The Great Troubled Families Fraud

Simon Duffy reviews Professor Gregg's book on the fraud and dishonesty behind the Troubled Families Programme.

Author: David P Gregg

Reviewed by: Simon Duffy

A case study in bureaucratic fraud

Most of us will remember the fairytale The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson, where the little boy shouts this out, “But he hasn’t got anything on” and the crowd starts to laugh. As a child I must have first have read a more optimistic version of the story, where the humiliated Emperor comes to his senses and hurries back to the palace to put on some real clothes. However, in the original tale, the crowd’s laughter and scorn doesn’t stop the Emperor - he just carries on with his mad parade.

Hans Christian Anderson’s version of the tale is far more realistic than the one that I remember from my childhood. In the real world the Emperor and his courtiers can run around naked for decades, and whatever small voices are raised in astonishment, mockery or complaint are easily excluded or extinguished. The self-delusions of the powerful are very resilient - they are protected, as we will see, by an impressive force-field.

What follows is an example of extreme Imperial nakedness drawn primarily from the book The Great Troubled Families Fraud by Professor David P Gregg. Professor Gregg tells a powerful but depressing tale of how Government policy has developed bad policies based on lies and lazy rhetoric.

In 2011 David Cameron made a speech in response to the riots of August 2011:

"They [troubled families] are the source of a large proportion of the problems society… [These are] people with a twisted moral code… Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A cult of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through the generations.”

The Troubled Families Programme (TFP) was developed on the back of this speech and committed £450 million to intervene in the lives of 120,000 ‘troubled families’. The TFP was headed up by Dame Louise Casey, working from within the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

The fiction at the heart of the programme was that local government could be better made to focus its effort on these particular families and that these families would get some kind of cocktail of tough-love designed to ‘reprogramme’ the family and get them ‘back on track’. This assumption, that previous efforts to help people had failed and now it was time to get tough, performs a useful rhetorical role in the justification of the TFP, implying that the previous efforts of social workers (another stigmatised group) had somehow failed by being too kindly. In the words of Dame Louise Casey:

"We are not running some cuddly social workers’ programme… we should be better at talking about things like guilt and shame… we have lost the ability to be judgemental because we worry about being seen as nasty to poor people."

However the policy was not strictly new. It is actually an evolution of a long-standing previous New Labour policy (which had also failed) and the primary champion of the TFP, Dame Louise Casey, had first been appointed to public office by Tony Blair. Despite all its obvious flaws the policy seems to have had a surprising level of on-going cross-party support.

Despite its widespread support the TFP is fraudulent. This is made clear, not just in Professor Gregg’s book, but also in the National Evaluation of the programme, commissioned by the Government, which states quite clearly:

"The key finding is that across a wide range of outcomes, covering the key objectives of the Troubled Families Programme - employment, benefit receipt, school attendance, safeguarding and child welfare - we were unable to find consistent evidence that the programme had any significant or systematic impact. The vast majority of impact estimates were statistically insignificant, with a very small number of positive or negative results. These results are consistent with those found by the separate and independent impact analysis using survey data, also published today, which also found no significant or systemic impact on outcomes related to employment, job seeking, school attendance, or anti-social behaviour."

As Professor Jonathan Portes, one of the lead researchers writes:

"…with the publication of the evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP), we have a perfect case study of how the manipulation and misrepresentation of statistics by politicians and civil servants – from the Prime Minister downwards – led directly to bad policy and, frankly, to the wasting of hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money."

What is truly shocking is that despite the abject failure of the TFP the Government’s response has been to expand the programme, which now seeks to work with 400,000 families.

The question that we must then address is how is it possible that a modern democracy can indulge its politicians in beliefs which are not just false, but as we shall see, are poisonously false. In order to come to some understanding of this profoundly constitutional question I will try to describe the main elements of the Troubled Families Fraud and then try to distinguish the factors that seem to make it is so hard to challenge that fraud.

The first part of my analysis is based on Professor Gregg’s book. The second part of my analysis is a reflection on these findings, but is also based on my own experience of working with Government and other readings, writings and research. In particular my book, written with Clare Hyde, Women at the Centre and my analysis of the eugenic forces still at work today, which can be found in The Unmaking of Man.

