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PICKLES Eric smiling

The Troubled Families Programme has been a great – though largely unsung – success story for the Government. Two years into the three-year programme, over 97,000 of the 120,000 families who will be helped by the programme are being worked with, and nearly 40,000 have been turned around.

The measure of success concerns getting people back into work, reducing the amount of anti-social behaviour, and getting children back into school. The programme is being extended to help 400,000 families. These are families where there was vast public spending – an average of £75,000 per family per year – and endless visits from state functionaries, to little effect.

With the Troubled Families Programme, central Government has given an incentive to local councils to “turn round” these families. It is the councils – Labour as well as Conservative – that are responsible for delivering it.

That approach is called localism. Yet some Labour MPs have the mindset that Whitehall is responsible for every detail.

Here is  Siobhain McDonagh, the Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, questioning Eric Pickles about it in the House of Commons:

“Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to consider the impact of temporary accommodation on the families being looked after by troubled families units? Many of those families live in private rented accommodation. In my part of south London and, I am sure, in other parts of London and the south-east, large numbers of people are being placed in temporary accommodation as a result of eviction, some of which is quite distant from their home borough. Every Friday, I see families going from south-west London to Wembley, Tottenham and other parts of London. As I see them leave, I am troubled about the future for their children.”

If Miss McDonagh feels that the numbers placed in temporary accommodation – in Merton and elsewhere – should be kept to a minimum then she is right. It is expensive for the taxpayer and leaves families in limbo. We could consider how to revive the private rented sector and to reform welfare to minimise the problem. But if she is saying that given the challenge of families being in such accommodation there is no point in having the Troubled Families programme, then she is wrong.

Mr Pickles replied:

“In preparation for answering the hon. Lady’s question, I asked what concerns she might have about her own authority, Merton, and I was told that she had not had a specific discussion with the authority on this subject. I should like to give her the very good news that Merton, with 337 troubled families, is ranked 120th among the local authorities. It has done an extremely good job and had worked with 86% of those families by the end of March, turning round nearly half of them. Merton has now put itself forward to work closely with the expanded programme, and I think the hon. Lady has reason to be proud of the way in which her local authority has handled this matter.”

Then we had Lyn Brown, the Labour MP for West Ham, complaining:

“The troubled families programme should be aimed at families who are facing multiple challenges and who have the most complex needs. That is something that we would support. The Secretary of State asserts that the programme is succeeding, but how can he justify that when, even on his own tests, many of the families he claims to have “turned round” are still committing crimes, their children are still missing school and their family members are not working? Indeed, some of the families he claims to have turned round have been nowhere near the programme.”

Mr Pickles replied:

“I do not understand the hon. Lady’s hostility. This has been a very successful programme, and we have worked closely with Labour authorities. There is a lagging authority, however. I understand that her experience might be different, in that Newham has identified 985 families and is working with 90% of them, but has turned round only 14% of them, compared with the national average of 33%. Let us be clear: we are not turning these good folks into model citizens — these are very difficult families — but if we can get the children into school for three successive terms, get other family members into work for three months and reduce the amount of antisocial behaviour, it is better for those people and for their neighbours. It is also a lot better than the rather smug attitude being taken by some Opposition Members.”

What is striking is that the Labour MPs’ instinct is to go straight to the Secretary of State rather than to their own Labour councils. But it is the councils that make the decisions about how to implement the programme – they are paid by results.

Localism is partly an attitude of mind. If MPs have concerns about how this is being implemented – whether valid or invalid – they should thrash it out with their local councils. It’s no use going to Mr Pickles – he’s letting them get on with it.

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