‘Troubled families’ in the North East

In this guest post Dr Stephen Crossley from Northumbria University examines the government's Troubled Families Programme and the role of the VCSE sector in its implementation.

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There have been many criticisms levelled at the government’s Troubled Families Programme (TFP). There have been claims, for example, that the rhetoric is stigmatising and the research has been mis-represented, that the government over-claimed the success of the first phase, that the official evaluation was initially ‘suppressed’ and that the programme has had no discernible impact.

Despite these criticisms many local authorities and some voluntary sector organisations in the North East have been enthusiastic supporters of the programme. The published results from the first phase of the programme suggested that progress and performance in the region had been very impressive.

The elected Mayor of North Tyneside stated that they were ‘honoured’ to have Louise Casey, former integration csar, present to a conference they had arranged and also believed that the ‘new way of working intensively with targeted families is already making a real difference’. A Middlesbrough councillor believed that ‘wonderful work’ was being done through the programme and that ‘great strides’ had been made in a short period of time. Newcastle City Council appear similarly enthused, with the Cabinet Member for Children and Young People highlighting in a cabinet update that the programme in the city was ‘a tremendous example of council staff working with other agencies to make a real difference to the lives of thousands of parents and children who were facing many difficult challenges’.

Such support might be understandable if there was evidence that ‘intensive’ interventions such as the TFP helped, but there really isn’t any.

Most of the families involved with the TFP are not ‘troublemakers’, or hardened criminals. The majority are families living on low-incomes, struggling to get by, often with disabled family members or those with health issues or limiting illnesses. An intensive ‘family intervention’ style approach cannot necessarily address many of the problems such families face.

At a time of austerity, it is, of course, understandable that local authorities would want to ‘play the game’ and claim as much funding as possible, especially given the financial pressure on local authorities in the region and the political capital invested in the TFP by the government. It is still, however, disappointing that authorities in the region that have been very vocal about the negative effects of other government policies and reforms have remained silent or chosen to be supportive of the TFP, which is largely based on stigmatising and unfounded condemnatory views of families living in poverty and experiencing disadvantage.

It is similarly disappointing that some of the regions’ voluntary sector organisations have been largely complicit in the playing of this game. Voluntary sector organisations perform a variety of important roles. They can attempt to hold government to account for problematic decisions and policies, they can ensure marginalised voices are heard, campaign for better protection or services for disadvantaged groups, or deliver services that the state cannot or will not provide. In relation to the TFP, the voluntary sector, by and large, does not perform these roles and there has been little explicit or overt challenge to the TFP from within the sector in the region. Services from within the public sector and the voluntary sector that work with disadvantaged families in the region have arguably acquiesced to a stigmatising narrative that has been accompanied by much needed funding.

It is poor families with children that are hardest hit by the welfare reforms that have been implemented since 2010. Families with disabled members have been particularly badly hit by recent reforms. It is precisely these same families who are the supposed ‘beneficiaries’ of the interventionist approach to tackling disadvantage that the TFP symbolises. This new approach, couched in the seductive language of ‘early intervention’ and support for the ‘whole family’, seeks to marginalise structural issues such as poverty, poor labour market conditions, and poor-quality housing and instead seeks to responsibilize parents for their absence from the labour market and their children’s perceived shortcomings and behavioural ‘problems’.

This is the current policy context for families living in the North East. There is precious little to cheer when surveying the political and economic landscape for families with children in the region. Planned welfare reforms will continue to hit them hard, especially those with three or more children. Cuts to local government services, if implemented, will continue to deprive parents and children of much of the support they rely on at various times of their lives. The pressure on the region’s voluntary sector is likely to increase, although the resources that are available to them are unlikely to follow suit.

The simplistic central government narrative of an almost perfect social policy begins to fall apart when placed under a small amount of scrutiny, and remains unsupported by any robust or reliable evidence. Put simply, the TFP does not attempt to address the structural issues that cause many of the problems faced by ‘troubled families’, but instead encourages them to ‘learn to be poor’. Voluntary sector organisations should carefully consider their position, and the role they play, in a programme with such aspirations.

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Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University. He completed his PhD on the Troubled Families Programme at the University of Durham in August 2017. A summary of his research can be found here. His first book ‘In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty’ is available now from Pluto Press. His second book, ‘Troublemakers: the construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem’ is published by Policy Press in April 2018.