Local Government Association annual conference

Speech by Louise Casey, head of the Troubled Families Programme.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Dame Louise Casey CB

Good afternoon.

I’m very glad to be here and very grateful to Jules for that introduction and for his and indeed your support.

As you are aware, the aim of the Troubled Families Programme is to help turn around the lives of 120,000 families who have many problems and often cause problems in their local area by getting to the root causes of what’s going wrong for them as a family.

These are families who, despite the best efforts of many governments over the years, have not been changed.

I know that these are incredibly difficult times for colleagues. You have run services in times of growth and now in times of austerity but it is fair to say that troubled families have dominated both.

The stories of these families tell the history of a generation of initiatives, a generation of programmes, a generation of goals.

Yet from generation to generation we have failed to stop the transmission of problems and disadvantage.

In my view we have let them down - and I include myself in that.

This time therefore is has to be different.

Week in week out when I meet families they nearly all talk about:

  • a history of physical violence and sexual abuse, often going back generations
  • the involvement of the care system in the lives of both parents and their children
  • parents starting to have children very young and unable to deal with them
  • those parents in violent relationships
  • and the children going on to have behavioural problems
  • leading to exclusion from school, anti-social behaviour and crime.

And what has our response been to that? There’s the police dealing with endless call outs, frustrated going back to the same address to fill out the same DV (domestic violence) report, knowing that nothing will change and they’ll be back next week.

The council getting endless neighbour complaints, making noise nuisance reports and moving towards eviction, sometimes sending a family somewhere else where the anti-social behaviour carries on.

Children’s Social Care involved with the same family for years, taking one child after another into care, as the mother repeats the same cycle, because she hopes it will be better next time around.

What is clear and indeed staring us in the face is that in spite of our collective ambition to help these families, a reactive and uncoordinated approach prevails.

That is why now we have to change the services and systems around the families as much as turn the individual families around.

We can’t go on like this. We should not have done before austerity.

We cannot afford to now.

These families are the living embodiment of how the system treats the symptoms - each bit coming at the problem through its own lens.

We need to do something different.

In the words of a worker “Instead of starting with the problem or the symptom, we have to start with the family and work out from that”.

That’s what family intervention is all about.

Family intervention is:

  • a dedicated worker dedicated to the family, someone who the family knows by name, who goes into their home and is alongside them, helping them to change
  • an assertive and challenging approach - challenging the family as well as supporting them and making it clear what the consequences are if they don’t change
  • looking at what’s really happening for the family as a whole - understanding and responding to the real problems
  • and gives practical hands-on support - sorting out the chaos, getting a routine, simple things like proper meals and bed times
  • backed by an agreed plan and common purpose among services. This means one family, one worker and one plan - not one plan plus a youth offending strategy or one plan plus an employment package or one plan plus a healthy living plan.

In a nutshell this approach is different because it is not assessing and telling parents they’re doing it wrong, but showing and helping them do it right.

To do this the worker has to be persistent they have to be assertive and they have to be challenging.

Not letting the door be closed in their face, not giving up when someone says they don’t want help and making it clear what the consequences are if they don’t change.

Because this time round, it’s not an option to leave families in a mess because they’re ‘hard to reach’ or they ‘refuse to engage’.

The workers and the system that needs to be ‘more authoritative’.

Those sort of expressions unfortunately too familiar to those having to read serious case reviews on a regular basis.

And actually to quote from one such review:

Practitioners need to improve their ability to challenge and to challenge in the multi agency arenas.

What was lacking was the authoritative challenge to this lack of cooperation.

This time round we can’t collude with parents to find excuses for failure. The price paid by their children is too great.

Why am I labouring this in an audience of such senior people?

Because this is at the core of system change - changing who works with the families, changing how they work with the families, changing how the system organises itself around the families or the workers.

You have to ask yourselves - do you have the right people working with the right families and have you got the right culture and systems in place to deliver what is needed.

Put bluntly - we should all be interested not only in how many assessments, how many pieces of work or how many discussions have been had with the family.

We should want to know some simple things - are they in school, have they stopped committing crime and are they ready or in a job.

I was visiting a local authority a couple of weeks ago and they told me about a family with 4 children.

The eldest had been in care, then had been placed back in the home, that child had one social care team around them.

The next child down was on a child protection plan, with their own social care team.

The next one was designated as a ‘child in need’ and referred to a school project called something like ‘Starlight’.

The youngest was being monitored by something called ‘team around the child’ - essentially a monthly structure of meetings.

Four children, at least 4 different teams, 4 different approaches and yet nobody working specifically with the mother.

So there was a sense of inevitability that those children would move up each step in that ladder without the family’s problems being solved.

