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A look at the ‘troubled families’ figure: square peg, round hole?

 By Michael Kelly from Family Action’s Policy and Campaigns Team


The PM today announced £450 million of funding to help local authorities provide a single key worker to help ‘troubled families’ tackle their problems in a holistic way, co-ordinating support from a range of agencies.

Family Action successfully use this model of home-based, intensive family support in our Building Bridges services, which help families with multiple and complex needs, including mental health issues, giving them an individual worker who is accessible to them outside of normal ‘office hours’ such as weekends and evenings.

We welcome a renewed commitment from Government to help these families turn their lives around with the right support. However, the devil is in the detail and it’s really important that the effectiveness of this initiative is backed up with a clear, upfront definition of ‘troubled families’, as well as up-to-date information on the numbers and locations of these families.

The PM’s speech focused on families with crime, anti-social behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse issues and suggested that 120,000 families had these types of multiple problem.

However, the definition used to arrive at this figure doesn’t include any mention of substance abuse or crime. Information on the methodology published by the Government shows the 120,000 families were defined as 'troubled' becayse they had at least five problems out of the following seven: 

• No parent in the family is in work;
• The family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing;
• No parent has any qualifications;
• Mother has mental health problems;
• At least one parent has a longstanding limiting illness, disability or infirmity;
• The family has low income (below 60% of the median);
• The family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items.

Many families Family Action works with who struggle with these problems are invisible, socially isolated and on very low incomes - rather than wild and out of control. The information is also from a survey carried out in 2004, which is dated. Price inflation and the recession are likely to have increased the numbers out of work and unable to afford basic items, which also makes updating the figures important.

Interestingly, Government analysts have also used local deprivation data to apportion the 120,000 across England’s local authority areas  – for example arriving at an estimate of five troubled families in the Isles of Scilly. It isn’t certain that the local prevalence of deprivation will always correlate exactly with numbers of troubled families.

We welcome the Government’s commitment to support struggling families to get back on their feet, but to ensure resources are targeted at the right areas, clear and up-to-date figures are needed. The 120,000 definition is based on questions from the Families and Children Study, which the Government no longer funds, but similar questions could be placed on another national survey.

The Government also needs to be clear and upfront about its definition of troubled families. If David Cameron is serious about tackling drug abuse and crime then work needs to be done to identify the real prevalence of these amongst families, as the statistics currently being used don’t take account of these. Most parents on low incomes are good parents and it’s simplistic to conflate poverty, poor housing and illness with substance abuse and crime.