Wirral’s ‘Troubled’ Families Project
‘As an ever increasing number of families become dysfunctional
an ever increasing supply of socially offensive individuals results’
Frank Field MP -‘Neighbours From Hell’
‘They [the troubled families] are the source of a large proportion of the problems
in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption
and irresponsibility that cascades through the generations…a small number
of these families cost an extraordinary amount of money’’
David Cameron MP Oldbury Speech; 2011
This is the story of how central governments and compliant local authorities like Wirral, have wasted vast sums of tax payer money in failing to ‘re-programme’ poor, vulnerable families in the underclass via ineffective, sanctions led, interventions. There is a very long history in this country of the middle class political establishment defining the poorest elements of the underclass as ‘folk devils’: costly nuisances, threats to social and ‘moral’ stability and even as an existential threat to racial purity and survival.
‘Some [of the underclass families] are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment. The balance of our population, our human stock, is threatened’ Sir Keith Joseph intellectual godfather of Thatcherism; 1974
In the early 20th century such thinking led to an active eugenics movement in western democracies justifying the sterilisation or confinement of social misfits including unmarried mothers, the disabled, beggars, homosexuals, addicts, prostitutes and problem children. Herr Hitler, learning from the eugenic engineers of the democracies, spun the unacceptable cost of the disabled German ‘useless mouths’ and with the help of doctors and the local authorities, quietly began to murder disabled children and adults. By 1942 all were gone. The SS Aktion Gruppe T4, who had developed the necessary murder technology, then went on to new triumphs at Belsen and Auschwitz.
Of course today we would not countenance such horrors…would we? Yet the underclass is still projected as a major threat …’crime, drug and alcohol addiction’…’a culture of disruption’…’socially offensive individuals’…’scroungers’…’benefit cheats’…’ASBO yobs’…’families from hell’: familiar descriptors in the propaganda of the last four governments.
By denigrating ‘troubled families’, the last and current governments have eliminated any sympathy for these people, justifying harsh, sanctions based, interventions against them and general reductions in unemployment, sickness, working tax credit, and child tax credit benefits. Now, in summer 2015, we find that the Conservatives will limit child related benefits to two children. Are we seeing here the rebirth of eugenics motivated social policies? After all, why should we fund their ‘lifestyle choices’? Our very own Frank Field has proposed combating poverty by sending poor,’ irresponsible’ parents who can’t budget, who supposedly spend money on non-essentials and so fail to feed their children, to the Troubled Families Projects for re-programming. In fact we will see that the families targeted for ‘The Troubled Families Programme’ have ‘lifestyles’ which heavily feature long standing physical and mental illnesses, genuine inability to work and children with learning disabilities. These are families in hell, not families from hell. Very few are criminal; very few are drug or alcohol addicted, despite the false claims of Cameron. We will also see how the public has been shamefully hoodwinked by equally false claims of project success in ‘turning families around’ and saving money. We will use data obtained from the official Dept. for Communities & Local Government website and Freedom of Information Act requests to Wirral Council and the government.
Nationally 120,000 families were targeted, supposedly for being lazy, criminal drug addicts but actually for having multiple forms of deprivation. In Wirral 910 were targeted. In the TFP local authorities like Wirral were paid a bounty of £3,200 for each family signed up. Additional bounties were paid by results. That is for
* an adult who gains continuous work for 6 months £800
* a family meeting the ‘crime/ anti-social behaviour/ education’ target £700
So what did the Wirral project achieve? Overall locally, 910 families were ‘reprogrammed’.
In March 2015 a conference at the New Brighton Floral Pavilion ‘celebrated’ the ‘remarkable success’ in ‘turning around’ the lives of these families. Cllr. Tony Smith, Cabinet Member for Children & Family Services, said (in www. wirral.gov.uk/news/17-03-2015)
‘We have seen a hugely successful outcome thanks to close partnership working between public sector bodies and Wirral families’
The close working partnership included ‘assertive, non-negotiable interventions’ and ‘tough sanctions’ for non-cooperation. The government has repeatedly stressed the role of sanctions e.g.
