England & Wales Education and children's services

The councils leading the Troubled Families programme


This article first appeared in the August edition of C’llr Magazine

Patrick Kelly explains the government’s new Troubled Families programme and talks
to some of the councils who have been leading the way.

Many councillors will be familiar with the families that everyone complains about – kids out of control, always fighting with neighbours, in trouble with the law, in massive rent arrears, out of work and seemingly out of reach of any of the services designed to help them.

Variously described as “troubled” “at risk” “with complex needs” or simply “chaotic”, these families have soaked up an enormous amount of time, effort and public funds and yet their problems seem as intractable as ever. Official figures suggest they number about 120,000 across the country and cost the taxpayer about £9bn every year as they bounce between health services, police, courts, social services and schools.

The issue shot to the top of the agenda after the riots in London and some other cities last summer. As poor parenting became a culprit in the disturbances, the Prime Minister spoke of his ambition to turn around the lives of the 120,000 most “troubled families” and appointed Louise Casey to head up a special Troubled Families Team within the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

So how should councillors react to the news that the government wants to “get a grip” on these troubled families and are putting £448m of Whitehall money into a scheme designed to get all the agencies dealing with them, from the Department for Work and Pensions to the NHS?

They might welcome the fact that the Troubled Families Programme puts local authorities in a position of “strong leadership”, according to the programme’s director general Louise Casey. And they might also be pleased to hear that the “payment by results” scheme promises them up to £4,000 per family – 80 per cent of which will be paid upfront as an ‘attachment fee’.

They will no doubt also be encouraged by the words of praise for existing “family intervention” programmes, some of which are already being funded out of community budgets, (the experiment which is aimed at pooling the budgets of various local services in order to target their work better).

DCLG has cited Westminster, Barnet and Blackburn with Darwen as exemplars of the turnarounds they expect from highly targeted interventions with problem families. Indeed, Barnet’s director of childrens’ services, Robert McCulloch Graham, has been seconded to the DCLG’s Troubled Families Unit to oversee the programme.

Councillor Andrew Harper, cabinet member for education, children and families at Barnet, said the secondment should provide “reassurance” for other authorities that “the experience and perspective from local authorities” was part of the DCLG thinking. He adds, “Although the programme is still relatively new, the results in Barnet are tangible.”

Barnet has invested £1m in a three year Intensive Family Focus (IFF) programme. After a year, 12 children from the initial cohort of 18 families are no longer under child protection orders while 12 adults are back into work and there’s been a reduction in antisocial behaviour amongst 13 of the families. So far the council has recruited 13 IFF workers and has referred 50 families with complex needs onto the programme.

Councillor Harper said that having a single individual with the specific task of dealing with each family allows them to build up trust rather than having to go in lots of different directions to seek help. “It’s expensive initially but we are making major savings.

It’s reducing costs of social care which means that money can be used to help other families who are in real difficulties.” He admits that the council had to take the lead with other partners and as cabinet member, he chairs the panel overseeing the IFF. “We decided not to wait for all the details to be worked out – it was too good an idea so we have got to crack on with it.”

There is still a suggestion that some partner agencies, although willing to support family intervention schemes in principle, have been less willing to align their budgets to cover the costs of such schemes. Even the £448m from central coffers will cover only 40 per cent of costs, and councils will still have to agree to fund the other 60 per cent themselves.

Some local government critics point to the savings made : every A&E attendance avoided saves around £52; a domestic violence incident costs £18,730; every child who doesn’t enter care saves £43,500; every anti-social behaviour incident costs up to £630 etc. Councillor Nickie Aiken, Westminster’s cabinet member for children, young people and community protection, says that her council’s Family Recovery Programme, now in its fourth year, saves nearly £3 for every £1 invested but typically, local authorities get only 42 per cent of that saving back, the other savings accrue to government departments and the NHS.

The new government initiative will go some way to recognise local government’s financial contribution, she says, but she remains critical of some other agencies unwillingness to put the real weight behind this type of scheme. “The NHS is a particular problem even now – as neither the existing structures nor the GP commissioning bodies seem to know who will take responsibility for this area.”

There are other criticisms. Academics have suggested that the DCLG figure of 120,000 is one of those factoids that sounds plausible but is based on a misreading of the background research on which it is based, conflating families experiencing multiple disadvantage and families that cause trouble. The former figure could be much higher. Childrens’ charities have predicted that welfare cuts are driving more families into the poorest categories.

Their analysis shows that families with six or more disadvantages, carry the biggest burden of the budget cuts.Councillor Maureen Bates, executive member for children and families at Blackburn with Darwen, says the council’s Think Family project has been taking a therapeutic approach to a group of 40 families in the “troubled” category.

“One of the most important things we have identified is the importance of early intervention – when children are very young. While we welcome the government’s programme, there is a concern that some of the outcomes they are looking at – reduction in exclusions, ASBOS etc – are skewed towards families with older children.”

In Norfolk, which has the ninth highest number of troubled families, programme co-ordinator Nicky Dawson admits that the recession will make the task harder. Although it has five existing Family Intervention Projects (FIP), which have led to an average annual saving of £88,480 per family, they feel the extra government cash will be needed to address new levels of crisis experienced by the poorest and most vulnerable families.

Dawson said: “People are coming in with even more substantial problems. Those problems are even more severe than they were even just 18 months ago.” This extra help would push savings up to £140,000 per family per year.

But she also wants the families themselves to determine what changes need to be made and decide where the money should be spent, so they should be involved in designing, or redesigning, the services.

The ultimate aim will be to create a network of services that will not only help the 1,700 families linked to this programme but will also ensure the support and early intervention  needed in future. “Once we have helped those 1,700 families, we don’t want more to come through and fill that gap,” said Dawson.

Patrick Kelly is a freelance journalist.