Lies about troubled families

Professor Gregg's book covers a broad range of problems and goes back to the New Labour era to describe a whole series of failed projects which preceded the more recent TFP. I am going to use the term Troubled Families Fraud to describe the most recent initiative launched by David Cameron in 2011. 

The Troubled Families Fraud is made up of 5 keys lies:

Lie 1 - It is falsely claimed that there are a group of families - troubled families - whose bad behaviour is responsible for many social problems, in particular crime and rioting. In fact the 120,000 families first targeted for this programme had nothing to do with the riots, largely do not commit crimes, and if they have any common characteristics it is in having significant need for support because of poverty, disabilities, chronic health problems, mental illness or learning disabilities. Also it should be observed that about 50% of these families are single-parent families, that is they are almost always women struggling to take care of their children in the most difficult of circumstances and with inadequate assistance. Arguably, the label ‘Troubled Families’ is just a subtle form of misogyny, and we will talk below about women and families because women, much more than men, are the primary victims of the Troubled Families Fraud.

Lie 2 - It is falsely claimed that the costs of the (falsely claimed) bad behaviour by these women and families is very high. In fact these claims also turn out to be false. In 2011 it was claimed that these families cost the state £9 billion per year; the true cost, as a maximum, is more like £2.5 billion.

Lie 3 - It is falsely claimed that spending money on the TFP could reduce the (falsely claimed) bad behaviour and could in principle save (the falsely claimed) £9 billion. However in practice almost all of the costs associated with these families are not driven by their behaviour but exist because of people’s real needs. In fact the actual situation is that we currently fail to address people’s needs and that what is actually required is extra investment in genuinely helpful support, targeted on people’s underlying needs: poverty, disability and appropriate medical support. The amount of money that could be saved in theory by the TFP, even if it had actually worked, was therefore, as maximum, only £0.5 billion.

Lie 4 - It is falsely claimed that the TFP has ‘turned around’ such troubled families. Proper research, using a control group in order to provide a genuine measure of the effectiveness of the programme, demonstrates clearly that TFP had no statistically significant benefit and many of the small changes associated with the programme are actually negative. For example criminal behaviour (an issue for only small number of women and families anyway) actually increased because of the TFP.

Lie 5 - It is falsely claimed that the TFP has led to widespread systemic change at the local level. In fact there is no evidence that any such changes has occurred and the Government’s determination to now continue with TFP into a second phase, at even greater cost, demonstrates the abject failure of TFP. All that TFP has really produced is more ‘troubled families’ and the justification for more centrally managed expenditure.

Of course, what has really happened is that at time of severe cuts to local government, local officers have had to comply with the arrogant assumption that central government knows best and so they have had to bend local systems to fit a centrally managed and regulated interference in their own local governance. It is not conceivable that any of this change will lead to meaningful systemic improvements and such a policy is in sharp contrast with a declared policy of localism or devolution.

Those familiar with the ways of Whitehall will certainly notice one familiar pattern. Centrally managed expenditure is being justified on the basis of a false claims of local incompetence. Government departments, like DCLG, typically make every effort to justify their own on-going role in funding and managing programmes, simply because it increases the size, power and status of their department.

This is just a summary of the problems within the Troubled Families Programme and Professor Gregg demonstrates repeated failings in the conception, implementation and monitoring of the Trouble Families Programme.

Maintaining the illusion of effectiveness

How is it possible that the UK Government would perpetuate these lies and build its social policy upon them? What are the forces at work which can protect Government from meaningful accountability? How is it that when the Emperor clearly has no clothes this simply does not seem to matter?

If we are to understand this we need to understand this we need to see that the problems Professor Gregg describes are quite widespread and reach far beyond the Troubled Families Fraud. We can see the same forces at work in all of these areas and many others:

It is not people who are poor, disadvantaged or disabled who create these problems, it is our leaders and the political - supposedly democratic - system in which our leaders operate. From this perspective we can see the Troubled Families Fraud as a case study of a much wider problem.

By my analysis (ad Professor Gregg bears no responsibility for any failures in my analysis) there are at least 8 factors at work in creating the kind of defensive force-field which protects bad central policies from meaningful accountability.

