"Troubled families tsar" admits there aren't 120,000 troubled families

Families in trouble are not the same as families causing trouble.

The government's "troubled families tsar" has admitted in an interview with the Guardian that the claim that there are 120,000 troubled families in Britain was warped from barely relevent research.

The government has been using the figure since at least December 2011, when the Prime Minister claimed in a speech that:

Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families… that is around £75,000 per family…

Up to now we’ve talked in terms broad numbers – 120,000 troubled families across the country…

We are committing £448 million to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by the end of this Parliament.

But there's been precious few explanations of where this figure came from. In June last year, the government changed the definition of what it meant to be a troubled family, from one focused on poverty to one focused on anti-social behaviour. But after changing the definition, it carried on claiming that there were 120,000 of the families – a pretty good sign that the figure was bullshit.

In today's Guardian, Amelia Gentleman speaks to Louise Casey, who is in charge of helping Britain's troubled families. Gentleman writes:

She dismissed controversy over the way the government had identified the 120,000 families – acknowledging that the number had come from Labour research which focused on finding disadvantaged families with multiple and complex needs, rather than families that caused problems. Her team retrospectively added new criteria: unemployment, truancy and anti-social behaviour.

"I think a lot is made of this, in retrospect, which needn't be," she said. "The most important thing when I got here in 2011 was if we take that 120,000 figure, give it to local authorities, give them the criteria behind troubled families, and they can populate it, which they have done, with real names, real addresses, real people – then I am getting on with the job.

In other words, the initial research identified 120,000 families in trouble; that research was twisted to be about families causing trouble, even though the first estimate cannot be correct for that second definition. As time has gone by, it has become less a description and more a target – evidenced by Gentleman's opening paragraph, which describes Government efforts to help the 120,000 "most troubled" families.

We're left in a position where the Government is spending £448m to benefit an indeterminate number of people. Success and failure is impossible to judge, since even the very definition of who the money is supposed to help is in flux; and any further statistics coming out of the programme are just as questionable as this one.

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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.