We live in a fractured society. Amongst other developments the rise of the internet, multiple media outlets and global travel, on a scale unimaginable a couple of decades ago, have wrenched apart the traditional guises of community and common experience. The rise of anti-social behaviour, sickening media reports of child abuse, the increase in violent crime and the trappings of a woefully inadequate benefit system all reflect utter social transformation in many of our communities.
This sense that society is, in some part at least, broken has attracted many newspaper headlines and, in response, some tough-sounding policies from central government. Yet, these problems persist and social breakdown on such a mass scale is not an exaggeration nor a political football – it is a sad reality. The issues involved are serious and it is time to realise that they can be countered best not at the national level but locally where the nature and scale of such problems can differ enormously.
I strongly believe that local breakdown requires local solutions. As such I was delighted to welcome to the House of Commons on Wednesday a team highlighting Westminster City Council's Family Recovery Programme (FRP). The FRP is an encouraging example of a Conservative run local authority taking a pioneering lead in tackling social deprivation in all of its forms.
In Westminster it has been calculated that 3% of local families are responsible for almost 80% of all social care spending. Westminster City Council has undertaken detailed research not only to understand the multiple symptoms of social deprivation but to put into action a response tailored specifically to families here in central London.
The City Council has acknowledged that in the past too often children's services and adult services simply fail to link up effectively. Such poor communication is also frequently reflected in our education and health systems nationwide. The result is whilst wide resources may be available, a lack of coordinated action means that many individuals and, consequently, families simply slip through the net. Similarly, a key problem with previous attempts to address family breakdown, often designed by central government, is the tendency to use a “one size fits all” approach which fails to take into account the specific and complex needs of a family in trouble.
Without the flexibility to adjust services to each unique set of family circumstances, money risks being wasted on a system that fails to produce anything but piecemeal results. To achieve real lasting success requires an approach that deals not only with the general consequences of social deprivation but with the specific causes of it – often deeply rooted within our communities and ultimately originating from within family units.
The FRP is a multi-agency scheme which persistently intervenes and supports families. At its core are not bureaucratic targets or state reports but a dedicated group of professionals known as the Team around the Family (TaF). Each TaF is suitably skilled to identify and respond to any of the multitude of symptoms of social deprivation. Its work covers adult mental health, benefits, education, housing, substance abuse, access to training and work, child care and domestic violence.
Importantly, the FRP has a number of unique features which help to outline how such difficulties can be tackled in a practical way. For example, at the heart of the project is the recognition that the family is the most important building block of a healthy society.
This focus leads to a co-ordinated support system being set up not just for an individual but the wider family thus preventing the flow of social problems from one generation to another. Yet, it would be a mistake to characterise the programme as a one-way provision of support. In order to promote responsibility and reduce dependency, each family who enters the programme signs up to a contract. This not only outlines the support they can expect but also sets out the possible sanctions in the event of failure to cooperate.
In addition, all care plans provide a coherent programme of support which acknowledges the interdependent nature of a family's problems. Each of the TaFs has a single operation manager to ensure ultimate accountability and consistency with respect to policy implementation and priority organisation. Furthermore, the Council's scheme also includes a easily accessed information desk to ensure that knowledge and case histories are stored in a single place – such records will ensure that families no longer slip through the support net.
Ultimately, the FRP aims to tackle social decline and in doing so it is designed to make major savings to the public purse. The Council has even established a unique cost benefit model to demonstrate what savings can be made if social exclusion is effectively challenged. In short, there are no blank cheques of taxpayers' money.
Unlike so many proposals to take on social breakdown in recent times, the FRP is not just impressive in theory. It works in practice. Indeed, in just over one year since its implementation initial results are extremely impressive. With around 45 families already signed up, four-fifths of parents have now decided to attend further parenting courses, whilst an even larger proportion have had their benefits reviewed. These reviews have led to a number of benefits being re-adjusted and some previous claimants have even returned to full-time employment.
Meanwhile 55% of families with a history of anti-social behaviour have had no further complaints against them since a TaF first made contact. Three-fifths of the children involved have now improved their school attendance levels and, financially, 56% of families have now cleared, or are on established plans to reduce their debts or housing benefit arrears.
These impressive results are only the beginning. The problems are often multifold, always substantial and ultimately a breakthrough is only assured where such schemes are supported, maintained and funded over a number of years. However, Westminster City Council in launching this pioneering programme will I believe capture the attention of other local authorities across the country.
Top down action does not, cannot work. The local and dedicated approach, focusing on individual responsibility provides lasting solutions to the problems of social deprivation in an effective and compassionate manner.