"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.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.