Councils are struggling to identify anywhere near the 120,000 ‘troubled families’ that ministers claim exist in England, an LGC investigation suggests.
Responses from a third of England’s upper-tier councils that are participating in the scheme run by the Department for Communities & Local Government suggest that councils have identified just 6.9% of their target number of families meeting the government’s strict definition of ‘troubled’.
The results highlight the challenge councils face if they are to make good on their stated intention of working with more than 40,000 families - a third of the overall total - in the first year of the three-year programme, as announced by communities secretary Eric Pickles at the Conservative party conference this week.
And some sources have suggested that the strict definition ministers are using of a troubled family and the payment-by-results mechanism for successfully turning families’ lives around may need to be revisited.
Councils’ struggle to identify 120,000 families stems from a discrepancy at the heart of the scheme.
When prime minister David Cameron launched the programme last year, he said councils would identify 120,000 families by February.
But while the 120,000 figure is based on a 2005 survey which assessed measures of poverty, the government’s definition of a troubled family is one in which the parents are claiming benefits, children are skipping or have been excluded from school and there are registered incidents of crime or antisocial behaviour.
Councils have been asked to identify their share of the 120,000 figure using these criteria - a process the government has termed a “confirmation exercise”.
LGC requested the results of this exercise from the 151 upper-tier councils taking part in the scheme, receiving useable responses from 49.
Those 49 councils had identified 2,791 families meeting all three of the government’s criteria, some 6.9% of the 40,465 they had been asked to confirm.
The figures will rise as the Department for Work & Pensions provides councils with more data on benefit claim- ants. But they remain substantially lower than those announced by Mr Pickles.
Mr Pickles’ figures relate to the number of claims for attachment fees - the up-front portion of the £4,000 per family funding - that councils had made earlier in the year. These claims were submitted in May or June and do not relate to the number of families actually identified. LGC’s figures are based on data returned by councils in August once the process of identifying councils had begun.
Sian Smith, head of the troubled families programme at Slough BC, said: “When we were asked how many we were going to work with, it was before we had any data from DWP about whether the families were out of work. We didn’t know how many families we would be working with. We calculated the attachment fees based on our own staff capacity.”
Councils can also use their own criteria of what constitutes a “high cost” family provided two of the three government criteria are met. Many of the councils contacted by LGC said they planned to rely heavily on local discretion factors, some saying they would use as many as 10 in an attempt to boost numbers.
However, improvements in these measures do not count towards the portion of the £4,000 per family funding reliant on demonstrating results. This portion is set to increase throughout the three years of the scheme.
LGC was not able to use the figures supplied by the council to calculate a reliable number of families that met two centrally set factors and a local factor.
A DCLG spokesman said: “We are very happy with the progress of the troubled families programme and theearly stages of the process of identifying families.
“The secretary of state has announced this week that we are on track to work with one third of families in the first of three years and some local authorities have already identified their full allocation of families,” the spokesman added.
How LGC used councils’ troubled families data
LGC asked all upper-tier councils to confirm the number of families they had identified by using the process detailed above (click on image to enlarge). We also asked which local discretion factors councils were using.
The requests were sent in July, and responses were received by late August – so our results provide a snapshot of where councils were up to eight months after David Cameron launched the scheme and six months after his February deadline for councils to “have identified who the troubled families are, where they live and what services they use”.
Of 152 top-tier councils, 140 provided answers. LGC selected the 49 respondents who had fully followed the government’s process and whose answers were reliable to find the number of families that met the government’s three criteria of a troubled family.
Our coverage is mainly based on the results from these 49 councils. However, councils can use families that meet criteria that councils have defined locally provided they meet two of the government’s three criteria.
Unfortunately, the responses we received from councils did not allow us to come up with a useable figure for families identified in this way.
It should be noted that councils have continued to try to identify families since returning information to us and that some were also waiting for DWP to return data to them to aid with the identification of families.
Additional reporting by Kaamil Ahmed