1. The emergence of new eugenic thinking

It is commonplace to refer to the ideology of our times as neoliberalism. However, although this has some truth, I think its important to see that the powerful do not just think we are all merely economic agents, who should be free to maximise our own ends through market exchange. They have other beliefs and some of these are even worse than neoliberalism.

In fact the TFP is an example of a policy based on the assumption that some of us (particularly women and disabled people it seems) are simply too inadequate for freedom. Instead we must be bullied, manipulated and coerced in order to behave appropriately. More worryingly still, as Professor Gregg observes, these women, disabled people and others are presented, not as full human beings with rights, responsibilities and gifts, but merely as costs - costs that must be eliminated.

Part of the ideological success of the TFP is that it appeals to a new kind of eugenic thinking, which sees some people as just too costly for the modern world. Increasingly in the UK, it seems to me, it has become more acceptable to treat some ordinary people as disposable or as mere social problems. We strip people of their humanity.

2. Rhetorical need in a medianocracy

This kind of eugenic thinking becomes even more powerful when it serves a useful rhetorical purpose, and in the case of the TFP this purpose has been to appeal to the fears and anxieties of the middle-classes by identifying weak groups who can be easily blamed for society’s problems.

We have seen already how scapegoating serves the rhetorical purpose of justifying austerity. Disabled people, the poor, immigrants and asylum seekers have all been targeted for cuts in income and support, as if it were remotely possible that they could have been the cause of a financial crisis underpinned by irresponsible banking practices and over-lending the middle-classes themselves. When you are worried about your mortgage it seems it is convenient to blame the homeless for your worries.

Political power, especially in a two-party democracy like the UK, is focused on pandering to the needs and prejudices of those with a median income and so we live, to some extent, in a medianocracy. The TFP panders to the prejudices of the middle-classes and so it is - rhetorically - a successful policy even though it is also a lie.

The rhetorical value of 'troubled families' was exemplified by the use of this idea by Cameron in his response to the riots of 2011. The fact that the women and families subjected to the TFP have nothing to do with the riots proves to be no disadvantage when it comes to treating TFP as an important Government solution to middle-class anxiety.

There seems to be no price to pay for lying in politics.

3. The London Bubble

Lies take on their own life once they have been accepted as truths. New lies must be added to old lies in order to continue the deceit. However it still takes work to protect such a web of lies from contact with reality; but it much easier to stay cut off from reality within the London Bubble.

Politicians, senior civil servants, lobbyists and powerful news editors live inside a bubble of their own making and one that is certainly bigger than Westminster, but rarely much bigger than London. These powerful leaders spend very little time in the living rooms of women living in poverty, but they spend a lot of time talking to each other. Even if they disagree about somethings (like Brexit) they will find that they can build for themselves a shared base of common assumptions out of things that are not actually true.

The London Bubble is like a London club or like the Masons. It exists to only include a small minority, assured of their special status. Clubs such as these are happy to share false beliefs, even quite peculiar beliefs, because it helps the members feel special and included. The one gold rule of any such club is that you must not burst the bubble.

Talking truth to power is coarse and vulgar and to be avoided at all costs.

4. The illusion of public accountability

One of the most interesting features of The Great Trouble Families Fraud is the analysis of the behaviour of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), an the institution that the highly respected historian Peter Hennessy describes as “the queen of select committees.”

There is a strange paradox here. On the face of it the PAC has been quite critical of the TFP; for instance, in response to the efforts of the DCLG to delay the publication of the highly critical National Evaluation, it said:

"Government officials might be inclined to consider our comments on the delay in publishing its troubled families evaluation as a slap on the wrist about Whitehall bureaucracy.

However the PAC has also supported the extension of the failed TFP programme into its second phase and it even gave Dame Louise Casey and her team an award for best policy.

Part of the reason for this peculiar support for the demonstrably ineffective TFP may just be a function of ideology or clubbability. Reading some of the statements by respected parliamentarians, fawning on Dame Louise Casey, suggests that they were genuinely all of one mind and felt that, despite the material evidence of the utter incompetence of the TFP, she somehow personifies the values of the club.

However, another reason is that the PAC is simply not competent to do its job. There are far too many hearings, covering far too much ground, in too little time and with far too many words. The people who are called to the hearing are not those who will really challenge Government thinking and it is not possible for the committee to really get its teeth into any of the evidence which is presented to it. Our current constitution effectively asks a handful of politicians to review how an army of civil servants and local government leaders spends £800 billion per year. This is not an easy job to do well.