We may believe that we ticked all the boxes on safeguarding in this family - but is that really enough? No.

It’s not enough I reckon for any of us in this room.

We can’t carry on with ‘business as usual’, treating the symptoms - it just doesn’t work. And it costs too much.

This programme is about doing something fundamentally different. We need to drive reform across all public services, not just local government.

We have known for some time that the most complex families place a disproportionate burden on the public purse. The difference in the amount services spend on troubled families, compared to the amount on non-troubled families is stark.

In West Cheshire, they have calculated that a troubled family costs them nearly nearly 10 times the cost of an average family.

And at some point the wider public will wake up to this and also say - we can’t carry on like this.

Forgive me if you’ve heard this example before but I think it encapsulates the problem in one example.

One survey looked at 3000 children in one area of the north east - an area that has been through every deprivation programme going, from city challenge, single regeneration budgets, through to new deal for communities and neighbourhood renewal - and more recently had the pupil premium spent on them.

A survey showed that not one of those 3,000 children had been for a routine dental check up - for free - but 300 of them had been to A&E for emergency dental treatment.

It is time for radical reform.

But this will take leadership.

I fought hard for local government to take the lead in this. I believed it was the right way to do it and less than half way in to this programme I still believe that.

And nationally, local government is proving that faith well justified - already councils have names and addresses for over half the 120,000 families, with a third of them already being worked with under the programme.

There’s a big milestone coming up in July, when councils will have their first real opportunity to show that they are delivering on the results, for families who have been turned around.

That will be a test of credibility.

We put our faith in you and that has paid off. A programme constructed in partnership with council colleagues, learning as together how to refine it and improve it. And most importantly a shared belief by all of us involved that we want this time round to get it right for families and right for the system.

It is in part that the programme is seen as successful that we have now got a future programme agreed.

You will have seen the announcement of an expansion of the troubled families programme after 2015, allowing us to bring this approach to a further 400 thousand families.

We did this not even half way through our current programme.

This good news is credit to many people in local government who are making such good progress on the troubled families programme that the government wants to build on the approach.

It’s clear that from this time last year to now the numbers of families being helped has gone up tenfold.

It’s clear that colleagues in local government have gripped this programme and made it their own.

And it’s now abundantly clear that we have to maintain momentum on reforming services - to help families, yes, and to help our collective public finances too.

Colleagues in local government and my own team believe:

  • we can prevent the need for many children to be on child protection plans or be taken into care by changing the way the family functions and by doing so earlier

  • we can tackle the problems families have better if we get to children with problems aged 4 rather than as excluded children in pupil referral units at age 11

  • we can change the way the police police so that if a family is the source of endless call outs, and the police know that the family is on the way to becoming a serious burden on the criminal justice system, the response is more than the same reactive service each time 999 is dialled

  • we can work with families to make sure they register with a GP; increasing child immunisations and reducing A&E admissions.

And we have to for financial reasons.

The London Borough of Wandsworth has evidence that the net savings per family from this approach are £29,000 per year; and here in Manchester the City Council are projecting savings of £32,000 per family per year

We know it works and we are proving it works. And it saves money.

So we have responded to the calls for the programme to be sustained and extended to wider group of families.

We want to reach a generation of children rather than be three year initiative.

This is an opportunity we cannot ignore; to get to grips with the chaos and help families to change.

We’ll need and want to work colleagues in local areas to help us as we flesh out what the expanded programme will look like.

We started in December 2011 to turn around the lives of 120,000 individual families. Together we know now that we can do that.

The expanded programme will be as much about system reform as it will be about reforming families. We’ll be doing all we can to help you deliver on this.

But it will need you and your leadership to champion this locally, to get others on board and to drive it through. And as you have heard me say before - it’s your choice to be involved. I just hope you will be part of it.

I want though to end with a thank you.

To quote one council chief executive on this programme:

It is an appeal to both the head and the heart and it unites Whitehall and the town hall in common purpose.

Without so many colleagues in local authorities we would have really struggled with this work. Your heads have always been full of wise advice and guidance, your doors always open to dispense it and, I believe, your hearts fully committed to helping these families and their children.

We must not lose focus on the troubled families we are working with now and will turn around by 2015.

Because the human cost of failure is just too high. I won’t accept that families can’t be helped to change.

Because I don’t believe any mother - or father for that matter - brings a child into this world wanting them to graduate from a young offenders institution.

I’ve not met a parent yet who does not want to be a good parent - it may take some uncovering - but it is true.

With your help, together, we have a chance do something now that may not come again.

And maybe we can give the children in these families a fighting chance

So I wish you well and stand ready to help.

Published 16 July 2013