Inside Whitehall: £200m windfall that could be well spent saving bad apples

  • @oliver_wright

Amid all the wrangling and recriminations  of last month’s £10bn spending cuts, one group of civil servants got an unexpected windfall.They hadn’t even asked for the money – the Treasury had to phone them up and tell them to apply. A few weeks later £200m was theirs.

Those civil servants run the controversial Troubled Families Programme, already chugging its way through about half a billion pounds of government funding to “turn around” the lives of 120,000 families by 2015. David Cameron claims the scheme could save the Government £9bn in avoidable crime, health and social problems – as well as transforming some of the country’s most blighted communities. The extra money will extend the programme until 2016, with a commitment to carry on until 2020 and assist 400,000 extra families should either Coalition partner win the next election.

But officials who lost out in the spending round are muttering – suggesting that Mr Cameron fell for the “spin” of the programme’s charismatic director, Louise Casey. They say evidence that the scheme is working is not yet there and it is hard to justify an additional commitment when money elsewhere in the public sector is so tight. Some go further and accuse Ms Casey of making exaggerated claims about savings to win Tory backing. It is, they argue, little better than previous expensive Labour initiatives (some also run by Ms Casey) and will yield only modest but expensive results.

So what is the truth?

First you have to look at how the programme is meant to work. The 120,000 families are identified by local councils if they meet three out of four criteria: children involved in crime or antisocial behaviour; children who are regularly skipping school or being excluded; an adult on benefits or family members with drink and drug problems.

Each family is given a support worker whose job is to help them do even the basic things; making sure the kids get to school, helping the mother cook an evening meal and sorting out disorganised homes. As Ms Casey puts it, they are someone the family knows, who will go into their home, challenge their behaviour and link-up local services around them to find solutions to ingrained problems.

The Government is paying £448m (about 40 per cent of the cost) to councils to run the scheme – some money in advance and some by results. Councils get paid if they cut truancy and suspensions over a school year. They get money if they show a 60 per cent reduction in antisocial behaviour for six months and if offending rates are cut by a third. The most money – £800 a family – is for getting adults back into work for more than six months.

So is it working? The latest government figures reveal that, 18 months in, 66,000 of the 120,000 families due to take part in the scheme have been identified. Of these, 1,675 have been successfully “turned around”.

But there are significant regional variations. Herefordshire, for example, has identified all its 310 families and turned around 91 of them. Essex has identified only 480 out of 2,220 families, and has turned around none.

Ms Casey argues, rightly, that the scheme is so big that it is going to take some time to get it fully operational. She also points out that, as results are measured over a year, it not surprising that few councils have yet hit their targets.

Perhaps the best guide to how the scheme might perform is the Family Intervention Programme  – the TEP’s forerunner. Of 3,675 families who completed a FIP between 2007 and 2011, at least half had a “successful outcome”. These included poor parenting (53 per cent improvement), domestic violence (65 per cent), crime involvement (65 per cent) and truancy or exclusion (57 per cent).But these outcomes were judged by those working on the scheme. As one person involved put it: “They were marking their own homework.”

Researchers tried to follow up 775 families a year later and traced 470. Of those, 70 to 90 per cent were judged to have sustained the improvements.

If these figures are correct and the TFP can turn round, say, 30 per cent of the families they work with that would still be a fairly spectacular success. Not just for those who had had their lives improved – but also, by Mr Cameron’s reckoning, by saving taxpayers about £3bn a year.

But that is the rub. To “cash in” that saving will require cutting back and closing some of the “services” troubled families over-use. It should mean fewer police on the streets, prison places, social workers and doctors and nurses in A&E. That is how the Government gets a return on its investment. All easier said than done.

So is the scheme worth the money? Probably, if you are prepared to risk a new approach to improve a lot of lives. But if you are supporting it to cut taxes, in the long run it probably isn’t. Policy is rarely that straight-forward – no matter what politicians may say.

Why ‘No Minister’ is a thing of the past

Tory ministers – ever on the look-out for efficiency gains – have found a strange upside to the only significant piece of constitutional reform to have got through Parliament. While some backbenchers privately say five-year fixed-term elections take away David Cameron’s ability to call a snap poll, the idea has done wonders for the civil service work ethic.

Old ministerial hands point out that Whitehall used in effect to shut down from the point at which journalists started speculating an election might be called to the last possible opportunity that it could be. Officials didn’t want to waste time pushing ideas and policies that might be junked by a new administration. Now it is harder to get away with “No Minister”.

Half a million, ripe to be served up on a plate

Despite teeth gnashing in the Foreign Office over austerity not everything is being cut back to the bone. The British embassy in the Chilean capital, Santiago, is seeking a full-time chef who will be paid about £12,000 a year to plan and produce breakfast, lunch and dinner for the ambassador Jon Benjamin, his family and residence staff.

Say only half our ambassadors have a chef, that is still a conservative half a million pounds. Don’t tell George.