"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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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