The Politics of “Troubled Families”

Guest post:

Emily Ball is a PhD Student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield

How do you define anti-social behaviour? Is it annoying the neighbours with loud music day in day out? Having rowdy teenagers drinking and fighting in the streets? Or can simply being a single parent on benefits be classed as “anti-social”? Ever since New Labour’s win in 1997 politicians have applied the label to families where kids are not in school, where family members commit crimes and where there are no adults in paid employment. Once classified, families can find themselves involved in a labyrinth of government interventions designed to promote responsible personal conduct, improve education and get people into employment.

Yet measuring and valuing incremental as well as transformative outcomes to these interventions is difficult. How do you measure whether parenting has improved? Is it when children no longer appear in the court system? Or when they pass their GCSEs? In our recent paper John Flint, Elaine Batty and I highlight how the concept of problem configuration is applied to anti-social behaviour and how policy rhetoric can be socially constructed to relate to an already defined problem, which may not be based on the reality on the ground.


Since 1997 intensive family interventions (such as the Troubled Families programme) have used a triple track approach of early intervention, non-negotiable support and then enforcement action. A key worker is identified to work with the “problem” family, diagnose any issues and to then coordinate multi-agency support packages. This approach has largely continued since the election of the Coalition government in 2010. The concept of “anti-social” families recycled by newly elected politicians keen to criticise the performance of their predecessors. Yet there are few disjunctions between the new political rhetoric and the existing policy – a clear thread of continuity remains that has seen the medical and social work professions, as well as voluntary organisations, engaging with troubled families since the 1940s.

In order to justify new interventions, “research” evidence and governmental claims based on statistically questionable data are used to create a rational fiction of families that are driven by pervasive historical stereotypes – perhaps these are an attempt to fill the gaps in knowledge and reclassify what can be highly misleading governmental claims as somehow consisting of “facts”, or the usage of policy-based-evidence rather than evidence-based-policy. An initial estimate of 120,000 troubled families across the UK has now somehow grown to include hundreds of thousands more – and coincidentally, no local authority has found more troubled families than central government believes exist. Even if there are this many anti-social households, just how do you define success in treating the problem? Several freedom of information requests to the government have failed to establish what they consider to be an adequate methodology. Researchers have found that the findings, methods and presentation of results can often exaggerate the positives of intervention (under a profit-driven Payment by Results scheme) while undermining the impacts of mental health and parenting. Despite claims of scientific authority from the government, the precise effectiveness of interventions is unclear and is perhaps why the government has since changed the definition of success from “turned around” to “sustained success”.

The politics of the Troubled Families Programme is manifested through a discourse of families as dysfunctional, inadequate, irresponsible and antisocial. It excludes any notion that these families may instead be disadvantaged, poor, bereaved or excluded from the day-to-day workings of regular society. Both New Labour and the Coalition instead focused on tackling conceived problems with lifestyle, family dynamics and parenting while ignoring wider structural issues that are harder to tackle and necessitate long-term solutions. The claims and counter claims about the efficacy of the troubled families programme and intensive intervention models are the latest instalment in the historic failure to adequately utilise acquired knowledge. Evidence and research is cherry-picked to meet pre-defined objectives and can be used as a mechanism of power in order to achieve conditionality and engagement by vulnerable families. Acquired learning from the genealogies of practice needs to be protected and there needs to be recognition that substantial local accumulated experience and expertise risks being ruptured through the discontinuation of funding for projects. Our paper is a call for better application of research evidence and acknowledgement of the authority of historical problem figurations by politicians in influencing intervention programmes.