Three years ago the media were reporting that the Troubled Families programme was a failure. This is the scheme, started by David Cameron and Sir Eric Pickles under the Coalition Government, which aims to “turn round” families with multiple problems – truancy, crime and anti-social behaviour, unemployment. The concern had been that previously lot of different state agencies had been involved with different family members but not in a coordinated way. Councils would be charged with pulling it together and then be paid on results.

BBC Newsnight had a report which suggested councils had made dishonest claims of a great success just to get paid extra.That far from saving money, huge sums had been spent and nothing achieved. Some councils were paid the maximum possible. How could they have had a 100 per cent success rate?  The answer was that there was a limit to the total number of families they could claim for “turning round” – but most, if not all, councils had worked with more families than their local target in order to achieve that success. It didn’t mean they were fiddling the figures.

There was a blog post from Jonathan Portes, formerly of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, went so far as to denounce the policy as a “disaster”. Even at the time that was based on a misinterpretation of the National Evaluation report. A fair-minded reading of the report showed it was very positive and that given the difficulties involved the monitoring was pretty rigorous.

The overwhelming majority of families included in the programme make great progress. While some of that success was clearly due to the programme there were other areas where more data was needed or where it was hard to produce objective measures or how much progress was due to the programme and how much might have happened anyway. The difficulty is whether that can be proven to be attributable. There was not a “control group” of troubled families that were identified but refused any help. So naturally statistical certainty was difficult. Although a good indication was given by using a “comparison group” – looking at the outcomes for identified as eligible but who had not yet started on the programme.

Anyway, the latest assessment makes for encouraging reading.

One big difference is that children are less likely to be taken into care. It was 1.7 per cent, 19-24 months after joining the programme, compared to 2.5 per cent for the comparison group.

“This finding is consistent with staff survey results where 90 per cent of keyworkers believe the programme is successful in helping families avoid statutory intervention and 76 per cent of Troubled Families Coordinators, employees coordinating the programme in their local area, reported children in need of help and protection as one of their top three priorities for the programme. Case study research also noted that children’s social care services were collaborating with early help teams to reduce the burden on social workers and deliver better outcomes for families.”

So children that were set to be put in care and then often into prison are being helped to take a better path. That is a benefit not just for them but for the rest of us. It is obviously not just a financial advantage. Also, it is very long term – a matter of breaking a cycle where these problems get passed down from one generation to the next.

However in terms of crime reduction there has also been a more immediate impact:

“For crime, the results show that the programme reduced the proportion of: adults receiving custodial sentences – 1.6 per cent of the comparison group received custodial sentences compared to 1.2 per cent of the programme group, a 25 per cent difference in the 24 months after joining the programme; juveniles receiving custodial sentences – 0.8 per cent of the comparison group received custodial sentences compared to 0.5 per cent of the programme group, a 38 per cent difference in the 24 months after joining the programme; and juvenile convictions 4.6 per cent of the comparison group received custodial sentences compared to 3.9 per cent of the programme group, a 15 per cent difference in the 24 months after joining the programme. There was no statistically significant difference in the proportion of adult cautions or convictions and juvenile cautions.”

In terms of reducing worklessness we see that:

“The benefits results show a statistically significant difference for adults claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance 19-24 months after joining the programme: 10.5 per cent in the comparison group compared to 9.3 per cent in the programme group, an 11% difference.”

It adds:

“Case study research and staff survey results indicate that the programme is making work an ambition for all families by building confidence, identifying existing skills, promoting financial benefits of working, job application skills, supporting volunteering and training opportunities, and that staff dealt with many other barriers before they felt the issue of work could be addressed, and carried out. This suggests the programme may be adding value that cannot be picked up in the data analysis, where families have made steps towards work and are building new skills, even if they are not reaching the high bar of sustained employment. There is scope to go further. Staff report access to mental health services and other specialist services as barriers to achieving outcomes with families. However, this evidence shows that the programme is making a significant contribution towards improving life for disadvantaged families compared to previous ways of working.”

Health has improved – including mental health. Fewer children are playing truant  – for those families on the programme, the proportion fell from three in five to under two in five.

A cost benefit analysis of the programme concludes that every £1 spent on the programme delivers £2.28 of benefits. This is a “conservative” estimate and “benefits are only considered over a five-year time horizon, even though benefits to young children might continue to have an effect for a number of years.”

The survey carried out for the report are undertaken by Ipsos MORI – not Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government staff. Often there are important gains resulting from the programme which, it is judged, can’t be quantified, or at least not yet. So rather than being boastful or exaggerating this assessment is cautious. What has been identified as achieved is hugely impressive – and is still understated.

Often the current Government is timid compared to the reforming zeal of the Cameron era. But the Troubled Families programme is a welcome case where progress is being accelerated. The first phase – from 2012 to 2015 covered 120,000 families. The second phase is now underway for 2015 to 2020 and sees that expanded with the ambition of turning round 400,000 families. Both from looking at the facts and figures and from talking to those working on the programme I am convinced it is making an important difference to those most in need of help and hardest to help. The government is to be commended for sticking at it. I don’t suppose it will win many votes. There has been scant recognition of what is being achieved – just some misinformed sniping from the media. But it is the right thing to do.