19/12/2012 06:50 GMT | Updated 18/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Troubled Families? Or Troubled Stats?

Few would argue with the government's aim to 'sort out' Shameless-style 'troubled families', busy making their neighbour's lives miserable, and draining the public purse of a reported £9 billion per year in consequent expense.

All well and good. Apart from one small problem - the 120,000 troubled families presented statistically to a willing media by the secretary of state for communities and local government, ‎Eric Pickles, do not exist.

This figure being bandied about in so many reports and press releases is cobbled together from research that was conducted eight years ago by the Department for Work and Pensions, and was based on families having five out of seven characteristics of economic, health and social disadvantage, including no parent in work and being on a low income.

This report was then interpreted in 2007 in a report from the then Cabinet Office-based Social Exclusion Task Force called 'Families at risk: Background on families with multiple disadvantages' to provide a figure of 120,000.

This cavalier attitude to statistics is further compounded by another report this week by 'troubled families Tsar' Louise Casey, laying claim to some astonishingly successful findings - in effect, that her and Mr Pickles' initiative has waved a magic wand over some of society's most intractable ills.

Although the scheme was only launched in December 2011, a year later we have the publication of 'Working with troubled families: A guide to the evidence and good practice', based on an evaluation of family intervention programmes from 2007 to 2012.

The current coalition government is claiming responsibility for the success of these family intervention programmes, yet it was not elected until May 2010 and its specific programme to address the problems wasn't launched until 12 months ago. Confused? You should be.

In addition, the report includes case studies of 16 families sourced by six local authorities and family intervention services who were interviewed by Louise Casey in person for her initial report in June 2012. At best, such a minute sample provides a small amount of anecdotal evidence of the initiative's efficacy. It also offers evidence of the existence of 16 families that fit the necessary criteria - just not the apparent 120,000 on which the December 2011 programme was predicated.

The government has also subtly changed its tack from using the term 'problem families' in June 2012 to the ostensibly more caring 'troubled' families tag of today's parlance, having had it pointed out that having problems yourself does not necessarily equate to creating problems for others around you.

Let's look at the latest statistics included in Ms Casey's good practice guide that are used to support the supposition that the troubled families scheme works. Findings on the reduction in family problems between entry and exit from various existing family intervention projects across the country (in March 2012) included:

  • Involvement in Anti-Social Behaviour (-59%)
  • Involvement in Crime (-45%)
  • Truancy/exclusion/bad behaviour at school (-52%)
  • Child Protection issues (-36%)
  • Poor parenting (-49%)
  • Relationship/Family breakdown (-47%)
  • Domestic violence (-57%)
  • Drug misuse (-39%)
  • Alcohol misuse (-47%)
  • Mental health issues (-24%)
  • Employment/training problems (-14%)

Sue Kent, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, is concerned that inaccurate interpretation of research findings is being used to shore up an as yet untested government policy. She says: "At first glance, the reaction is 'Wow! This is great, this is positive social work, initiating change and evidencing success', yet questions remain as to the accuracy of the findings, how the service is delivered and at what cost.

The findings are not deemed accurate enough to become government statistics and not measured against control factors, but instead interpreted in a manner which suggests significant results."

Ms Kent's wider concern is that social workers already know what they should be doing, but crippling caseloads and lack of staff mean that they are not getting time to see families. The 'troubled families' initiative makes a mockery of the skills social workers would love to be able to put into direct use with families in need of on-going support, but find themselves prevented from using, because of deep cuts to the children's services teams in which they are largely still employed, coupled with endless tidal waves of often pointless bureaucracy.

Ms Kent continues: "We already know that high intensity intervention works, social workers have been saying this for years - this report is telling us nothing new. Given the opportunity, good social workers want to work directly with families to initiate change and get to a point where they are deemed successful and able to move on from such intense services."

Louise Casey herself says in the report: "We do not pretend that this is a comprehensive research report into family intervention." In which case, why provide inaccurate statistics in the knowledge that they will be replicated in the media as a resounding success?

It is simply too early to determine if such programmes have any long term impact, and in a climate of unrelenting cuts to services, the government should not rush to claim that victory has been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

When the wider provision of support for vulnerable children and families is under systemic assault from the decimation of central and local government budgets, some old recycled statistics and 16 isolated families do not merit a reason to be cheerful.