By Paul Goodman
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I am a sceptic by temperament and thus can't help viewing David Cameron's speech on problem families earlier today through a dispassionate lens. Some of the questions that come to mind are those that any responsible opposition should ask. Will councils fund 60% of the cost of family interventions as the Prime Minister recommends? How will the proposed family workers – the lynchpin of the scheme – have the authority needed, given the cats-cradle of rules, regulation and laws (not forgetting human right legislation)? What are the "clear punishments" to which Cameron referred and, given the tangle to which I refer above, why should anyone believe that they will bite? Can the plan be expanded swiftly and successfully, since its trial has touched roughly 5000 families only, and the Prime Minister has 120,000 of them in his sights? Given the scale of the problems concerned, the blemished record of the state – to put it mildly – the cost to the taxpayer and the unfathomability of human nature, is the Prime Minister's plan not a risky expense when government's energies should be concentrated on the hunt for savings? And does the state have a role here anyway?
The answers to some of these questions are obscure, and you would have to be a Treasury anarok – which two years as a Shadow Treasury spokesman failed to make me – to work out quickly where the money is going to come from. None the less, some of the enquiries can be dealt with swiftly. David Cameron quoted David Davis's view of problem families as "the victims of state failure". This may have been to provide right-wing-of-the-party cover for the suggestion that the families themselves aren't solely responsible for their plight, but whether so or not Davis and Cameron are right. The state can and often does make matters worse. But it would be libertarianism of the most undistilled kind to claim that it can never make them better. In any event, it has a responsibility to all its citizens: these include the families concerned, who themselves have a responsibility to their neighbours and neighbourhood. It is also important to note that the Government estimates that these troubled families cost the taxpayer an average of £75,000 each (or £9 billion in total), and that research suggests that "interventions attempted so far have been highly successful, and according to councils saved £2 for every £1 spent."
I was also sceptical when David Cameron announced his response to the riots. But whatever else is said, today's announcement is yet more evidence of his commitment to his Big Society ideal, and of the compassionate conservatism demonstrated and projected by Iain Duncan Smith. A headline figure of £448 million is a heck of a lot of money. Even if it turns out to be smaller for one reason or another, the Prime Minister's commitment is evident. An all-the-way-through sceptic should be sceptical even about his own scepticism.