MPs slam DCLG’s claimed savings under Troubled Families programme

20 Dec 16

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee have accused the government of exaggerating savings generated by its initiative to ‘turn around’ the lives of 120,000 troubled families and concluded the programme had no discernible impact.

The PAC also found that the programme’s payment by results framework created perverse incentives for councils, which gamed the system to draw down on payments.

Even the department that led the programme, the Department of Communities and Local Government, was “unable to find consistent evidence” that it had had any significant impact.

While DCLG conclude that the programme had saved £1.2bn for the taxpayer, the PAC disputed this as an overstatement because it did not take into account the costs of programme delivery. Central government funding of the programme was £448m between 2012 and 2015, and DCLG had committed a further £920m to extend the programme to 2020.

The department’s report into the programme was also over one year late, which the PAC said was “unacceptable”.

Meg Hillier, the committee’s chair, warned the government not to consider its comments a “slap on the wrist about Whitehall bureaucracy”.

“Let me assure them that given the ambitions for this programme, the implications for families and the significant sums of money invested, it is far more serious than that,” she stated.

The Troubled Families programme, launched by the DCLG in 2012, was charged with meeting then prime minister David Cameron’s commitment to ‘turn around’ the lives of 120,000 of England’s most troubled families.

Cameron argued that such families cost the public sector £9bn per year, £8bn of which was spent reacting to rather than solving their problems.

The government initially invested £448m to take the programme from 2012 to 2015, and in 2013 committed a further £920m to extend it until 2020.

But the £1.2bn in savings claimed by DCLG since the programme launched are an overestimate, the PAC said, and do not accurately reflect the net savings because the cost of the programme are not taken into account.

It said that DCLG had also overstated the impact the programme had on families through the use of “misleading terminology”. The term ‘turned around’ actually only meant a family had achieved some short term outcomes, such as an adult attending continuous work or a child attending school more often.

These do not represent long-term, sustainable change, the PAC’s report said. A “tick in a box” to meet a prime ministerial target is “no substitute” for a lasting solution to deep-seated difficulties, Hiller pointed out.

The payment by results model was also of questionable suitability, she continued, and risked “incentivising quantity over quality”.

Some councils rushed families through the programme in order to draw down on payments, which prevented the provision of the support necessary to tackle longer-term, ingrained problems, the PAC found.

Others used national administrative datasets to identify families that had achieved positive outcomes, and retroactively record them as ‘troubled’ in order to reap the rewards.

Overall while there was evidence of an impact on families’ attitudes, improvements related to employment, crime and health could not be attributed to the programme.

Responding to the report, a DCLG spokesman highlighted the programme had “enabled local authorities to expand and transform the way local services work with families”.

“But of course there will always be lessons to learn,” he continued, noting that the department has already made “significant improvements” to the programme’s second phase.

“We will look carefully at the evidence to find out how we can improve the programme further to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”

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