The claim

“I have a clear ambition that within the lifetime of this parliament we will turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country.”
David Cameron, 16 August 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

In the aftermath of the riots, David Cameron vowed he’d put “rocket-boosters” under efforts to mend Britain’s “broken society”. And he promised to put his money where his mouth is, turning around the lives of the country’s 120,000 “most troubled” families by the next election in 2015.

It was a pretty staggering figure – but it was a goal he repeated in his speech to the Conservative party conference this month. This week, the PM announced Tony Blair’s former respect tsar, Louise Casey, would turn his aspiration into reality.

She has a reputation in Whitehall for taking no prisoners, so if anyone can meet the pledge she can. But is it doable?

The analysis

The 120,000 figure is an estimate of the number of families where: both parents are unemployed, neither parent has any qualifications; the mother has mental health problems; one parent has a chronic illness or disability; the family’s income is low; they are living in poor quality or overcrowded housing, or they are unable to buy certain items of food and clothing.

If a family ticks at least five of those seven boxes they should be targeted for intensive support, according to the government.

Note the lack of any record of encounters with the police or courts: these families are certainly “troubled”, but there’s no evidence base that can show us how “troubling” they are.

Matt Barnes from the National Centre for Social Research blogged about this just after the riots. He was one of the researchers who first identified the 120,000 families while working at the Social Exclusion Task Force, a policy unit set up by Tony Blair in 1997.

Mr Barnes said: “Are these the families that house the kind of young people involved in last week’s riots? Unfortunately we don’t have data to test such a hypothesis.”

What about the effectiveness of existing family intervention schemes?

There’s strong evidence that the programmes work and give taxpayers a good return on their investment.

Department for Education (DfE) research published last month looked at schemes run in 27 “pathfinder” local authorities from 2007 to 2010.

These programmes followed a similar basic pattern where health and social care professionals spent huge amounts of time mentoring whole families on a day-to-day basis to get them to change their behaviour.

The study found that there was a “significant improvement in outcomes for nearly half (46 per cent) of families”. Of those that were helped, three-quarters reported an improvement in their housing situation, two-thirds saw significant improvement in parenting issues and concerns about domestic violence fell by 71 per cent.

And there’s a theoretical financial saving too, based on the idea that as problem families improve their behaviour, they are less likely to be a burden on local police forces, social workers, courts and other agencies in the future.

Research for DfE by York Consulting found that £1 spent on family intervention generated a return of nearly £2.

Others put the saving higher. A study carried out by Action for Children, a charity that helped pioneer family intervention, said that for every £1 spent on a typical project in Northamptonshire, about £4 was made in wider savings for society.

How much does early intervention cost?

Despite the evidence that family intervention offers value for money, it’s not cheap. That’s because the intensive nature of the projects – with lots of contact between different family members and case workers – mean the wage costs tend to be high.

The Department for Education puts the average cost per family per year of intensive intervention at £14,000.

Since the schemes differ greatly in size and character, that could be a conservative figure. The research the department did on the pathfinder councils put the average cost at £19,223.

And one scheme singled out for praise by both David Cameron and Eric Pickles – the LIFE project in Swindon – costs around £25,000 per family.

How much will it cost to help 120,000 families?

DfE’s latest figures show that just 8,841 families had enrolled in intervention projects in the year up to March 2011 since 2006.

That’s a national figure that doesn’t tell the story of how little provision there is in certain parts of the country.

In Cornwall, for example, there are estimated to be up to 1,350 families with multiple problems. How many are being offered intensive help? Just 14.

The figures suggest a total of 117,000 families nationally are in the “most troubled” category, so if we take away the 8,844 families already being helped that’s 108, 159 families who will have to be enrolled in intervention schemes over the next three years if Mr Cameron is to keep his promise.

Even if we use the government’s figure of £14,000, a rough, back-of-envelope calculation, multiplying that by 108,159 shows that the government will need to spend £1.5bn to meet the pledge.

That’s ignoring complicating factors like economies of scale, but it gives us a rough estimate to compare to the actual figure for funding, when it’s finally released (Mr Cameron said on Wednesday that the government “are going to be putting huge resources” into tackling problem families, but the details are yet to emerge).


And any new injection of cash will have to reverse the effects of cuts on family intervention services, which were revealed for the first time on Thursday.

Action for Children carried out a survey of 22 services, supporting 1,106 families, and 73 per cent said they had seen their budgets slashed.

Some 9 per cent of services said the cuts had been in the order of 50 per cent and a similar number said the reduction had been as much as 70 per cent.

Not surprisingly, some intensive family support services have started to close. Five of the projects surveyed by Action for Children have already shut, two are under threat of closure and others have been asked to carry on with temporary contracts and reduced budgets.

It’s not purely a financial equation. The speed and the scale of expansion would be staggering if Mr Cameron is to keep its promise. In the last financial year, only 3,423 families were enrolled in intervention schemes.

Enrolments would have to rise to around 25,000 a year to realise the PM’s ambition, and it’s far from clear that you could hire all the professionals needed to carry out a massively expanded programme, even if the missing billions were suddenly to materialise.

Labour MP Graham Allen, who has authored reports on early intervention for the government and has been closely involved in family turnaround projects in his Nottingham North constituency, told FactCheck: “You can’t pick people off the street to do this kind of work. It takes great experience to deal with these families.

“They are not standing in a line waiting for a job at the moment, these people.”

“We’ve worked for four years to get 50 families into our project. And that was back-breaking, ball-aching, long-term work.

“How long would we need to do thousands? I think we should move the decimal point, and aim to do 12,000 in the lifetime of this parliament.”

Cathy Newman’s verdict

To “turn around” 120,000 troubled families by the end of the Parliament looks nigh-impossible. An announcement on funding is expected within weeks, but it seems highly unlikely, in the current economic climate, that enough money can be found.

One government member told me staff would be “borrowed” from other Whitehall departments, but the real issue is whether local authorities will be given the cash they need to hire the social workers and other professionals to do the work on the ground.

Bear in mind giving challenging families the intensive support they need costs on average £14,000 a year. As Nottingham North’s Labour MP Graham Allen told FactCheck, it took four years of “back-breaking, ball-aching” to sort out 50 families in his patch.

So watch out for the PM’s very concrete pledge made after the riots to be watered down into something far less ambitious.

The analysis by Patrick Worrall