‘Sanctions are key. The threat of sanctions and the use of sanctions provide both a way of curbing bad behaviour and also a lever for persuading people to co-operate fully
…families need an intensive, persistent and if necessary coercive approach’
This approach was applied to the many families with mental health problems and learning disabled children as we will see. The council claimed that
‘67% of participants re-engaged with or stayed in employment, education or training in 2013/14…’
Er?…clearly those who stayed in work, or education, or training may have done so without project interventions. In fact at entry 74% of households were workless. The key question is: how many families got somebody back into work over the duration of the project? The answer is 2.6%. Of course these people may have got jobs anyway without the project. It would have been useful to know what % got a job in the year before project entry, would it not? However no such data is collected in the TF projects. Neither are there any control groups of similar families run in parallel with the projects which would have provided a solid baseline. Strictly speaking, as the DfC&LG admits in the appendices of it’s reports, out of sight of the media, claimed family changes cannot objectively be attributed to the project interventions. Even if we accept the 2.6% change in employment this leaves 71.4% of households workless. Can this truthfully be described as ‘hugely successful’? Surely our Council is either shamefully careless and numerically incompetent in its reporting or deliberately lying to tax payers? Surely either explanation is unacceptable?
The Council claim is that family turn around in the ‘crime / anti-social behaviour / education’ arena was also a great success. We are told of a
‘95% reduction of ASB across all families engaged with the service’
In fact, for the Wirral, the DfC&LG database tells us that 77.2% of the families had met the ‘crime/ASB/education’ improvement target …not quite 95% but still an apparently impressive result. However there is a slight problem. My FoIA request to Wirral Council yielded additional data. It turns out that at project entry 93.5% of adults had no reports of ASB; 89.6% of children had no reports of ASB; 87% of minors had no proven offences; only 1.2% of the children had an ASBO or Acceptable Behaviour Contract. By the way local authorities were not obliged to record the frequency and severity of supposed ASB. The pattern is similar across the country. This is surely a long way from government spin that all our families are criminal and anti-social.
So how can we explain the claim that 95% or 77.2% of families had met the ‘crime / ASB/ education’ target? If most had no ASB or crime to start with the ‘turn around’ must be in educational issues. We find that 13% of children had three or more temporary exclusions from school at entry. 42% of children had 15% or more unauthorised absences in three school terms. It appears that our Wirral project reduced truancy…a useful result surely? However looking at the official success criteria we discover that a ‘turned around’ child could be regularly absent for 1 day in 7 and still be claimed as a success ! A child could have fixed exclusions at 66% of his entry rate and still be claimed as a success ! By the way the work and crime cluster claims were based on a period of only six months. Cllr. Smith transformed this into ‘effects’ lasting into ‘future generations’. I suggest these are rather low success thresholds for claiming Smith’s ‘hugely successful outcome’ on behalf of the Council.
Perhaps more importantly, by reporting ‘success’ for the ‘crime / ASB / education’ aggregated cluster, a deliberately false impression is given to the public of high initial levels of crime and ASB in the families then successfully reduced by the projects. In fact what has been achieved is a modest, partial reduction in truancy. There is rather a big difference between adult crime and truancy. Coupled with the mere 2.6% claimed fall in unemployment the TF project results for Wirral are ‘remarkable’ only for the way the tax payer has been misled by the Council and nationally by the government. The Council also proudly records the praise of Louise Casey, the Troubled Families Tsar, who told them it was
‘a fantastic performance’ from a ‘tremendous team’
Given the actual results in Wirral this is an astonishing conclusion, but then Casey has a long history of fantastical outbursts, recommending ministers to come into work ‘pissed’ and threatening to ‘deck’ anybody at No. 10 if they mention ‘evidence based policy one more time’. (This was at a Home Office / ACPO formal dinner in 2006 when she was Blair’s Respect Tsar, as reported by what she calls the ‘friggin Guardian’; see below).
Let’s look at costs. Cameron claimed that the 120,000 troubled families nationally cost the state a horrific £9 billion per annum. The promise was made that the TF Programme would eliminate these costs. So how much was saved? Supposedly by March 2015 117,910 families had been processed. 8.9% allegedly met the employment criterion (compared with 2.6% in Wirral). 80.6% met the ‘crime / ASB / education’ criterion (compared with 77% in Wirral). The average family allegedly cost a computed £26,000 per annum to support at project entry based on benefits, social service costs and criminal justice system costs. Conveniently this was also the total benefits cap set by the Coalition government. The DfC&LG claims that £11,200 per annum per family was saved by the projects giving a total of £1.18 billion per annum. However these are not delivered savings but hypothetical estimates based on complex assumptions about sustained changes in family behaviour into the future. Remember the ‘changes’ had only been monitored for six months while the families were under close supervision. Many years of evidence on previous family intervention projects suggests a rapid decay when support is removed. Also please note that local authority data on ‘success’ was not audited by any outside body and the project data are not recognised as official government statistics. The reader may find all this highly suspicious but I could not possibly comment!
