The government’s flagship social policy, announced after the 2011 riots and intended to correct the anti-social behaviour of “troubled families”, has failed to achieve any significant impact, an official evaluation has found.
The Troubled Families programme, a scheme estimated to cost more than £1bn including £450m from central government, was launched by the former prime minister David Cameron with the aim of tackling “a culture of disruption and irresponsibility” by targeting households with high levels of crime, unemployment, pupil truancy and use of child welfare services.
However, a devastating study concludes that after four years there was no clear evidence that the programme had any serious effect, despite persistent claims by politicians that it had “turned around” the lives of tens of thousands of families and saved over a billion pounds.
The study concludes: “The key finding from the impact evaluation using administrative data was that across a wide range of outcomes, covering the key objectives of the programme – employment, benefit receipt, school attendance, safeguarding and child welfare – we were unable to find consistent evidence that the Troubled Families programme had any significant or systematic impact.”
The study, carried out by an independent research consortium including the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (Niesr), suggested that ministers may have underestimated the scale of the problems faced by the most entrenched families and overestimated the capacity of the scheme to transform the lives of those who participated.
Last year the government massively expanded the Troubled Families programme to 400,000 families by 2020 claiming its “payment by results” approach – in which councils were paid only if they could show they had successfully intervened with families – was a success.
However the decision to expand the scheme – which was widely criticised at the time as being unsupported by evidence – was taken before the formal evaluation was complete.
Ministers had seized on data that appeared to show that almost all of the 120,000 families covered by the programme had undergone positive, life-changing experiences as a result of intervention by professionals but the study says that there was no evidence that the changes were attributable to the programme itself.
It said it was likely that the programme was poorly targeted, with little evidence that the families chosen reflected the true prevalence of families with multiple and complex needs. It said some councils felt that the scheme ignored the powerful determinants of poverty and disadvantage in the lives of some families.
The study said that despite the lack of evidence to support the claims for the programme some good may come out of it in the future. There were “some signs of green shoots” including evidence that families involved in the programme experienced increased levels of “confidence and optimism”.
The Department for Communities and Local Government, which slipped the evaluation report out unannounced to its website on Monday evening, declined to comment on the findings. Instead it referred to a statement published online at the weekend by the under-secretary of state for communities, Lord Bourne, in which he claimed the programme had made “significant improvements” for families.
The statement said: “We believe that this programme has transformed the lives of thousands of families. The councils and frontline staff who have put it into practice should be pleased with the work they have done.
“And, most of all, the families should be proud of having had the courage and commitment to change their lives for the better. They valued the programme because, for them, it worked.”
The statement appears to suggest that the target participants of the programme now also include not just “troubled families” but the “just managing” low-income, working families identified by the prime minister, Theresa May, in July as a group she was determined to help.
Although Bourne says he is “confident that the programme will save money for the taxpayer” a separate evaluation concludes that it was impossible to prove that any reductions in spending on services for targeted families were attributable to the programme or other factors.
One of the Niesr report’s authors, Jonathan Portes, told Channel 4’s Dispatches programme: “The only way you can measure whether a programme has had actually any impact is to compare whether the people affected by the programme do better or worse than people who weren’t affected by the programme, and we have that evidence.
“The troubled families programme has no significant impact on any of the key outcomes it was designed to change. As far as we can tell, there’s no evidence at all to suggest the programme had more than zero impact on any of the key findings it was designed to change.”
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