Friday, 17 February 2012

"Neighbours from hell": who is the Prime Minister talking about?

How would you describe an unemployed single mother, with moderate depression, who can't afford new shoes for her children, and whose roof is leaking? The Prime Minister calls her a "neighbour from hell", and argues that she, and people like her, are part of a "culture of disruption and irresponsibility."

Now I am not saying, and indeed I don't believe for a moment, that this is what the PM thinks.  But it is precisely what he said.  What began as a shortcut taken by civil servants with the data was translated into a speech by the Prime Minister that simply misrepresented the facts. That in turn resulted in sensationalist and misleading headlines; the end result, more likely than not, will be bad policy.

Late last year, the Prime Minister made an important speech about "troubled families".  
"That’s why today, I want to talk about troubled families.Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase.  Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of 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 generations.We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money……but now we’ve come up the actual figures.  Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families…"
then, later
"Up to now we’ve talked in terms broad numbers – 120,000 troubled families across the country. Today we are announcing, council by council, our estimate from data, mapping where these families are.  To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, there are an estimated 4,500 of these families in Birmingham, 2,500 in Manchester, and 1,115 here in Sandwell."
So the Prime Minister was very explicit.  When he talks about "troubled families", he doesn't mean poor or deprived families; he means those who, through "disruption and irresponsibility", cause "a large proportion of the problems in society".  And the government knows not just how many of them there are, but where they live, by local authority area, and is publishing the figures. The media response was predictable: reasonably typically, the Daily Mail described it as an "assault on the Shameless generation."  More moderately - but still, as we shall see, entirely inaccurately - the Independent talked of "120,000 of the country's most dysfunctional families."  

But where did the Prime Minister's numbers come from?  Good, local data on individual or family-level drug and alcohol abuse, anti-social behavior, and so on is hard to get, let alone to match across different data sets, which you'd have to do to establish this. And my suspicions were further aroused by the fact that, as the Evening Standard pointed out, the detailed numbers stated that Tower Hamlets had more such families than anywhere else in London, and more than, say, Newcastle. Tower Hamlets is a very deprived area by almost any measure. But, as far as I am aware, it is not particularly remarkable for crime or anti-social behaviour. Indeed, according the Metropolitan Police website, total recorded crime in Tower Hamlets is only about half that of Islington, where I live. 

So I did a bit more digging.  The Department for Communities and Local Government had, in fact, published an "explanatory note" to the figures.  And, looking at footnote 2, we can finally establish what the definition of a "troubled family", on which the Prime Minister's numbers were based, actually is. It is a family which satisfies at least 5 of the following 7 criteria:
a) no parent in work
b) poor quality housing,
c) no parent with qualifications,
d) mother with mental health problems
e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness
f) family has low income,
g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items
What instantly leaps out from this list? It is that none of these criteria, in themselves, have anything at all to do with disruption, irresponsibility, or crime. Drug addiction and alcohol abuse are also absent.  A family which meets 5 of these criteria is certainly disadvantaged. Almost certainly poor. But a source of wider social problems? Maybe, but maybe not - and certainly not as a direct consequence.  In other words, the "troubled families" in the Prime Minister's speech are not necessarily "neighbours from hell" at all.  They are poor. 

It is particularly ironic that this direct equation between disadvantage and criminality is precisely the one the Prime Minister criticised last August, when, discussing the summer riots, he said:
these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.
So, on the one hand, the Prime Minister says that it is wrong to claim that the riots were in any way related to poverty; but on the other hand, simply being poor, or suffering the disadvantages of poverty, is enough to get a family labelled, in a very detailed and carefully drafted Prime Ministerial speech, as part of a "culture of disruption and irresponsibility."  

I cannot believe the Prime Minister himself knew this when he made the speech. To return to where I started -  I cannot believe that he meant to say that an unemployed single mother, with moderate depression, who can't afford new shoes for her children, and whose roof is leaking, who can't afford shoes for her children - is, by definition, a "neighbour from hell."  Yet that is precisely what his speech said, and it is on the basis of this analysis that the government is planning to formulate policy and allocate resources.

To repeat, I do not think this was the Prime Minister's mistake - although someone somewhere in the government machine is definitely at fault. But it is his responsibility.   He has insulted, on the basis of an analysis that is not just flawed but plain wrong, a large number of families who have more than enough problems of their own. He owes them an apology.

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