You will recall that Cameron claimed that £9 billion, not the highly doubtful £1.2 billion, would be saved. This was noticed in some places. On March 10th 2015 Eric Pickles, Communities Minster, reported to the House of Commons on the TFP ‘triumph’. He was challenged by Hilary Benn MP about the claims. He replied
‘ The Rt. Hon. Gentleman made a number of points on how we can demonstrate success and square the £1.2 billion [savings] with the £9 billion [we promised]…this is notoriously difficult territory because governments of all types are absolutely terrible at measuring outcomes’
And I suggest, normally good at deliberately stacking the deck to maximise the appearance of policy outcome success. Even so £1.2 billion is a long way from £9 billion …even with fiddled data. This time the state was tripped up by its own spin and lies. Look at the data released again. The average saving per family was £11,200 compared with a £26,000 starting cost. This means that the remaining cost per family is 26,000 – 11,200 = £14,800 per annum. This is 56.9% of the starting cost. But 89.5% of families were ‘turned around’. Does this mean that the 10.5% of unreformed families now carry 56.9% of the starting costs? In fact it tells us that the ‘turn around’ criteria’ are not strongly linked to the actual costs generated by the families. Remember that only 8.9% of families got a member back into work. We can also show that success on the ‘crime / ASB / education’ criterion has little effect on costs. For example, nationally only 10% of adults had a proven offence. In Wirral only 6.5% of adults had an ASB report.
So where do the costs that lead to the £26,000 per annum troubled family total come from? We know that the average troubled family has 1.7 adults and 2.5 children. DfC&LG survey data tells us that the children had high levels of disability and illnesses. 39% had a statement of special educational needs; 33% had a mental health problem; 19% had a long standing physical illness; 46% of families had one or more adults with a mental health problem; 33% of adults had a long standing illness; 83% of families received out of work benefits; 97% were in social housing or temporary accommodation. These are very poor, very sick families. If we consult the various state benefit websites we can enter the average demographics and health profiles for our families and calculate the benefit and service costs they would attract. Depending on assumptions we get a range of £21,000 to £29,000 per annum. This compares with the claimed average cost of £26,000 per troubled family. My calculation did not include an estimate of criminal justice system costs for the 10% of adults who had at some time offended. The match is still good.
The bulk of our families are costly because they are unemployed, with chronically, physically and mentally ill adults, and larger than average numbers of children, many of whom are learning disabled and ill. If the families cannot work and many children are disabled it is difficult to see how a significant reduction in the average £26,000 cost could be achieved other than by stopping unemployment and the additional benefits currently associated with those disabled children. Threats, sanctions and parenting classes delivered by the Troubled Families Projects cannot affect these costs in any significant way. The TFPs are simply a cynical fraud on the public. However, the harsh denigration of the families opens the way to justifying drastic cuts in current benefits as we are beginning to see. Even so the government’s £9 billion savings target is a fantasy figure…unless sterilisation, euthanasia and other eugenic measures are indeed back on the table for a significant section of the underclass. This Conservative government’s aim now is to re-programme a further 400,000 troubled families.
Let’s go back to Cameron’s spin and compare it with what we have learned.
‘They [the troubled families] are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through the generations. A small number of these families cost an extraordinary amount of money.’
Surely any state action against such people is justified? Yes, they cost a lot, but they are long term unemployed with remarkably high levels of chronic physical and mental illness and learning disability in the children, as the official data show. But aren’t they are also criminals with irresponsible life styles? The DfC&LG national evaluation of the families tells us that only 3% of adults in the families had been treated for non-prescription drug dependency; only 3% had been treated for alcohol dependency; 90% of adults had not offended; 93.5% of adults had no ASB; 89.6% of children had no ASB; the under 18 conception rate was only 2%. We shrug off political rhetoric and spin these days …politicians lie, that’s all…but in this case that lying rhetoric has lethal consequences for vulnerable, poor families across the country.
