Dave's ‘troubleshooters’ policy is right — but it needs working on

families, reform, UK politics

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  15 Dec 2011
Source:  Spectator, Coffee House Blog

David Cameron has finally announced the way forward on his pledge to ‘turn round the lives of 120,000 of Britain’s troubled families’ — and it is good news. Many of these families combine behaviour that is harmful or disruptive to the rest of society with reliance on benefits, social housing and other services, reinforcing the sense that they are taking a lot from their fellow citizens while giving nothing positive back.

And although dealing with their problems is expensive, they already cost government and society a lot of money, as the Prime Minister is rightly emphasising today. 

He actually made this pledge a year ago, ‘based on the broken society’ agenda he brought in from opposition, but has admitted that he was distracted by other priorities and allowed the initiative to get bogged down in bureaucracy — until the riots, that is, when he said it was ‘back at the top of my political agenda’. Since then we have had several more months of distractions and bureaucratic wrangling: over which minister and department should take the lead; how much funding was needed and where it should come from; and what model should be used. Ministers have flirted with the more Big Society approach favoured by Cameron’s adviser Emma Harrison, the Social Impact Bond approach being piloted in Peterborough, or an adapted version of the Work Programme paid for from the EU social fund. But now, under the leadership of the redoubtable Louise Casey (Tony Blair’s ‘Respect Czar’), it appears they have turned full circle and come back to the kind of approach they inherited from their predecessors.

We are told, as Pete blogged earlier, that dedicated ‘troubleshooters’ will work with the problem families on ‘action plans’ to turn their lives around, applying sanctions if they don't co-operate, and co-ordinating all the different parts of government that already deal with them: police, probation, local authorities, schools, doctors, and so on. These ‘troubleshooters’ appear to be closely modelled on the caseworkers in Family Intervention Projects, which started as a local initiative in Scotland in the 1990s, were first piloted on a national basis under Tony Blair as part of the ‘Respect Agenda’ in 2006, and then significantly expanded under Gordon Brown in 2008 and 2009. Cameron’s complaint today that while countless public services and agencies work with these families, ‘no-one sees the whole family, no-one grips the whole problem’ is almost word-for-word what Blair said in 2006.

The expansion between 2006 and 2010 was frustratingly slow, and coverage across the country was patchy, but by 2010 they were reaching around 5,000 families a year — approaching the kind of scale that was, and is, necessary. Evaluations published under the current government confirm the impressive results of the programme in reducing crime and anti-social behaviour, truancy and exclusion and bad behaviour at school, domestic violence, drug and alcohol problems, and other issues. Crucially, these improvements were shown to last, a year after the families had left the programme. 

In a more rational world, this would have been one of the policies which a new government would have identified and sought to build on immediately. Instead, eighteen months have passed, and there has been a sense of drift and confusion among front line practitioners. Some programmes have been closed or cut back due to fiscal pressures, but most Local Authorities were impressed enough with the results to keep them going, and overall numbers are holding up — though the situation for the next financial year was looking precarious. So today’s announcement has come in the nick of time.

It does, however, raise a number of questions:

1) Is the Government defining and measuring the problem in the right way?
The 120,000 figure is based on work by the Cabinet Office Social Exclusion Task Force which is at least four years old. It estimated the number of families suffering ‘multiple disadvantages’, defined as five or more from a list including different measures of poverty, worklessness, poor education, housing problems, and physical and mental health problems. One element obviously missing from this list was whether the families are actually involved in crime or anti-social behaviour. When Brown inherited the programme, he asked officials to estimate how many of the 120,000 this applied to, and the answer was 50,000, which formed the basis of the target he announced in 2009. It is not clear that returning to the larger figure is sensible, particularly given fiscal constraints, and more fundamentally it is time the government commissioned, and published, more up-to-date research to guide this flagship initiative.

2) What about funding? The government is entirely right to say this must come from savings in other programmes, but big concerns still remain. The evidence clearly shows that successful interventions of this kind cost around £20,000 for every family which completes the programme: the great majority of this cost being the cost of the dedicated caseworkers or ‘troubleshooters’. Based on this unit cost, the funding announced today, of around £450m over four years, would cover between 20,000 and 25,000 families. The intention is that this funding will be matched by local councils, who are expected to provide £670m of funding, making a total of £1.1bn, which would expand the coverage to 55,000 families. 

One risk is whether councils will actually come up with their share. This exact same match funding model is one of the reasons the roll-out was patchy and slow before the election (Conservative ministers complained that three urban boroughs involved in the riots had only had 150 families on the programmes). Even if councils do find the money, that would, on the same unit cost, still only cover half the government’s target group. Without clear prioritisation within that group, the risk is that the intensive nature of these programmes will be diluted, to try to drive down the unit cost. This would be a false economy: the more these ‘troubleshooters’ are stretched across bigger caseloads, the less effective they will be. 

The other risk is that the programme will start to target the families who are easiest to turn round, rather than those who are doing the most damage to society — especially if a lack of clear prioritisation is combined with payment by results. The best solution would be to prioritise those families who are actually involved in anti-social behaviour. 

3) Is the right emphasis being placed on work? The Government has a clear and coherent narrative across departments, emphasising the social and indeed moral importance of work, and it is entirely legitimate to apply that to this programme. Long-term worklessness is one of the contributory factors behind many (though not all) of these families’ problems, and it is a fair criticism of Family Intervention Projects up to now that they could have done more on this. However, it is important to be realistic, and not to make crude, naïve or ideological assumptions about the redemptive role that work can play for these families. For some of the most chaotic families in particular, a period of stabilisation is required before work can be a serious proposition. This should be reflected in the payment-by-results model: otherwise, again, the risk is that local programmes will target the families who are easiest to place in work, rather than those who are doing the most damage.    

4) What will the savings be? While it is true — as the Prime Minister is emphasising today — that these interventions save money, it is also true that the savings accrue across very different time periods and different parts of the public sector. Only some of them accrue to the councils who are being expected to bear the majority of the cost, and indeed only some of the benefits are truly cashable savings. Many of the most important benefits are not cashable. If for example a ‘troubleshooter’ succeeds in reducing the amount of anti-social behaviour a particular family causes, while this is a great benefit to society, it is very unlikely to provide clear cashable savings. It will just free up the police and other services to do more elsewhere. The same goes for reductions in the level of drug and alcohol abuse, or mental health problems. 

This is absolutely not an argument against expanding these programmes; it is simply an argument for being honest about exactly what kinds of benefits they generate, to make sure they have the stable, long-term support they need and deserve.