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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.