One more time, let’s say again that the Troubled Families Programme has not worked and cannot work. In fact let’s listen to Louise Casey, Cameron’s Troubled Families Tsar, who was also Blair’s ASBO and Respect Tsar and who ran the state family intervention apparatus for many years and still does
‘As hard as it is to accept, the truth is despite our best efforts over many years – and I include myself in that – we just haven’t got it right. We haven’t succeeded in getting these families to change or in stopping the transmission of problems from generation to generation – we just haven’t’
Casey came clean privately at the Reform right wing think tank on 12.06.14. So there you have it from the horse’s mouth. In public her stance on these vulnerable, sick, helpless families was
‘We should be talking about things like shame and guilt …we have lost the ability to be judgmental because we worry about being seen as nasty to poor people’
Her boss, Eric Pickles, was of a like mind
‘We have sometimes run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame. We need a less understanding approach’
Since Pickles had over a decade of evidence at his disposal and commissioned the national survey of troubled families characteristics he was well aware of their true nature. Pickles and Casey deserve the highest level of contempt from anyone who believes government is obliged to tell the truth to citizens; anyone with an ounce of compassion.
So what did this latest farce cost us nationally and locally? The central government TFP cost was £462 million to date with local authorities spending an additional £153 million.
The pro-rated cost for a project of Wirral’s scale with 910 families would be £4.75 million. Was a modest reduction in truancy and getting less than 24 adults back into work for 6 months,that is at £198,000 per job, good value for money? Cllr. Smith remember, calls all this ‘a hugely successful outcome’. By the way Smith et al were only celebrating ‘phase 1’ at the Floral Pavilion. Nationally ‘phase 2’ will re-programme a further 400,000 families at a cost of £800 million to £1.6 billion. If Wirral processes the same share of families as in phase 1 it will cost the local tax payer a minimum of £6.2 million up to £12.3 million. Do you really want to spend this money on a discredited, abusive, politically motivated, voodoo social engineering project?
Wirral Council cannot use the Nuremberg defence: I was only following orders. Phase 1 of the TFP was voluntary. Like many councils Wirral was seduced by the easy money of a £3,200 bounty for just signing up a family. Phase 2 pays only £1,000 up front and appears to be compulsory. The administrative load in data gathering and reporting will be much higher, costing us more locally. Wirral chose to dance with the Devil and now the tax payers here will pay for the second, grander dance.
At the same time the National Children’s Bureau, using the Freedom of Information Act, has discovered that funding for ‘early intervention’ on children needing help, has fallen from £3.18 billion in 2010/11 to £1.44 billion in 2014/15, a fall of 54.8%. Many scientifically valid studies (unlike the invalid TFP evaluations), including the Allen Reviews, have demonstrated the cost effectiveness of real clinical / educational interventions. For example the Centre for Mental Health in February 2015 found that school based treatment aimed at ‘conduct disorders’ (yes, the mentally disordered kids from our families excluded from school) cost ~£108 per child but later returned nearly £3,000 per child ‘turned around’. Tackling aggressive adolescents returned less than £27,700 per child for a treatment cost of £1,260. There is also much evidence that simple changes in nutrition can have massive positive effects on child behaviour. But with current family benefit cuts and sanctions this government is moving in exactly the wrong direction to improve child behaviour and learning. Let us hope that the local food banks can blunt some of the inevitable child malnutrition. There is also growing evidence that damaging epigenetic factors related to childhood deprivation can indeed ‘cascade through the generations’.
If multi-generational deprivation, not ‘irresponsibility’, has cursed our families’ genes then Cameron’s demonising comments become even more offensive and misguided.
This has been a short summary of the current position. If the reader wants to know more about the history of failed intervention in ASB, dysfunctional, chaotic, troubled families and the evidence for how we can help these families through professional medical interventions, remedial education and improved nutrition, please see
‘Troubled Families: State Lies, Demonisation and Voodoo Social Engineering’, David P Gregg; Green Man Books 2015; ISBN 978 – 1514170588.
If you wish to learn more about New Labour thinking on dysfunctional families, which started eighteen years of abuse, the hysterical role of Frank Field MP in that thinking,and the rational counter-arguments against it, please see
‘Politicians From Hell’, David P Gregg; Green Man Books 2015; ISBN 978 – 1507610275.
See also ‘Uncle Frank’s Hunger Games’ on Wirral Leaks.