Room for improvement in help for 'troubled families'


Government help for 120,000 "troubled" British families is beginning to work. That is the tentative conclusion of a report published today by the National Audit Office (NAO).

While it may be "too early to assess the final value for money of the programmes" as the programme runs from 2012 through to 2015, the report was somewhat optimistic, declaring "…innovative and ambitious programmes are beginning to provide some benefits".

The first programmes began in 2006, with the Government setting up new schemes to help family units rather than just individuals.

In a summary, the report said that the Government "recognises that families facing multiple challenges often deal with multiple agencies, which is confusing, costly and unproductive".

Initially, unemployment and poor housing were focused on, but in 2011 crime and anti-social behaviour were added into the calculations. The latter two cost the Government £9 billion per year, of which £8 billion is spent reacting to problems, while the remaining £1 billion is spent tackling the problems.

The aim of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was to put at least 22 per cent of those families joining the programme into employment within three years.

Alongside that, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) wanted to "turn around" in three years the lives of families facing multiple problems.

To qualify, this means limiting the number of school exclusions, incidents of anti-social behaviour, or other offences that members of the family may be involved in.

The DCLG plan is payment-by-results based, with local councils receiving an initial £3,200 to provide resources for a family, with a further £800 available if the family's situation is successfully improved.

The report is praising of the situation, citing that it is leading more local agencies to work closer together, and it is encouraging the council to experiment with more innovative solutions for all the problems these families face. The DCLG has so far, by its own definition, turned round more than 22,000 families, which is 3% more than was expected at this stage.

However, more needs to be done, the report suggests, as only 62,000 families have been signed up to either programme, 13 per cent below the expected number.

The NAO is critical of the lack of co-ordination between the DWP and the DCLG in their initiatives, as local councils were expected to refer people onto the DWP's employment plan more often.

This hasn't happened, and so far only 720 families have seen a member become employed because of the programme.

The NAO has also been critical of the use of payment-by-results, arguing that it has "benefits", both departments "could have done more to understand its risks".

"Neither department is likely to achieve all the potential benefits of using payments‑by‑results," it said.

It also points out that there has been substantial variation between the best and worst performing regions, as well as between the best and worst performing contractors within those regions, with the lowest performing missing their targets by 67 per cent while the best performers reached 170% of their goal.

The scheme is ongoing, but the NAO says that if this is going to work, those involved must "continue to liaise with one another and monitor the success rate of both programmes, adjusting them when necessary…. [and] quickly build an evidence base to show which interventions work best".