Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. A summary of his PhD thesis is available here. His first book, In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty, published by Pluto Press is out now. He tweets at @akindoftrouble.

Following riots that took place in towns and cities across England in 2011, the UK government launched the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) in England, with the aim of ‘turning around’ 120,000 ‘troubled families’ by May 2015. These families were characterised as being anti-social, criminal, ‘workless’, with children not attending school on a regular basis, and were linked with a wide range of other social ills. The government argued that ‘troubled families’ required ‘family intervention’, which would see a keyworker working with all family members to address their problems. Such keyworkers or ‘family workers’ were allegedly characterised by their ‘persistent, assertive and challenging’ approach and their ability to challenge families when necessary. The workers would act as a single point of contact for the families and would help to co-ordinate - or ‘grip’, in the government’s language - the activities of other services involved with the families as well.

The programme was launched during a time of austerity, wide-ranging welfare reforms and cuts to public services. It was subsequently expanded to include 400,000 more ‘troubled families’ in a second phase which ran from May 2015, whilst austerity measures and welfare reforms were still being implemented. In June 2015, the government announced that the programme had successfully ‘turned around’ 99 per cent of the ‘troubled families’ it had worked with.

There is a long history to the ‘underclass’ thesis – the idea that there is a group of individuals or families that are somehow cut-off from the mainstream population and that have a different ‘culture’ to the majority - that stretches back to Victorian times, at least. Social historians have traced various constructions, from concerns about a ‘social residuum’ in the late 1800s, through, for example, a belief in ‘problem families’ during and following the Second World War, to concerns about a ‘cycle of deprivation’ in the 1970s and a belief in an ‘underclass’ in the 1980s and 1990s. At different times, it has been social reformers, academics, voluntary organisations, pressure groups, and politicians that have promoted such ideas. There is, however, little or no evidence, stretching back over at least 100 years, that such distinct and discrete groups exist.

Numerous children’s charities have been involved in the delivery of the TFP. Some have spoken in support of the programme and have highlighted their experience of working with ‘troubled families’. The family intervention model that the programme putatively relies on was developed by Action for Children (known at the time as NCH) in Dundee. And yet, just as there is no evidence that identifiable groups such as ‘troubled families’ exist, there is a similar dearth of evidence about the benefits of ‘family intervention’, despite the government’s best efforts to suggest otherwise. In the early stages of the programme, the government published a guide to the evidence base and Louise Casey, the former Director General of the TFP, stated in an interview with the BBC that ‘we know it works because we’ve already looked at studies that show that this works, basically, and also I’ve met countless families that have been turned around’.

The ‘positive findings’ that are often reported from evaluations of Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) are actually quite difficult to find when one looks for them beyond some of the headline statistics. Professor David Gregg, in an excellent examination of some of the earliest evaluations, argued that the presentation of the reports was a ‘classic case of policy-based evidence’. A government report, mentioned by David Cameron at the launch of the TFP and examining the impact of FIPs between 2007 and 2011, highlights that there is ‘limited evidence that FIPs generate better outcomes than other non-FIP interventions on family functioning or health issues’, both of which are areas that the second phase of the TFP attempts to address.

The independent evaluation of the first phase of the TFP found ‘no significant or systemic impact’ on any of the programmes key outcomes. Some local authorities, voluntary sector organisations and academics came out in defence of their work under the programme. It would, of course, be wrong to homogenise the implementation of the TFP in the same way, but opposite direction to, the government has. Once again, however, if we go beyond the headlines about the ‘impact’ strand of the evaluation, we find that a survey of families involved with the TFP similarly found that they did not believe the programme had much impact. The report states:

We found very little evidence that the Troubled Families Programme significantly affected the outcomes of families around nine months after starting the programme. The statistically significant improvements we did identify relate to the perceptions of main carer respondents in the Troubled Families group about how they were coping financially, and more generally about how they felt they were faring, and their expectations for the future. There were no positive (or negative) impacts identified for housing, employment and jobseeking, anti-social behaviour and crime, school behaviour and attendance, health, drug or alcohol use, family dynamics or well-being (p24).

My PhD thesis argues that the programme is built upon, and relies on, deceitful practices at almost all stages. The misrepresentation of research in identifying 120,000 ‘troubled families’ is well-known, and so is the claim of the programme being nearly perfect. A ‘troubled family’ can be ‘turned around’ even if they are still living in poverty. Less well-known is the evidence that highlights that that ‘troubled families’ are more likely to have a disabled family member than they are to have a member involved with anti-social behaviour. Duplicity is also required at a local level, with very few practitioners telling the families they are working with that they are classed as ‘troubled families’.

Given these numerous concerns about the framing of the programme and the model it is based on, it is difficult to understand why many voluntary sector organisations are involved with the delivery of the TFP. Voluntary sector organisations perform a variety of important roles. They can attempt to hold government to account for problematic decisions and policies, they can ensure marginalised voices are heard, campaign for better protection or services for disadvantaged groups, or deliver services that the state cannot or will not provide. In relation to the TFP, the voluntary sector, by and large, does not perform these roles.

The simplistic central government narrative of an almost perfect social policy begins to fall apart when placed under a small amount of scrutiny, and was certainly not to be found ‘on the ground’ in discussions with practitioners. Despite the rhetoric of ‘turning around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’, in the face of cuts in support and benefits to families, my research concludes that the TFP does little more than intervene to encourage and responsibilise struggling families to cope with their poverty better. Put simply, the TFP does not attempt to address the structural issues that cause many of the problems faced by ‘troubled families’, but instead encourage them to ‘learn to be poor’. Voluntary sector organisations should carefully consider the role they play in such a programme.

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