"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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.