The Troubled Families initiative: a new kind of state help, a new form of intrusion

Early Intervention and Prevention initiatives promise to address problems at their root, so staving off crises and saving the public purse. A no brainer, surely? But (so the British government says) those most needing help can only be identified through sharing increasing amounts of personal data - with or without permission.

Caroline Bragg
24 July 2012

'Through the ingenious spark of some state statistician, it was found that the legs of those inhabiting an industrial Yorkshire town outnumbered those of its seats by two to one - taking the favourable average of three legs per seat, two legs per person and disregarding for the moment any distortion through wooden or cork legs. A finding which could only suggest that half were either destitute of any rest from their legs at all, or passed the whole of their leisure time in sitting upon boxes...'

 - Charles Dickens, "Full Report of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything" Bentley's Miscellany 2 (1837).

The proceedings of the First Meeting of the Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything, as minuted by Dickens, are not the central focus of this article. What is, however, is his observation that statistics are a means by which to perniciously disfigure the experience of poverty and political marginalisation. Such an observation bears as much weight as it did in the 1830s - perhaps more so, since this article argues that the (mis)nomas of public service provision are increasingly the hooks that flip accessing support into the intrusive, extensive and monetized fragmentation of the individual into personal data.

Early Intervention and Prevention is a Holy Grail for the present government, as it was under Labour, and promises pretty much what it says on the tin. It is a proposed solution to a fundamental dilemma of service provision– where there are funds enough only for the most severe need, the need supported is the most financially draining. For example, as state support for Adult Social Services is progressively pared back, only those already unable to meet the most basic standard of personal care or who have experienced significant abuse can be provided for - a 'picking up the pieces' that is extremely costly to the public purse. So Early Intervention and Prevention escapes this Catch 22 of unprovidable provision by intervening earlier and at the root causes.

The principle is sound. Preventing significant risk to an individual and, through that, the wellbeing of their community, is a worthy goal. Early Intervention and Prevention initiatives can also in many cases be effective, as Graham Allen has argued in his controversial piece for OurKingdom on early intervention for children.

But what of the real, on-the-ground experience of these initiatives?

The Troubled Families Programme is one of the newest such initiatives from the Coalition and targets the small number of families for whom there are particular concerns around academic attendance, youth offending, anti-social behaviour and unemployment. To be defined as a Troubled Family is to access a kind of social care that attempts to deal with the big picture. For example a family may include a 15-year-old with a criminal record, a 9-year-old causing disruption in school, and a parent with significant mental health problems (not to mention trouble with rent or the neighbours), and these facts interrelate - a somewhat common sense conclusion that is nonetheless missed by the individual approaches of the Police, Probation, Schools, the NHS and the Council.

To be defined as a Troubled Family, however, is also alone sufficient to render a household's benefit entitlements, school records and criminal records immediately accessible to most if not all of the agencies of that particular county or borough. Since informed consent in such a situation can unsurprisingly prove tricky, the Coalition is currently, and quietly, amending legislation to allow this sharing without the need for such 'formalities':

Following discussions with the Troubled Families Team, Department for Work and Pensions Ministers have agreed to create a new legal gateway under the regulations of the Welfare Reform Act 2012. This will allow the Department for Work and Pensions to share data with local authorities – without informed consent – for the sole purpose of identifying troubled families”

  - Financial framework for the Troubled Families programme’s payment-by-results scheme for local authorities, Department for Communities and Local Government (2012): p15

Given its significance, the justification for the attachment of this 'Troubled Family' label should be watertight. However, the process by which Minister Eric Pickles’ department accorded each area’s target number of families is beginning to look increasingly arbitrary (a distortion presumably caused by failing to consider the presence of wooden legs among those in the lower income brackets).

Finally, through the Payment by Results arrangement of the scheme, local authorities will be paid on the basis of such information. In this way, yearly tracking of personal and highly sensitive information, including criminal records of minors as well as adults and the benefit entitlements of a household, are valued at the measly sum of around £1000 per family (see Page 9 of the financial framework for the programme). 

All in the name of 'insight' that is the putative key to the government acting earlier and preventing the crises that destroy its financial health; not to mention the well-being of its citizens. And thus, access to social support by some of the most politically marginalised becomes tantamount to the liquidating of that individual's personal, sensitive information into a resource to be mined and monetized - in all likelihood, without their consent or full knowledge.

Just as pernicious, if not more so, as a fictive government's reduction of poverty to chair legs.


Caroline Bragg studied Politics and Philosophy at the University of Manchester, and has recently completed a placement with the National Graduate Development Programme at a London local authority. 

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