Cameron has promised what he cannot deliver on social exclusion

We need to recognise the limits to the state's ability to solve complex social problems.

In the dark, panic-fuelled days following last summer’s riots, David Cameron made a knee-jerk pledge to turn around the lives of 120,000 "troubled families" by the end of this parliament. The promise presented a neat policy solution to calm the moral panic that followed the disturbing mix of child criminality, mindless destruction and deprivation brought to the fore by the riots.

Cameron is not the first politician to make sweeping promises in a bid to reassure the public and get tough on social disorder. Even more ambitious vows were made by New Labour on coming to power in 1997 to mend the decayed social fabric of the country after years of Tory rule. Tony Blair famously pledged to "eradicate child poverty" and Peter Mandelson spoke in 1997 of his vision for New Labour to "end social exclusion". Unsurprisingly, given the scale of these ambitions, the Blair and Brown governments fell short in achieving them, despite significant gains. But it is not so much the scale of these undertakings, as the way in which they perpetuate the illusion that it is in the gift of the state to achieve them that is their undoing.

Take, for example, the Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) begun under New Labour that Cameron’s "troubled families" policy is based on. The government stressed that the projects were excellent value for money in preventing or reducing anti-social behaviour (ASB) in 8 out of 10 cases. They provided much needed one-to-one support for families struggling with serious social problems. But a later evaluation found that in less than a year ASB returned in just over half of families and that this was primarily related to mental health problems.

In fact, 80 per cent of the FIP families in this study had mental or physical health problems, yet a further report found that only 11 per cent of families received professional psychiatric treatment or counselling and only 35 per cent received parenting classes. Another study of FIPs in Leicestershire found that none of the participants could explain what the purpose and objectives of the support they were receiving were.

The projects were undoubtedly doing excellent work, but in some cases, without creating a sense of ownership or drawing on the agency of these families and addressing the root causes of their problems, the projects hit their target but missed the point, which was for families to sustain lasting change. The lesson of this period for today has to be to recognise the limits of a hubristic state to ‘solve’ complex social problems.

It is unlikely, given the political capital staked on it, that the coalition’s troubled families scheme will be allowed to be seen to have failed. Though it has fewer resources available to spend per family than the FIPs and a vastly higher number of families to "turn around" to reach the much criticised target of 120,000 families in time for the 2015 election (FIPs helped 5000 people at their peak in 2010), the Troubled Families Unit itself will evaluate the overall impact of the programme and some of the success criteria will be measured subjectively. The assumption that there is a link between these families and the riots has barely been challenged despite no real evidence to support it. But what exactly is the point of the government setting targets it has little real control over achieving anyway?

Both right and left need to rethink the way in which government tackles deep social problems and also how they do ‘tough love’ politics. Obvious as it may sound, politicians must grasp that it is only individuals with the right support, not governments, that can turn their lives round. This means a greater understanding of what leads to genuine, sustainable change for those individuals, whether that is through a greater sense of ownership and control over shaping outcomes or using limited resources differently to provide longer term and more specific support.

It also means thinking about whether central government pledging to ‘deliver’ an end to hard, long running problems in lives of the most disadvantaged is the best way to show it is getting tough on social disorder or to legitimise spending money on the most vulnerable and least popular groups, which is ultimately what these commitments are about.

Interviews with key figures inside Labour and on the right for a review of New Labour’s social exclusion agenda, soon to be published by IPPR, suggest that unrealistic pledges on complex social problems can erode instead of deepen public trust and are likely to be a thing of the past. The coalition may well prove to be the last government to make promises on tackling extreme disadvantage that are not within its power to achieve. This may be no bad thing both for the people they aim to support or for British politics.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1

A scene from last year's riots in Hackney on August 8, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Clare McNeil is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

Twitter: @claremcneil1

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.