The Troubled Families fiasco should be a warning to children’s services

Despite its public failure, the Troubled Families scheme is being expanded, and shows services can be commodified, argues Michael Lambert

by Michael Lambert

The ‘suppressed’ evaluation of the troubled Troubled Families Programme (TFP) has finally been released. It does not make good reading or publicity for the government.

Claims by former Prime Minister David Cameron of 99% success rates for the TFP have finally been laid to rest. Payment-by-results did not get results.

The evaluation report, by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, says that ‘the key issue’ to emerge from the first phase of the TFP is ‘the lack of evidence that it has had an impact on the outcomes that it seeks to affect for families.’In other words: the TFP has been an enormous waste of money with ‘no discernible impact.’ A white elephant of social policy.

Civil servant Jonathan Portes, one of the authors of the report, described the TFP as a ‘perfect case study’ of ‘manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics by politicians and civil servants. He, like many others, lays blame at the feet of the Director General, Louise Casey. Dame Louise Casey, who said in an interview with Civil Service World about the TFP that ‘the stakes are very high’ and ‘I can’t fail – we can’t fail.’

The TFP has failed.


Worse still, as Northumbria University researcher Stephen Crossley has argued, the TFP has been enormously expanded to a second phase without any assessment of the first. The number of families has increased from 120,000 to 400,000. The government funds have increased from £448m to over £900m. The criteria for payment-by-results have grown from four to six. They are even more elastic.

Even worse still, the government have exported the ‘successful’ ‘troubled families’ model to other policy areas. Stephen Crossley has described this as ‘dealing in secondhand ideas.’

Outside the exercise in mass statistical manipulation are the worrying and long-term consequences for statutory services by the changes wrought by the TFP.

Louise Casey, in her 2012 report Listening to Troubled Families saw the TFP as an opportunity to ‘get underneath the skin’ of services as much as the ‘troubled families.’ Casey has accused social workers of ‘colluding’ with families and providing excuses, not results. What ‘troubled families’ needed, was ‘tough love’ from tough services.

Creative social accountancy

From its inception, the TFP was much more than an exercise in creative social accountancy. It was about changing services, and the responsibilities and operation of the state.

The TFP took many of its cues from New Labour’s Family Intervention Projects (FIPs). Particularly, the model of intensive intervention and the keyworker, which was at the heart of the TFP. Certainly, researchers studying local programmes have found evidence of these positive outcomes.

Where successes have occurred, these have largely been in spite of, not because of the TFP. The evidence of many service organisations and local authorities to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) inquiry into the TFP have provided dozens of instances of the positive elements of support. The onus of the TFP on achieving results and leaving families adrift, as ‘turned around’ counteracts the positive parts which social workers, services and practitioners seek to retain.

How services can be commodified

However, as the Channel 4 Dispatches programme on the TFP showed, large numbers of families were ‘turned around’ and claimed for by local authorities without ever seeing a keyworker. There is a chasm between the rhetoric and reality of the TFP.

The TFP claims to encourage service and practitioner autonomy, but it does not. The payment-by-results framework forms part of a wider pattern of financialisation of social services. If results can be qualified and then quantified, then services can become commodified. If a ‘troubled family’ is classified as such for meeting two out of four criteria, and can be shown to have improved – regardless of intervention – then social services as a function can be sold to the lowest bidder.

Far from increasing professional autonomy, social work expertise and skill, as the TFP claims, the payment-by-results framework significantly reduces the power of the profession against the state. Generations of history and professionalization are being eroded. The development and legitimacy of the skills of social work are being supported in words by the government, but challenged by actions.

Social work reforms

Not uncoincidentally, the government has also been in the news this week about plans to reform social work. The bill proposes to allow local authorities to opt out of statutory requirements for child protection. The condition of opting out of these laws is that authorities achieve the same results, but by ‘innovative’ of new methods. Professor Ray Jones has repeatedly stressed his concerns about this issue.

The ‘success’ of the payment-by-results of the TFP has allowed it to be constructed as a model and readily exported to other policy areas. Despite the best efforts of workers on the ground, the TFP has been an emphatic failure and an exercise in manipulation. The failure of the policy should provide an opportunity and a moment to reflect on why it was sold as a failure, and why politicians and civil servants should learn lessons about the financialisation of social services.

Michael Lambert is a professional tutor at Liverpool Hope University

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5 Responses to The Troubled Families fiasco should be a warning to children’s services

  1. LongtimeSW October 21, 2016 at 11:24 am #

    The tragedy is that many of the workers seconded to work within the TFP were ‘taken in’ by the initial claims – it has been divisive, leaving social and health care professionals with feelings of professional arrogance on the part of Louise Casey and others in denigrating social workers.

    I am old enough to remember we had something similar to the work that TFP was supposed to be set up to do that was within Social care – Social Work Assistants (remember them?), many of whom went on to qualify within the social and health care professions.

    In years to come the waste of these years will be seen to be what it is – dishonest social engineering worthy of a totalitarian state.

    Can’t help thinking that if this money had been used to support more early intervention services we would not be facing the crisis in support services we currently have.

    • Cathy October 25, 2016 at 7:30 pm #

      Totally agree with you, social work assistants are unsung heros

  2. Londonboy October 21, 2016 at 1:21 pm #

    I’ve been on this programme -had the keyworker and 30 plus hours of parenting classes, got my certificate in an award celebration.
    Our family don’t meet any of the criteria below, not one – there was simply nothing else available to help us. Our son has a neurodisability and as I found out later – so do very high numbers of kids in Care

     no parent in the family was in work;
     the family lived in poor-quality or overcrowded housing;
     no parent had any qualifications;
     the mother had mental health problems;
     at least one parent had a long-standing limiting illness, disability or infirmity;
     the family had a low income (below 60 per cent of the median); and
     the family could not afford a number of items of food and clothing.

  3. Londonboy October 21, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    And I don’t recognise this picture either for most of the other parents..

    Further, the problem is a generational one, Casey explains, with many parents in these families having been brought up in care. “When they start having children, they don’t exactly have fantastic role models to call on, so they bring up their kids in ways that we would describe as chaotic, troubled; their kids aren’t in school regularly and they have behaviour difficulties.”

    Everyone’s story was different – there were high numbers of immigrants who by and large had different understanding of what a good parent is having being parented differently in a different culture and whose children rebelled, lots of parents of school refusers with CAMHS involvement ( no one seemed to think this was troubling in itself – how can this be fixed by better parenting?) , Issues around children in gangs ( possibly even because immigrant parents on low incomes are working all hours?) , Partners of parents with an addiction problem etc etc. No one turns up on these courses without wanting to fix things and to be honest I did’ent see much if any evidence of parents ‘with behaviour difficulties’.

  4. LongtimeSW October 24, 2016 at 12:35 pm #

    ‘ . . . . . there was simply nothing else available to help us.’ This is troubling – if it’s OK to ask, Londonboy, (understand if you aren’t able to answer), had other services been cut/reduced that might have been availiable in other times?

    Certainly as I said before, the austerity measures have hit early intervention services significantly leaving nothing in their place or a ‘one size fits all’ approach in asking TF or voluntary agencies (who themselves have faced funding crises) to plug the gaps.