This week's Local Government Chronicle contains a claim (£) that the Government's Troubled Families programme is off course. It carried out a survey of councils and suggested that just 6.9% of their target number of troubled families had so far been identified. Among the councils who responded, Camden has identified just seven troubled families – out of an estimated 755. Hackney has identified nil out of an estimated 1,000. Luton has identified nil out of 525.
But this survey was based on Freedom of Information requests sent on July 26th. Since then, many councils will have got back confirmation from the Department of Work and Pensions about families who are on benefits, and who have also been identified by the council as troubled based on other criteria. This can include drug addiction, mental illness, crime and anti social behaviour, and children at risk of being taken into care or excluded from school. There is some local discretion allowed.
Of course, choosing the 120,000 most troubled families in this country can not be exact. Alternatively if fixed criteria were applied perhaps we would end up with 100,000 or 140,000.The reality is that large numbers of them have been identified by councils, and that work is now underway on turning them round. Councils that succeed in doing so will be financially rewarded.
The bureaucratic mentality that nothing should be done for a few more years while the definition is refined would suit administrative tidiness. But it would be a betrayal of the families concerned – and of the neighbours of those families who also suffer. Maybe DCLG civil servants suggested such a delay – as they did on localism saying that it should be defined first. If so Eric Pickles was right to brush aside such objections. Ask any police sergeant, social worker, school teacher, housing officer, councillor or MP. We know who the problem families are and we know where they live.
While the outdated, narrowly drawn and highly selective figures from the LGC produce a total 2,792, the true total is currently 41,835 families already identified. Given that this is a three year programme that is not a bad start. The final tally will be much higher – whether the figure is above or below 120,000 is not really the point.
All upper-tier councils – including Labour ones – have signed up to this programme. They are getting on with making a success of it. There is bipartisan support. This does not mean the political implications are unimportant – as I noted last week. . If the programme succeeds the Conservatives will be entitled to trumpet it. Yet so will those individual Labour councils who respond with the combination of innovation, energy and toughness to achieve worthwhile results.
Thus it is left to the LGC to strike a sour note. From a journalistic perspective this is understandable. My disappointment is that the way they have gone about it is weak and dreary. More interesting would be to look at what different councils are doing with those families they have identified. Are they getting on with it? Is it working? Why are Littlehampton doing x, while Middlehampton are doing y?
So let's have rigorous, challenging scrutiny of the Troubled Families programme. Let's have accountability. Everyone should be extremely keen for their council to make the most of the opportunity. But we could do without inaccurate and defeatist attacks on the scheme from the LGC. They seem to have got into a lazy habit of attacking the DCLG regardless of the merits of the case.