure that action is taken. However, the fund will only cover 40% of the cost of the scheme and councils who want to use it will have to agree to fund the other 60% themselves.
To be defined as “troubled” the government says families need to meet five out of seven criteria, including having truanting children, parents with addiction and a history of anti-social behaviour.

However, research by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has questioned the government’s calculation of the number of families that meet this criteria. An ERSC report says ministers are misrepresenting its background research on which the figure of 120,000 “troubled families” is based.

Focusing on the government’s definition, BASW’s Mansuri continued: “The government also needs to decide whether there is a link between deprivation and crime or not. At the time of last summer’s riots, David Cameron said: ‘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.’

“Now we have the government stirring up hatred against poor families, stigmatising them and attempting to dismiss the entire social work profession as wishy washy do-gooders.

“If Mr Pickles was “fluent in social work”, he would realise that cutting back social work services to children and families and not deploying frontline social workers in the most effective way is not the answer. Early intervention ends up costing the state less both financially and socially.

“As for dispensing with the ‘it’s not my fault’ culture, perhaps the government could start by ending the blame culture. Going after a tiny minority and constantly pillorying them is not the most effective means of promoting social inclusion and community cohesion, it tends to up the ante and promote
self-fulfilling prophecies of failure for some families and sadly, poor outcomes for children.

“The government seeks to punish and bully people for being disadvantaged. We fail to see how this will result in a fairer and more harmonious society for any of us.”

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