An expert from Bristol University has accused the government of either “deliberately misrepresenting” or failing to understand research used to develop David Cameron’s policy to deal with “troubled families”.
In December, the prime minister said he was determined to “get to grips” with tackling England’s most troubled families by pledging a network of troubleshooters.
In the wake of last summer’s riots, the PM promised more targeted support, with families getting one dedicated worker rather than a “string of well-meaning, disconnected officials”.
The government would provide £448m – but councils must provide 60% of funding.
But Dr Ruth Levitas, an expert on poverty and social exclusion from from Bristol University’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, has questioned the reliability of figures used as the basis for the Coalition’s ‘Troubled Families’ programme.
According to Dr Levitas, the government cannot even be sure that there are 120,000 families decided are in difficulties, saying the actual figures may be substantially lower or higher, possible as high as 300,000.
Most worryingly, she said that the language of ‘troubled families’ has not been defined properly, which “encouraged public hostility to the poor as well as justifying punitive policies”.
“There are two possibilities. One is that the misrepresentation is deliberate. The other is that those responsible do not understand the research they are using,” she said.
“Either should raise alarm bells about the way policy is being made.”
The government programme defines ‘troubled families’ as “characterised by there being no adult in the family working, children not being in school, and family members being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour”.
They claim that that ‘the Government identified a group of 120,000 troubled families whose lives are so chaotic they cost some £9 billion in the last year alone.
But the research points out that the characteristics of these families are radically different from those targeted by the ‘Troubled Families’ programme. These are households experiencing multiple deprivation, with no evidence that they are involved in crime or anti-social behaviour.
This means there is no evidence that there are 120,000 families of the kind the government is targeting.
The research was undertaken as part of the background to a large ESRC-funded research project on Poverty and Social Exclusion in the United Kingdom.
Professor Dave Gordon, Professor of Social Justice at the University, and the Principal Investigator on the ESRC project added: “In the term ‘troubled families’ it deliberately conflates families experiencing multiple disadvantage and families that cause trouble. The attributed costings are obscure and certainly open to question.”
Speaking last December, the prime minister said he was an optimist, and families depicted in the press as “neighbours from hell” should not be “written off as unreadable or unteachable”.
Instead of a top-down approach which families could find “faceless, disjointed and unhelpful”, he wanted to “empower” families to sort out their own problems by providing them with a single person to deal with.
While he said his scheme was a “big ask”, he believed turning their lives around was “doable”.
Ministers are modelling their strategy on the family intervention project adopted by the last Labour government, in which a single social worker is sent in to gain an overview of the problems facing a family and to recommend the best course of action.