Government Strategy for Problem Families: Passing the Buck to Local Councils?

by David Keen

A couple of days ago Eric Pickles spoke on the 120,000 ‘troubled’ families identified by David Cameron in the wake of the riots. He announced that he’d been put in charge of ‘turning their lives around’ by the end of the parliament – quite a big ask! It’s significant that it’s the minister for Local Government that’s been put in charge of this. Why? read on…
Here’s some of his speech to a Local Government Conference
The whole country got a sudden, unwelcome insight into our problem families. The ones that make misery in their communities and cause misery to themselves.

Any local politician worth his salt will already know the family members by name – along with the police, the social workers, the courts, the schools, the A&E. And they will be known and avoided in their local neighbourhoods.
There are 120,000 plus of these problem families.

And there hasn’t been a lack of interventions. A lack of money spent. Less than one per cent of the population, they cost the economy over eight billion pounds a year. It’s a story of futility and waste. Waste of money. Waste of people.
And it has simply got to stop. We are going to stop it.
We can no longer afford the luxury of fruitless, uncoordinated investment. The damaged lives and communities.
The Prime Minister has set out an ambition of turning the lives of these families around by the end of Parliament.
I’m in charge of delivering this across Whitehall.
And someone’s got to show local leadership to deliver this on the ground. And that should be you in local government.
So don’t dither or fret. Um and ah. Don’t pass the buck. This is it.

Last week the Prime Minister announced a Troubled Families Unit in my Department led by Louise Casey.
She will be working on an action plan for what needs to be done nationally and locally to deliver this ambition. That will include cutting the bureaucracy that gets in your way.
And she’ll be supporting and talking to you. To ensure that all across the country, councils and their partners are prioritising the activities and interventions which work.

If you’re wondering is this a threat to your independence – the answer is yes, it is a threat. It is a threat if you don’t get on with things.
Think of this as a race to deliver by 2015. If you motor along then we’ll play catch up. But if we get there first – you’ll find yourselves behind the agenda.

Several features of this jump out:
1. Is Pickles simply passing the buck to local councils and agencies? The government has a vision (or at least a soundbite) of dealing with the most dysfunctional and socially costly families (misnomer: some of them are individuals rather than families). But it doesn’t look like it’ll be the government putting it into action. The onus here seems to be on local authorities. OK, the context may explain that, but there’s more said about what local government can do than about national government.
2. Cameron has set himself a goal, but it doesn’t look like he’s that sure how to hit it. If he did, they wouldn’t need a unit to work out an action plan.
3. There is general government mood music to set national goals, but devolve responsibility for meeting them to other people. The recent, and laughable, obesity report from the department of health encouraged people to eat less and exercise more (must have had the best minds in the country working on that one) but refused to put a single piece of legistlation in place. There is a bizarre duality to this government, in certain areas they are hyperactive (e.g. pension reform – but fair enough, after 13 years of Labour inaction on a looming social and economic timebomb, there was some catching up to do) whilst in other areas it is all about saying lots and doing little.
David Camerons conference speech emphasised ‘leadership’ from business, social enterprises, communities, and the role of government of setting free and enabling this local leadership. Fair enough, but at the moment the government seems to have a better idea of the problems than it does of the solutions. Maybe it’s a cultural issue: perhaps Brits are better at waiting for someone to tell us what to do, and rather than simply getting on and doing it. But as with the ‘problem families’ – if that doing isn’t strategic, well informed, co-ordinated, and sustained, it doesn’t actually work.
What does work? There’s quite a bit of material on Christian discipleship doing the rounds at the moment, which addresses the same core issue: how do you help people to change? I’ll probably blog more on this another time, but some of the constant factors seem to be
– a mentor, sponsor or soul friend, who holds you to the goal of personal change
– accountability to a small group on the same journey as you
– an interactive learning process, based in real life rather than in the classroom
– learning a new set of values and priorities in life
– learning experiences
– a goal and vision of life that goes beyond ourselves (in the case of Christian discipleship, this is the mission of Jesus).
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous will recognise most of this. It’s an approach that doesn’t have to be confined to Christian formation. Should Eric Pickles be looking at those organisations which have specialised in life change, repentance and redemption? Is this something governments can deliver, or merely enable?

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