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Poverty of thinking

STAND by for a new Olympic event: re-inventing the wheel.

And, tipped for a gold medal, Louise Casey, a czarina at the court of both the new Labour and Coalition governments. Ms Casey pops into the headlines at regular intervals delivering views on such matters as the origins of the summer riots to, most recently, the way to deal with England's 120,000 "problem families".

These, she and Communities Minister Eric Pickles are wont to intone, cost a staggering £9bn a year in England alone.

The provenance of both these figures is somewhat dubious. It is alleged they may have rounded up a figure from a report published seven years ago by the now-defunct Social Exclusion Task force.

More worryingly, the checklist identifying the families as problematical in that exercise required five boxes to be ticked from seven categories including poor health, disability, overcrowded housing and inability to clothe and feed your family adequately.

Poverty is a problem for families; it hardly make them problem families.

But back to Ms Casey, who has not been idle and who casts a wider net. She has spent months intensively interviewing 16 families known to behave anti-socially, from which exercise she has deduced that the problems are inter-generational and involve lack of employment role models, truancy, substance abuse, violence, and women having too many kids with a series of dodgy partners. Who knew?

Personally you could have knocked me down with a copy of just about every other report on the same subject; the ones apparently left gathering dust on ministerial shelves in order that fresh new initiatives costing fresh tranches of money and giving birth to sexy new soundbites can be launched to garner fresh new headlines.

This latest policy, aimed at turning around the lives of the most difficult families within three years, apparently might involve daily visits and will major on payment by results.

Aha ... Another wheel re-invented. You will remember the last wheeze to break down the dependency culture and get the wilfully indolent back into paid employment.

A4E (Action for Employment and ideological kissing cousin of G4S), was to get paid for getting people off the JobCentre books and into real work. Sadly some of the real work proved somewhat virtual, some of the training programmes involved little more than spending a day with a blank jotter and a similarly talented operative, and some of the reported success a mite economical with the actuality. One study found they had secured work lasting more than three months for fewer than four in 100 jobseekers signed up.

Still the A4E executives, most especially erstwhile top banana Emma Harrison, have found performance-related payment a rewarding experience. She felt able to award herself an £8m-plus dividend.

But even if we had not trod this same shop-soiled pathway before, we are entitled to ask why Ms Casey didn't save herself months of interviews and lots of taxpayers' funds by taking time to research the fairly massive amount of recent evidence on precisely the same topic. There have been many schemes in both England and Scotland whose primary objective has been to tackle the systemic problems of the comparatively small number of families who cause disproportionate social mayhem and expense.

They do not, of course, seem a small number of troublemakers if three lots live in your neighbourhood and you are regularly treated to their playlist at full volume at 3am, or their progeny's recreation of choice is chucking bricks at your property. Nevertheless, the work done by agencies like the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU) points to the fact that particular postcodes can be identified as the most common home base of a raft of anti-social behaviour.

The VRU's mantra, that this is a problem which can only be solved by a multi-agency approach with committed exchanges of information and fully collaborative strategies, has paid well-documented dividends.

Equally, just three years ago, there was a very useful report published in Scotland evaluating five projects all of which featured the kind of intensive family support and intervention upon which Ms Casey seems to have just alighted. The genesis was the pioneer programme in Dundee in 1996 where families were housed in a particular building and involved in a support programme lasting anything from nine to 15 months.

That project spawned others in Perth, Aberdeen, Falkirk and South Lanarkshire involving housing, health and social work departments alongside specialist voluntary sector agencies like Action for Children Scotland and the Aberlour Childcare Trust, although only Aberdeen used a core housing unit like Dundee.

The holistic approach of these projects meant that workers weren't just dealing with the symptoms which prompted referrals, but offering a programme involving diet, hygiene, parenting, and anger management. Although participation was voluntary the alternative of likely eviction proved a powerful motivator.

These ventures show that there is no quick fix, no panacea, no gain without painstaking long-term effort. Hardly surprising given that the presenting problems included homelessness, depression, violence, persistent nuisance, and quite large predominantly single parent families (Yes, Ms Casey, we did know.)

But the study also showed that seemingly entrenched behaviour patterns can be changed, that more than two-thirds of the families successfully completed the project, and that within that improvement we could expect long-terms saving in the NHS and criminal justice budgets. Complaints about the families involved dropped dramatically.

It is a depressing feature of politics that the novel and apparently sexy are often promoted and financed against schemes with a proven track record, often forcing agencies to re-brand rather than get on with what they know works best.

Initiative overload? There must be a cure for it. Or a policy. Sir Humphrey, fetch me a czar...

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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