Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Troubled Families - Human Rights

I am in two minds about the government's 'Troubled Families' programme. On the one hand Children North East would agree that working with the whole family often intensively can bring about profound changes; on the other hand I worry about the rights of these 120,000 families.

The 'Troubled Families' programme was announced as the response to last summer's riots but had in fact been planned some months previously. It takes the Labour Government's 'Family Intervention Programme' model but targets it to 120,000 families and couples it to 'payment by results' rewards of £4,000 to local authorities for each family where there is an improvement in school attendance, reduction in anti-social behaviour or crucially the parents go into work.

Local Authorities were given a target number of families to identify using local data. I was part of these discussions in Newcastle and Gateshead who struggled to identify the required number. The north east did not have riots last summer; unlike other metropolitan areas (notably Manchester) we do not have high numbers of people subject to ASBOs having followed a policy of using them sparingly. School attendance is generally good in the north east and though there are part-time and short term jobs, we lack full-time, long-term jobs for unskilled workers. Newcastle and Gateshead councils both felt they already knew all the families in difficulty in their areas and were already offering them services. They say the issues are more to do with ill-health, insufficient income, homelessness and the stresses they cause including substance misuse, domestic violence and sometimes neglectful parenting.

Louise Casey who heads up the Troubled Families Unit in the Department for Communities and Local Government now has the names, addresses, benefit records, criminal records and other personal data of 120,000 families – without seeking their permission. Her justification is to ensure that they get the services and help that they need and deserve; and ultimately reduce the cost of the damage they cause to society and inconvenience to the rest of us. I wonder how many are middle class families? Almost certainly none, even though alcohol abuse is rampant in middle class families; mental illness, drug misuse and domestic violence are prevalent in all classes; and neglectful parenting by better off parents can be masked by sending children to boarding school and holiday activities. The fact is better off classes have financial resources to avoid using state-run services (unless they have a child with a disability). Despite the good intentions, collecting data on the weaker members of society looks like an assault on their human rights. In my darker moments I wonder what might become of those families if they don't improve? Would a UK government be tempted to consider dawn raids to round them up and send them to Gulags?

Local Authorities are now planning how they work with these families in need. Many are considering commissioning intensive support for particular families, parenting training and long-term support. Children North East can offer all these as 'spot purchases' meaning councils can buy these services from us one at a time. We have been anticipating this sort of business model for last the year and are well-prepared for it, in fact the sooner councils start to buy from us like this, the better! However our approach will always be to ask agreement of the family to work with us, we believe they always have a choice; and we will always engage every member of the family, especially the children, not only because children have rights as well as adults, but because more often than not their opinions and feelings are the key to making the difference.

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