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Councils way off 120,000 troubled families target


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.


Process for identifying a troubled family

Process for identifying a troubled family


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.

  • To see details of the 49 councils that submitted figures to LGC, click here; to see a full list of the government’s target number of families for each upper-tier authority, click here

Additional reporting by Kaamil Ahmed


Readers' comments (3)

  • The main thrust of the article (LGC 11/10/2012) was interesting but perhaps veered too much into the "45 minutes/WMD" style of debate.

    Surely the issue we all need to face up to is that we have however many folk going through communities, repeating patterns in an inter-generational spiral of lost prospects and wasted talent.

    Arguments over the number at one point in time is a meaningless exercise. The numbers over a generation of time are of a much more significant concern, and we have the wherewithal to do something about it.

    Personally, I am currently more concerned that we are expecting some very good workers to have an unremitting diet of difficult, intractable issues to deal with intensively, and sometimes at a frustrating pace of change, whilst still retaining their freshness, their zest for change and their own well being.

    We need a managerial grip on this way of working in the interests of both the helped and the helpers, not debates about photographing the problem.

    Jim Graham, chief executive, Warwickshire County Council

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  • Your reports on our Troubled Families programme are wrong. To say only six months in that we are “way off” our target of turning around 120,000 families by 2015 is simply untrue and undermines the council staff who are getting on with the job. You also highlight Slough as if it were indicative of the national picture when in fact it is one of the furthest behind of all authorities running the programme.

    It’s right that there is a light touch but formal process for identifying families given that £448m is being invested – that’s what the councils we tested this with asked for. But you either misunderstood or chose to misrepresent this by counting troubled families as only those that meet all three of our ‘national’ criteria of worklessness, truancy, and youth crime and/or anti-social behaviour. In fact, families with all three of these problems automatically qualify but are not the sum total; families with two of these problems and one other high-cost ‘local’ factor are also eligible and councils can redeem the full £4,000 for them. If councils wish to work with further families outside these criteria they can do so, and still realise significant savings as a result.

    The majority of councils have already identified the families they will work with this year, while some are even further ahead. In July you stated that Westminster was “struggling to find anywhere near the number of troubled families the government estimates” – in fact the tri-borough of which Westminster is a part has already identified more than its year one allocation of families.

    We placed our faith in councils to deliver this work and their response has been impressive. It’s a shame you choose to portray this important and difficult work in such a negative light.

    Louise Casey, Director General, Troubled Families, Department for Communities and Local Government

    (Letter featured in the 18 October edition of LGC on page 25)

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  • Our coverage clearly explained the process for identifying troubled families and stated that many councils would use local definitions to try to hit their targets.<br/><br/>As we also made clear in the piece, the data we received from councils on local criteria was not robust or comparable enough to base a calculation on.<br/><br/>Had an interpretation of the data suggested councils were on course to meet the 120,000 target, we would not have run the story. However, six months after David Cameron said all 120,000 families would have been identified, the data suggests a very small number meet the specific criteria the government has been prepared to give.<br/><br/>LGC has repeatedly stated its support for the troubled families scheme. But the way such families are defined and identified is a legitimate subject of inquiry.

  • Your recent coverage of the Troubled Families programme sheds more heat than light on this initiative.

    Government at a national level has made a variety of attempts to stimulate local councils to improve delivery - through ring fenced grant, inspects and top-down targets. These interventions were rarely sustainable, and still less localist.

    The funding structure for the Troubled Families programme is a coherent attempt at stimulus without exessive central control - it invites councils to respond, rather than directing and incentivises through the prospect of reward grant which could simultaneously sustain the continuation of the programme. In other words, the programme is a recognisable localist approach to supporting better outcomes in austere times.

    The criteria adopted has enabled Wandsworth to identify 262 troubled families in the first year - on target to meet our intended cohort of 660 families as part of our national total of 120,000 families.

    Already the energy and application of our Troubled Families team is leading to a measured reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour in particular families, decreasing rent arrears and increased participation in vocational training.

    More generally, Whitehall should study carefully this case study in how to quickly gain traction between national ambition and local innovation. The LGC’s analysis is a technical footnote to this much bigger story.

    Paul Martin, chief executive, Wandsworth LBC

    (Letter featured in the 8 November edition of LGC on page 21)

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