"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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.