Fixing the broken bits: Targeted interventions on the causes of disorder

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communities, families, health, justice, poverty, welfare

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  23 Aug 2011
Source:  IPPR

While Britain as a whole is not ‘broken’, there are deep-seated social problems in some areas. To tackle these problems, politicians on all sides need to focus on targeted, long-term, cross-Whitehall solutions.

The national post-mortem after the August riots quickly polarised along familiar political lines. The right, led by prime minister David Cameron, began by insisting that the riots and looting were ‘criminality pure and simple’, then fell back on the claim that if there was a deeper cause, it was ‘culture, not poverty’. The left, behind Labour leader Ed Miliband, began with a similarly strong condemnation of the behaviour of individual rioters and looters, but then demanded an inquiry into the wider causes, making clear this should go beyond issues of culture to cover poverty and opportunity.

Underneath these differences, however, there are areas of potential agreement, including two in particular: first, the significant role played in the riots by territorial youth gangs, which are also believed to account for a disproportionate amount of serious youth violence more generally; and second, the issue of ‘problem families’, less directly connected to the riots but similarly thought to account for a disproportionate share of Britain’s social problems.

So the country would be better served by triangulation than by a continuation of the dynamic in which the Conservatives systematically exaggerate the country’s social problems and Labour systematically underplays them, where one side says British society is fundamentally ‘broken’ and the other denies the whole premise.

The Conservatives should concede that crime, teenage pregnancy, and generational worklessness have actually been getting better rather than worse, but can argue that they are flattening out at levels which are relatively high in international terms, and also that in some areas they have not improved at all. Labour, in turn, should concede that even in benign conditions of economic growth and public investment, the rising tide did not lift all boats: serious social issues remain, and are often concentrated in particular areas, and families, across generations.

All sides need to focus on the detail of this problem, rather than trying to fit it into their pre-existing policy prejudices. The dominant Conservative narrative of injecting more moral responsibility into mainstream services is likely to fare no better, in dealing with youth gangs or problem families, than the dominant New Labour narrative of injecting money and top-down reform. Each might succeed in making those public services better for the average person, but is unlikely to make them better at dealing with the most complex and intractable cases.

Targeted Initiatives

As Tony Blair wrote in last week’s Observer, rather than reflecting a general ‘moral decline’, these are ‘specific problems requiring specific solutions’. He did not go into detail, but the clearest template is provided by Family Intervention Projects, piloted on a small scale under Blair in 2006–07, and then expanded under Gordon Brown, to reach 3,500 families a year by 2010. These projects offer intensive, assertive, one-to-one support to help problem families stabilise their often chaotic lives. They support the parents, once they have stability in their own lives, to provide the stability, consistency and love their children need to stop them going off the rails, and give them a chance to flourish.

A second example is Family Nurse Partnerships, again piloted under Blair and expanded under Brown, and reaching 6,000 families a year by 2010. This programme brings specially trained health visitors to vulnerable young mothers, with ‘intensive and structured home visits, delivered by specially trained nurses, from early pregnancy until the child is two’. Again, the objective is to give the parent one-to-one support so that they in turn can provide the stability and love their children need.

These programmes share a number of characteristics which contrast with mainstream public services. They are usually targeted, rather than universal; they are designed around engagement over months or years, rather than one-off encounters, and around engagement with the family as a unit rather than the individual; they are insistent and assertive, rather than waiting for people to come and access services themselves; and they cut across institutional boundaries, usually with a single person taking responsibility for ensuring that different agencies are working together to help deal with the problem, or at the very least that they are aware of what each other is doing and not working against each other.

The same applies to the ‘call-in’ method of dealing with gangs, pioneered in Boston, applied more recently in Strathclyde, and championed by government ministers in the wake of the riots. Contrary to how it has been described in the immediate aftermath – as ‘zero tolerance’ for gangs, or ‘making their lives hell’ – it actually depends for its success on closer inter-agency working between police, prosecutors, social services, and officials from housing, health and education, as well as a painstaking approach to procedural fairness, with the authorities jointly explaining to gang members exactly what is going to happen, with carrots as well as sticks, rather than a sudden and arbitrary ‘crackdown’.

