Fractured families can’t be healed in months

The rush to judgment on Louise Casey’s programme was short-sighted and grossly unfair

Imagine you’re an apprentice taken on by a factory for a year’s trial. You’ve been given a special placement, with extra monitoring, because you’ve grown up in a chaotic family with parents who drink or take drugs or have vicious fights. The police call regularly, you haven’t been to school much, and at least one person in your family is mentally or physically ill.

Nevertheless, with the encouragement you’re getting now, you’re beginning to see the point of this work thing. You’re getting up and washed and mostly coming in on time. Indeed, you’re doing as well as the apprentice who started alongside you, but whose family isn’t as miserably disordered as your own. You’re feeling happier and more purposeful. Your life could be under control.

Then you’re called into the manager’s office. You discover that the foreman, who felt that helping someone like you was fundamentally misconceived, has produced a report on you. You’re only nine months into the post, not a year, and yet he’s summed you up already. He says that although you’ve made considerable progress, you’ve done no better than the regular apprentice at your side. His conclusion isn’t how well you have done against worse odds. It is that you are a failure and that all the effort expended on you is a waste of time. You leave publicly humiliated. You are officially a disaster.

This is what has happened with this week’s independent report on the government’s Troubled Families Programme (TFP), the initiative led by the formidable Louise Casey. This is a three-year, £448 million attempt to tackle the entrenched problems of Britain’s 120,000 most dysfunctional households, by appointing key workers to go in and deal with the family as a whole.

The headlines describe its conclusions as “damning”. One of its authors, the economist Jonathan Portes, a man who criticised the programme from the start, says it is a “waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money”, with “zero impact”.

Reading hundreds of pages of evidence, the conclusions don’t stack up. The impact report was done prematurely, nine months into the programme, while local authorities were still establishing a new way of working and before the families had completed their year in it. And by “zero impact” Portes doesn’t mean “made no difference to families’ lives”. Change did happen: in a sixth of households adults started work; in 100,000 families children started going regularly to school. These are discounted because the troubled families did no better than the control group. Yet, crucially, that group isn’t directly comparable, as the report itself admits.

It was the most difficult families that were targeted by the TFP. They had multiple, severe problems. A sample showed that three quarters had no one in work. More than half had been in trouble with the police in the last six months; half had mental health problems, four fifths had children missing school. Almost a third were experiencing domestic violence, four times the national average, and they were three times as likely to be alcoholics.

Because the worst-off families were already in the TFP, when researchers established a control group a few months later they couldn’t match them precisely. They settled for rough proxies, like proportions in work or school. But by definition the control group were unlikely to have the same extensive problems, or they would have been in the programme too. Which means it’s inaccurate to conclude that the TFP achieved nothing more than regular social services. They were working with tougher material from the start — as the body of the report concedes.

It also suggests that the “entrenchment of the families’ problems” was underestimated and that it was unrealistic to expect transformation in such a short time. It adds that although the survey found “no impact”, it did spot “green shoots” and it was possibly “too soon for firm conclusions”.

This is the heart of the issue — the important point that the headline condemnations have missed. Many of these families are so devastated that the real changes taking place in them happen far below the level of jobs. One unemployed father of three sons was found living in utter squalor, with no doors to the rooms and his bath and toilet disconnected because the mother had taken the fixtures when she left nine years before. His key worker helped him to clear the mess, install a bathroom, send one son to a training programme and another to mental health services, and to find work himself.

Improvements like these are hard to measure, but they happened all over the country. The critical difference is psychological. Three quarters of TFP families say the programme has made a real difference to their lives. They are at least three times more likely than the controls to say that they are getting on better as a family, managing their debts, ensuring children go to school, finding training or a job, accepting responsibility and keeping to daily routines.

Those are the green shoots that need nurturing, the fragile structures of confidence, civility, order and warmth. Fractured, poor, unhappy households can’t be healed in months.

Their future looks tough, with benefits frozen, job losses forecast and inflation rising. Yesterday Louise Casey defended her programme in front of a select committee. She was told that more transformation was needed. The answer isn’t to trash what’s been achieved, but to applaud what she started and recognise how much more there is to do.

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