There are not 120,000 "troubled families"

This zombie statistic refuses to die.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has released a report focusing on so-called "troubled families", which presents a compelling case that the worst of these families have problems which need urgent intervention. But it also takes the opportunity to revive one of the department's favourite zombie statistics. A report which is based on formal interviews with 16 families ("although she met and talked with many more") is generalised out to cover 120,000.

This six-figure number is one of the DCLG's favourites. It has been pushing it since at least February, when NIESR's Jonathan Portes first drew attention to the problems with the definition of "troubled". When the Prime Minister quoted the figure, he called these families:

The source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.

As Portes pointed out, the actual definition of troubled families focuses far more on them being families with troubles, rather than families causing trouble. The DCLG has an explanatory note on the topic, which defines the families as any holding five or more of the following characteristics:

a) no parent in work
b) poor quality housing,
c) no parent with qualifications,
d) mother with mental health problems
e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness
f) family has low income,
g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items                                                        

So back in February, the overarching problem with the statistic was how it was used, rather than the number itself. Whether or not there were 120,000 of them, these troubled families are in no way "irresponsible".

But last month, the dishonesty became clearer. Perhaps realising that the rhetoric didn't match up with the definition, the department published a new explanatory note, which claimed that troubled families were:

Characterised by there being no adult in the family working, children not being in school and family members being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.

That definition does sound much more like one of a family suffering "a culture of disruption and irresponsibility", certainly. But normally, when one changes a definition of something, the number of cases falling under that definition also changes. Not so with the troubled families. The department continued – and continues – to refer to "120,000" of them.

Even worse, when the Prime Minister first referred to the families (using the kinder definition), he did so with an extraordinary level of granularity, saying:

There are an estimated 4,500 of these families in Birmingham, 2,500 in Manchester, and 1,115 here in Sandwell.

Once the definition changed, had the location? Like hell.

As Jonathan Portes concluded his post:

It is difficult to conclude anything except that the Department, and the governnment, have become hung up on the 120,000 number despite the fact that they are well aware that it is now completely discredited, either as a national estimate of the number of "troubled families" or as a sensible guide to local policy.

The release of today's report just confirms that feeling. The figure of 120,000 is mentioned exactly twice in the 30,000 word report (pdf), once in author Louise Casey's foreword and once in the introduction. It is also mentioned twice in the 600 word press release, and twice in each of the Guardian and Mail's reports on the topic. It seems like something which has little to do with the content of the report (an admirable qualititative study of what it's like to live in an incredibly disfunctional household, but one which offers little guidance as to how widespread the problems are) and everything to do with a need to push a continuing narrative.

People like to put numbers on things, so here's one: with the actual information the DCLG has put out, we know of just 16 troubled families, the ones interviewed by Casey. Pick a number any higher than that and you're getting into the same voodoo mathematics the government has been performing for the last six months.

Syringes lie on the floor. But are they from a "troubled family"? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why there are fewer free-range eggs on sale right now

Because of restrictions designed to combat avian flu, some farms are losing their free-range status. Should consumers accept barn birds for now?

“How do you like your eggs,” asks the terrible chat-up line, “fried or fertilised?” But caged, barn, free-range or organic is the tougher choice faced by many. And come March the decision could get more complex still - as measures taken to combat the recent outbreak of avian flu begin to bite.

An H5N8 strain of flu has been identified across a number of UK and European farms this winter, and in response the government ordered all poultry to be kept indoors. But under EU regulations on classification, any hen kept inside for more than 12 weeks loses its "free range" status. Many consumers prefer free-range eggs for their higher welfare potential - so farmers fear losing business along with their label.

The 12-week limit has been reached today. After that, what happens next depends on whether farmers are working in a higher or lower risk area, as identified by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs on this interactive map. Those at higher risk must either cover their outdoor space with expensive netting or keep their hens indoors.

Those in lower risk areas may let their hens outside under supervision. But even then, producers are fearful of letting their hens outside and potentially exposing them to the flu. “It would finish us off if we got it,” says Susie Macmillian of Macs farm, “we’d lose all our wholesale customers – and I’m absolutely terrified about it."

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has thus ruled that all commercial boxes of free-range eggs must now carry stickers explaining that the hens have been housed indoors, regardless of what risk area they came from.

So what can consumers do to help? For Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming, it is vital that consumers temporarily put aside concerns about keeping hens indoors in order to support free-range and organic producers through this tricky time.

“In the short run these farmers need supporting - whether they call their eggs barn-produced or free-range,” says Brooke. “If people stop buying the eggs because they think the hens are being shut inside, then the farmers are going to have to kill the flocks. And you may end up without the free-range market”.

Continuing to buy these newly labelled eggs will therefore help tide the industry over this present crisis. But the scramble to explain the flu crisis to consumers is also showing up the sector’s wider cracks. "Free-range systems have the greatest potential to provide high welfare conditions for hens, but this potential is not always achieved,” says Professor Christine Nicol from the University of Bristol. 

Cage-free brands thus compete to attract consumer attention with promises of various welfare add-ons – from “woodland” egg to “happy” hens. But what difference do these provisions really make to a hen’s wellbeing? And are the big brands really best placed to decide?

Pressure to save on costs is also pushing some free-range and organic producers into ever larger economies of scale, says Susie Macmillian. And while the UK’s major retailers have committed to becoming cage free by 2025, they have not yet specified what will replace caged eggs as the value option.

Taken together, these trends suggest an urgent need for new ways of evaluating hen wellbeing.

EU categories currently divide eggs into four levels -  colony (caged), barn-produced, free-range and organic - and each level entails higher welfare standards than the last.  With free-range hens, for instance, there must be no more than nine birds in a square metre, while for organic hens it is no more than six.

But what about hens who enjoy roomier conditions but not the organic diet? At present there is no independently certified "free-range plus" to help distinguish such cases. The RSPCA Assured label (previously known as freedom Foods) ensures that hens' welfare has met standards above the legal minimum. Yet in an effort to help lift all hens out of the caged-sector, it is also very inclusive. In fact it currently covers almost all of the non-caged market.

Yet a sunny-side is in sight for further independent certification.  The Soil Association has already added an extra layer of conditions that organic producers must meet to gain its seal of approval: from free-range conditions for pullets (young hens), to smaller colony sizes, more pop-holes, and a ban on beak tipping. And some European welfare bodies have introduced new, multi-tiered systems of independent assessment across the cage-free spectrum. In Holland, the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals awards its “Beter Leven” (Better Life) seal on a rising scale of one to three stars.

So could a similar system be introduced for UK free-range?  The RSPCA is not currently considering tiering its mark but the possibility for further differentiation in the future does exist. The RSPCA already conducts “welfare outcome assessments,” says Mia Fernyhough, who writes the RSPCA’s standards for laying hens. These take into account indicators of birds’ comfort  – such as their levels of feather cover - and allow assesors to place each individual farm on a sliding scale of success.

More streaming within free-range could also benefit farmers. According to Ben Pike of Bfrepa, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, producers fear that if free-range becomes the norm, they will lose the small price differentiation that has kept them afloat.

The present flu crisis is expected to recede by April, and when it does the biggest welfare gap will still be between caged and non-caged hens. But if consumers are to help British egg prodcution continue to improve in sickness and in health, then more ambitious independent certification should be top of the pecking order.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.