Sunday 10 June 2012

The Government continues to abuse the data on "troubled families"

The Independent on Sunday today says that "the Government is to call for an end to what it describes as an "it's not my fault" culture of excuses, which has allowed 120,000 "troubled families" to avoid taking responsibility for their own lives." Eric Pickles is quoted as saying the programme will be "more forceful in language, a little less understanding". He added: "Sometimes we've run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame."

But who are these "troubled families", ,and what are we supposed to blame them for?  I explained exactly how the government came up with the 120,000 number in a blog (also in the Independent) back in February, and the Independent helpfully summarises:
Under government criteria, a troubled family is one that meets five out of seven criteria: having a low income, no one in the family who is working, poor housing, parents who have no qualifications, where the mother has a mental health problem, one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.
As I said at the time
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. 
So does Eric Pickles really mean that we should be categorising,stigmatising, and blaming such families? For not being able to afford food and clothes, perhaps? Or because mum is depressed?  Maybe not: the article also talks about the aims of the programme being to improve school attendance, reduce anti-social behaviour, and cut youth offending.   So perhaps the government now has some proper data and a new estimate of the number of troubled families?  Maybe they were shamed by the excellent Radio 4 More or Less here, where Tim Harford dissected the data, and the Department's pathetic attempt at a defence?

Not exactly.  When we look at the Department's written guidance on the "Troubled Families Programme", here, the plot thickens even further. Here's the very first paragraph:   
"The Prime Minister has confirmed his intention to ensure that 120,000 troubled families are ‘turned around’ by the end of this Parliament. These families are characterised by there being no adult in the family working, children not being in school and family members being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour."
These criteria are (almost) completely different.  Yet the number is exactly the same!  Even worse, it seems - although it's very difficult to tell - it appears that the Department is still planning to dole out the money locally according to the original, flawed estimates of how many "troubled families" there are in each local authority area.   It seems less than plausible that there are 120,000 families who meet the original criteria, and exactly the same number who meet the new, more appropriate ones.  And it's of course just absurd to suggest that the numbers are even close to being the same by local authority.

So what on earth does this paragraph mean?  I asked the Department for Communities a couple of fairly simple questions:
  • What is the government estimate of the number of families characterised by  "there being no adult in the family working, children not being in school and family members being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour."   Is it 120,000? Or some other number?
  • In either case what is the source, given the lack of a national data set, which the guidance itself identifies?
I've had no response. In the absence of any, it is difficult to conclude anything except that the Department, and the governnment, have become hung up on the 120,000 number despite the fact that they are well aware that it is now completely discredited, either as a national estimate of the number of "troubled families" or as a sensible guide to local policy.  

Even leaving aside the morality of using the language of "stigmatising" with respect to a set of families many of whom neither deserve nor will benefit from any such thing, this is a terrible way to make policy.  Using data - and a completely arbitrary national target number -  that everyone knows are simply wrong, solely because it would be embarrassing to admit a mistake, will make the programme less effective and risks wasting public money.  Not only does it reflect badly on Ministers, it also does no credit to the senior civil servants who allow the publication of information which - at the most charitable - appears to reflect a complete lack of understanding of the relevant data.   This is a clear case for the National Audit Office. 

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