PM's plan 'overstretched and underfunded'

Janaki Mahadevan
Monday, January 9, 2012

In the coming weeks, local authorities are faced with the daunting task of calculating the number of "troubled families" in their area, identifying where they live and what their needs are.

Councils are calculating the number of 'troubled families' in their area and their needs. Image: Howard Barlow
Councils are calculating the number of 'troubled families' in their area and their needs. Image: Howard Barlow

As part of the government’s pledge to turn around the lives of 120,000 families, estimates have been published of how many live in each area based on the Children and Family Survey 2005 (see map below).
But in a speech in Sandwell last month, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "We need to move quickly from broad estimates to actual names and addresses," and gave councils a deadline of February to achieve the goal.

The £448m programme will see key workers deployed to families giving them "a single port of call and a single face to know".

Family intervention

Charlie Spencer, the youth offending service manager in Sandwell, launched a family intervention project in the borough in 2007 and believes that such intensive work is the right approach for families with the most complex needs.

"These are families at the end of the line," he says. "They have had a range of agencies go in, but with little success in curbing the behaviour of the whole family. You might have children who are not attending school, young people known to the youth offending service or the family known to social care and health agencies. But none of us individually have been able to draw a line and get that family back on a path to success."

In Sandwell, following a process that can take up to six weeks in which each member is assessed, a co-ordinated plan of action is drawn up. Spencer says: "Getting all the different agencies together on one page means whatever we are doing, rather than being fragmented and ineffective, is co-ordinated and methodical and the family is clear on what we expect from them and what they should expect from us."
But Spencer’s praise for a co-ordinated approach is tempered by uncertainty over how the government’s vision will be borne out. With the government estimating that there are 1,115 troubled families in Sandwell alone, he questions how councils can identify the families most in need.

"You can create a criteria and tick a box, but the intensity of intervention would need to be tailored to make a difference. Throwing numbers out doesn’t really assist the families," he says.

Similarly, the resource available to councils from government to work with the families is limited to just 40 per cent of the cost, offered on a payment-by-results basis.

"If we are going to have to increase to the sort of numbers the government is putting out, then seek to put local authority cash on top of the 40 per cent they will contribute, I don’t see how we are going to have the level of resource required to do this kind of intensity of work," Spencer says.

Concern surrounding which families will benefit from the scheme also exists with current government rhetoric focusing on those families involved in antisocial or criminal activity.

But Helen Dent, chief executive of charity Family Action, says the government’s calculation of 120,000 families relies on data where a family has at least five out of seven risk factors including mental health difficulties and disability.

"For the Prime Minister to be successful in his aim of dealing with ‘troubled’ families by the end of this parliament, we need a more clear definition about what constitutes the ‘troubled’ families. While he suggested 120,0000 families were presenting issues of crime, antisocial behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse, the real picture of many is that they are not antisocial or criminal, but are badly in need of support as they suffer in silence behind closed doors."

Matt Cavanagh, associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research, questions the government’s categorisation of "troubled families". "Is the govern­ment defining and measuring the problem in the right way?" he asks. "The 120,000 figure appears to be based on work by the social exclusion unit in the Cabinet Office, which is at least four years old."

He echoes Spencer’s concern about levels of available funding. "The evidence clearly shows that successful interventions of this kind cost £20,000 for every family. Based on this, the funding of £450m over four years would cover between 20,000 and 25,000 families. Even if the intention is that this funding will be matched by local authorities, it will struggle to cover the whole target group."

Cavanagh adds that one risk is that funding for intensive work with families is diluted: "This would be a disaster; the more these troubleshooters are stretched across bigger caseloads, the less effective they will be."



  • £448m allocated, offering up to 40 per cent of the cost of dealing with these families to local authorities on a payment-by-results basis
  • Authorities will be measured against children returning to school, reduction in criminal and antisocial behaviour, parents returning to work and reducing the costs to the taxpayer and local authorities
  • "Troubleshooters" will be appointed by top-tier councils to oversee the programme of action in their area
  • "Key workers" will be allocated to families to co-ordinate action across agencies tailored to the family’s needs
  • A troubled families unit, led by Louise Casey, is based at the Department for Communities and Local Government to join up efforts across Whitehall and provide help to local areas



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