These initiatives offer the best chance of escaping the hopeless situation where problem families and youth gang members – along with other difficult or vulnerable groups, like drug addicts, mentally ill offenders, children excluded from school, or children at risk – are dealt with by a wide range of agencies discretely and in isolation. A single problem 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 to try to solve its problems. The most poignant failures of this kind relate to at-risk children, where a number of warning signs are seen by a number of different agencies but no-one joins the dots, and the child is left to a dreadful fate. The problem, however, is quite general, and applies to youth gang members as well. (It is also exacerbated by the excessive fastidiousness which civil liberties groups have demanded of public bodies wanting to share information with each other, but the core of the problem lies with the insularity of those bodies themselves.)

Bureaucratic failings

It should be obvious why initiatives like Family Intervention Projects and Family Nurse Partnerships, integrated support for drug users, or gang call-ins, need clear political support. Mainstream public services will never be entirely comfortable with them, and nor will Whitehall, which is notorious for operating in departmental ‘silos’. Issues rarely get anywhere unless they are allocated to one departmental ‘owner’, even if the true nature of the issue lies precisely in the intersection between issues which inevitably fall in different departments – like the interaction between school exclusion and crime, or between drug use and unemployment.

It is no accident that the most successful initiative of those described above has been Family Nurse Partnerships, because that project was simply handed to one department, Health, to ‘own’ and run. In fact, many departments have a legitimate stake in it, based on its proven contribution to other policy areas, like child behaviour, education, employment prospects and crime. But in the early days of the programme’s adoption in the UK, it was clear that this wider interest, far from adding momentum, would actually slow things down, as different departments got bogged down in endless squabbles over targeting, communications and, of course, funding. There were downsides to simply handing the whole thing over to the Department of Health, not least because it forbids anyone even mentioning that the programme has any wider benefits, fearing that if it comes to be seen as a crime reduction initiative then this might damage the bond of trust between the health visitor and the mother. Fortunately, the health benefits are sufficient in themselves to motivate the department to fund it – and the budget is large enough to enable its continued expansion, even in the current difficult spending round.

Family Intervention Projects have generated similarly impressive results, albeit without the same degree of international evaluation, but they lack a single departmental owner, so when departmental budgets came under pressure in Labour’s later years, finding the money to expand became even harder. It appears that progress slowed or went into reverse after the 2010 general election – David Cameron has blamed ‘bureaucracy’, but a likelier explanation is the lack of political backing before now, and the decision to remove ring-fenced funding, subsuming this programme along with more mainstream services in the wider Early Intervention Grant. The political interest has now returned, but if Cameron or Iain Duncan Smith let bureaucratic or funding factors persuade them to fold Family Intervention Projects into the mainstream Work Programme, or rely too heavily on Big Society mentors, the policy will continue to fail to reach its potential.

Lessons for progressives

As the new government’s experience shows, the bureaucratic failings are common across different governments. They are not even unique to the public sector: they are characteristic of all big, old, decentralised organisations – including private companies. But they are particularly acute in the public sector – and therefore particularly problematic for progressives, who need to come up with fresh thinking to overcome them.

For Labour in particular, there is also a need to confront the limits of progressive universalism. This philosophy – ‘support for all, with more support for those who need it most’ – remains unimpeachable as an overall driving principle. It combines compassion and fairness with inclusivity, helping to build and sustain public support for a progressive welfare state, including national institutions like the NHS or more recent additions like Sure Start which embody the principle of progressive universalism itself. Progressive universalism explains the Labour government’s priorities between 1997 and 2010: the spending increases, top-down management pressure and reforms were all directed at the big mainstream public services, managed by individual departments, and the result, by and large, was improved performance on the core objectives of each of those services and departments. But it must be recognised that these moves brought far less improvement in the kind of complex and intractable problems which, by their nature, tend to cut across departmental responsibilities, like problem families, or youth gang members, or other similar groups, such as mentally ill offenders. Some were helped at the margins, though quite possibly these were the ones who stood the best chance of escaping their circumstances anyway. If progressives really want to tackle Britain’s most intractable problems, then rather than insisting that universal services are the answer – not just for stable or healthy families across the income range but also for problem families leading chaotic lives – they should start thinking about how more targeted programmes, like Family Nurse Partnerships and Family Intervention Programmes, can be developed and fitted into the wider public sector landscape.

This article is an edited extract from Breaking down broken Britain: Targeted solutions for the hardest to reach which appears in the forthcoming edition of PPR, IPPR’s quarterly journal. For more details on how to subscribe or download articles click here.