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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.

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

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