The money wasted on ‘troubled families’ was not even the biggest problem with this disastrous policy

This expensive, flawed idea has pathologised a whole group of perfectly ordinary, if distressing, life events

Hannah Fearn
Tuesday 18 October 2016 16:21 BST
The troubled families programme was established by the Coalition Government after the 2011 summer riots to support children from struggling homes – but the definition of a ‘troubled’ family was too broad
The troubled families programme was established by the Coalition Government after the 2011 summer riots to support children from struggling homes – but the definition of a ‘troubled’ family was too broad

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Now we know for sure: the Government’s Troubled Families programme was, and is, a failure. Those involved in executing it, council staff in particular, were well aware that the £400m pilot project working with 120,000 arbitrarily chosen families wasn’t up to much long before today’s damning report was published. Yet, the Government still chose to roll it out to try to work with a further 400,000 families by 2020 at the eye-watering cost of £900m. This, remember, while benefits are being cut and the Treasury was still summarily obsessed with getting the deficit down.

Today the evidence that this project is a dreadful waste of precious money is there in black and white. “We were unable to find consistent evidence that the Troubled Families programme had any significant or systematic impact,” concludes an independent analysis of the policy carried out by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. It was, variously, based on very little evidence that a large number of families with multiple and very complex needs ever existed, poorly targeted, and ignored the real causes of disadvantage to some families.

When it was first devised in the wake of the 2011 summer riots, the Troubled Families initiative was designed to stop a small number of people living chaotic lives placing a huge burden on the public purse – a situation that a handful of ministers had convinced themselves existed despite scant, and anecdotal at best, evidence that it did. It drew up a list of factors that might identify a family as “troubled” if five or more applied to them: no parent in work; poor quality housing; no parent with qualifications; a mother with mental health problems; one parent with longstanding disability or illness; low income; unable to afford food and clothing.

These, as councils pointed out immediately, were often just the symptoms of poverty, not the cause of social instability and family breakdown. More to the point, they found it hard to find families to which more than a couple of these applied. Perhaps there weren’t really many “troubled families” in Britain at all. But cash-strapped by Government cuts, councils couldn’t afford to lose the money the policy provided so, understandably, they ploughed on regardless. They were at least funding some good local work.

In 2014, fully aware of its shortcomings, the scheme was rolled out by the Government to run until 2020, at which point the definition of a troubled family was broadened, relaxed perhaps, to include a whole new range of criteria. Some of these were welcome: known domestic violence, for example, or a high risk of children being taken into care. Fine. But then definition of a “troubled” household became baggier and baggier.

It could now include the simple fact of being in debt, or anyone in a family having a physical and mental health condition. According to a statement released on the day the expansion was confirmed by former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, of “troubled family” members “71 per cent having a physical health problem and 46 per cent a mental health concern”. This is dangerous territory.

London Riots

The damage that has been inflicted by the Troubled Families programme is far greater than the quite staggering waste of money that it represents. What it has done is pathologised a whole group of perfectly ordinary, if distressing, life events. If you are unlucky enough to be diagnosed with, say multiple sclerosis, does that put you on the watch list? What happens if an out-of-work father succumbs to depression at the same time as a teenage child experiments with soft drugs around the same time? Is that family really “troubled”, or just coping with the complicated business of being alive?

More significantly, it has done this at a time when ever more families are likely to be facing issues such as debt, unemployment, low income and benefit dependency (four factors which often come as a package, pushing families into the “troubled” very easily indeed) due to years of austerity and now the fluctuations of the British economy in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Being “troubled” has taken on a new meaning; something like, “not a member of the upwardly-mobile, aspirational middle class”. It’s a grotesque expression of classism smuggled in through a policy that looks well-meaning at best, benign at worse. But it is not.

The harm that it has done is long-lasting. It’s not just that it forces the agencies (social workers, teachers, council staff) who work with poorer families to constantly assess them against this ugly word “troubled” – it means families facing quite normal difficulties will start to think of their own prospects in such terms too. The psychological impact could cost far more to the public purse than the original flawed policy could ever seek to save in the first place.

The Troubled Families programme is yet another triumph of anecdote and assumption over the facts. The best way to save any families at risk of falling into poverty traps and a chaotic lifestyle is to put an end to this expensive blunder.

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