Troubled families: 4Children's 2012 Annual Children and Families Policy Conference

A speech by the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP

Thanks to Anne Longfield, CEO of 4Children for her welcome.

I’d like to congratulate you for bringing together so many of the people who will be delivering the Troubled Families Programme.

I want to start by explaining why I think it is so important.

My focus on troubled families started back in 2004 when I set up the Centre for Social Justice. I spent time in the UK’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where I met a section of British society that had been completely left behind.

Nationally, the evidence of social deprivation was clear to see:

  • over 4 million people stuck on out of work benefits - many for a decade or more
  • levels of family breakdown high and rising
  • around a million children growing up with parents addicted to drugs or alcohol

All of this while the economy was booming before the recession even started.


The problem was that too much focus was put on how much money was going in, and not enough on what was coming out the other end - in other words, a focus on inputs not outputs.

Just take child poverty. It seems the debate has centred around a relative income measure, so that a family with less than 60% of the median income is deemed to be poor, and those with 60% or more are not.

What this means is that if you give the family just one pound more, say through increased benefit payments, you can apparently change everything - you can lift them out of poverty.

Under the previous Government, this approach fuelled a huge amount of spending:

£150 billion on tax credits from 2004 to 2010…

… and this in the context of a total welfare bill that increased by 35% in real terms in the decade before the recession - a decade of rising employment.

It just about kept the poverty **figures **moving in the right direction, but there was little focus on what difference that extra pound was making to families’ lives.

In some cases, it may even have made things worse.

For example, if you have a family in poverty where the parents are suffering from a drug addiction, simply giving more money to the parents may do little more than feed their addiction, leaving the dependents locked into a cycle of poverty.

So while social spending was up… social breakdown was rising as well.

The result: too many people left on the margins of society - the 120,000 families who last year cost the state an estimated £9 billion… some £75,000 per family.

The question no one seemed to ask was why didn’t all that money change the fundamentals?

I believe there were three reasons.

Dysfunctional government

First, there was a tendency for Government to work in silos - departments looking at their own particular problem, but no one looking at the person or the family as a whole.

This is the point that the Prime Minister made back in December, when he launched the Troubled Families work.

He told the story of a family in the North-West who - in a single year - were subject to a huge amount of disconnected state activity.

The different arms of government, carrying out endless schemes and interventions - from the police, to the ambulance service, the Council, and youth offending teams…

… all of them working on the family administering selective help, but no one working with the family to understand what the underlying problem was.

Treating symptoms

Second, not enough attention was given to tackling the root causes of social breakdown.

There was a tendency to think many people were beyond help, and it was easier to manage the consequences:

  • easier to prop up on benefits than to support back into work…
  • easier to maintain on less harmful drugs than help towards sustainable recovery…
  • easier to lock up than rehabilitate.

So governments treated the symptoms - with all the extra spending that brings with it.

After years of containing social breakdown, of the £9 billion that went on troubled families last year, £8 billion of it was spent reactively - on police call outs, visits to A&E, and so on.

In other words, on managing problems rather than taking action to solve them.

Inputs not outcomes

Finally, the third flaw was that social interventions were underpinned by the very simplistic idea that ‘more money equals good’ and ‘less money equals cuts…which equals bad’.

So as long as politicians could show that money was going in, the results didn’t really matter.

Just look at the tower blocks of the 60s and 70s - the deprived estates of today, but at the time heralded as the greatest example of Government ‘investment’ in disadvantaged communities.

This is another legacy of focusing on inputs rather than outcomes.

Had we stopped to ask the most important question - whether the spending was changing people’s lives - we might have realised sooner that a disconnected, reactive approach just wasn’t working.


Now that we do understand both the financial and the social cost, continuing like this is unaffordable.

So we’re going to change it.

Early intervention

In March we published the Social Justice strategy which is based on a belief that through the right interventions, delivered in the right way, we can help people turn their own lives around.

The strategy shows the value of early intervention - tackling the causes of problems before they arise rather than waiting to pick up the pieces later.

You’ll be hearing today from Kate Billingham, director of the Family Nurse Partnership - an excellent programme putting this into practice.

So instead of leaving a single teenage mother struggling to cope with her newborn baby, and waiting for the health and welfare bills to add up…

… we have committed to doubling the number of family nurse places by 2015, so that young mothers will receive support and advice in their child’s early years.

This steers the focus and the spending away from symptoms and towards the root causes of disadvantage.

Second chances

But our strategy is not just about prevention - it is also about second chances.

In 4Children’s recent ‘Give Me Strength’ campaign, 95% of the people surveyed thought that most families in crisis would be capable of turning their lives around - with some help and support.

So if people’s lives go off track, we have a duty to offer a way out.

And where families are facing multiple disadvantages, simply throwing money at the problem isn’t enough.

Unless you solve the problems I touched on earlier - siloed government, treating symptoms, not asking what works - you are destined to repeat the failures of the past.

Troubled Families Programme

That is where the Troubled Families work is different.

I’ll leave it to other speakers to go into the details, but I just want to focus on the motivating principles:

  • one point of contact for families - someone who knows them and understands the issues they face
  • a focus on root causes
  • and a commitment to funding what works, paying at least in part by results.

What the programme must achieve is life change. Only in so doing can we set people on a path to life beyond the state - sustainable and productive.

That means support to get children back into school… to reduce criminal and anti-social behaviour… get people off drugs… help arrest family breakdown… and to move parents back into work.

Where people can, work is the best route out of poverty and dependency.

That is why provision paid for by DWP through the European Social Fund is a core strand of this work.

We have £200 million to help families with multiple problems overcome their barriers to employment.

But it’s not going to work if Ministers direct it from Whitehall.

You are the ones who know and can identify the families in need. You make the home visits… you support them in local offices… week in, week out, you are already delivering vital services for them.

Surely pooling that knowledge so all may understand who and where these families are is the first step to recovery?

Reform agenda

This work will require a culture shift across local and national Government.

That is why, in my Department, we are creating a dynamic welfare system that acts as a springboard not a trap.

We are introducing the Universal Credit, a single payment withdrawn at a single rate, so it is always clear to people that work pays more than benefits.

We are delivering the Work Programme - offering people personalised back to work support that is focused on achieving long-term, sustainable job outcomes.

We are reforming disability benefits, moving from a system based on what individuals can’t do, to one that looks at what they can.

And across the board, by taking a radical approach to funding social interventions…

… from the payment by results model which underpins the Work Programme, through to social investment projects like those supported by the Innovation Fund…

… we are getting much more private money working in pursuit of the social good.

These are dynamic changes we are making.


The message I want to leave you with today is this: our most disadvantaged families will not be helped by the same old approaches under a different name.

Of course, focusing on troubled families is not new or unique to this Government.

But co-ordinating the services of seven Departments, getting all of them to rally behind a single cause…

… incentivising local authorities to do the right thing, in delivering support which actually has a measurable impact on people’s lives…

… all of it sustained by a belief that by tackling the root causes, we can make a real difference…

Now that is different to what went on before.

We have set out a vision for change, which has at its heart a driving ethos.

We are not just reforming welfare but transforming lives.

Using interventions targeted and coordinated to restore stability and hope to those who have been left behind - trapped in a twilight world where life was what was administered to you, not what you controlled.

You are part of that change.

I ask you to seize this opportunity and make it happen.

Published 25 April 2012