The PAC, like much of parliamentary democracy I suspect, is high theatre dressed as democracy.

5. The myth of the objective civil servant

One of the most dispiriting features of The Great Trouble Families Fraud is that it makes it clear that the idea that civil servants, the brightest and the best, are working hard to serve the public is a myth. Instead we see highly paid public servants deceive the public by manipulating data, ignoring and hiding research from scrutiny and serving their political masters with dangerous rhetoric and bad policies.

This seems like the worst of all possible worlds. If civil servants were merely employees of the politicians then we’d at least know where responsibility lies - with the politician. But in the UK the civil servant can hide behind their apolitical accountability to the public while politicians hide behind the veil of civil service objectivity.

It is easy to sympathise with the plight of the modern civil servant. I suspect many or most know that they are being asked to do things which are ineffective or plain wrong. But it is hard to justify the continuation of the current system.

6. The weakness of local government

I have much more sympathy with local government. Professor Gregg doesn’t really mention the fact that the TFP was not really extra funding for local government. Local government has been savaged by extraordinary cuts in central funding (cuts that are on-going). For any local government officer joining the TFP was a logical response to austerity and the only means by which a small fraction of the money stolen from local government could be maintained. Without claiming this money local government would have had to make even more social workers, youth offending teams and support staff redundant.

The price that local government had to pay to join the TFP was that they had to work within a Payment by Results (PbR) system. PbR sounds really good, but it isn’t, because it is not about real results and improvements. Instead PbR means payment by activities, activities which are presumed to lead to results, but which most certainly in the case of the TFP, did not lead to actual positive results. In practice this means that local government must try to do its job while also jumping through a whole set of extra and expensive hoops held up by central government officials.

The irony is that this is exactly the opposite of the official policy proclaimed by the Government. Local government was supposed to be freed from central government expectations; it may have had its budgets cut, but it was now free to set its own priorities, innovate and work in the way it thinks is best.

Yet when it came to the TFP it seems that local government could not be trusted to support local people in the most need. The end result is an utterly self-contradictory policy, where only a central government task force, led by a Director General of Troubled Families, could be trusted to help women and families get their lives on ‘back on track’.

The TFP amounts to bullying local government in order to bully local people.

7. Supine civil society

As Professor Gregg outlines, there have been a few other voices like his and he particularly praises the research work of Jonathan Portes and Stephen Crossley. But why has there been so little scrutiny from charities, think tanks and from other independent bodies?

This is a widespread problem that has affected scrutiny of austerity, welfare reform and government competence for some time. Instead of making government more accountable to civil society we’ve seen civil society become more accountable to government: regulation, restrictions on lobbying and electoral influence, increased central funding and increasingly contractual and restrictive forms of funding. Public surveys tell us that we don't trust politicians very highly, but we seem to entrust to them the right to control all other forms of social life.

As speaking out against the London Bubble seems impossible then the strategic purpose of the leading civil society organisations often seems to be about getting as deep inside the London Bubble as possible. The price that must then be paid for this position is silence or civility - certainly don’t make a fuss.

I suspect there is also a stigma problem here. The very concept of ‘troubled families’ is already a lie - a weasel term that suggest that there are a host of families with similar needs, creating similar problems and deserving of harsh discipline, not assistance. It may be that respectable charities simply don’t want to be seen as sticking up for the undeserving poor.

8. No trade union for women, the poor and disabled people

Many of the problems described above could be reduced if we had meaningful constitutional reform, but even then I think that it is the voice of the people themselves that would be missing. Unless women and families themselves find ways of becoming present in the public discussion of these issues then I’m afraid that they will continue to have their stories written about them by the powerful.

It is not impossible to change this.

Organisations like WomenCentre already show us how to work with women and families who face multiple disadvantages. They also show us that women can develop their own solutions, tell their own stories and challenge the complacency of the system. But it remains an uphill struggle when so many forces are ranged against them.


The Great Trouble Families Fraud is a challenging book to read because it stuffed with detail and it seeks to methodically pull apart every dopey claim made on behalf of the TFP. Amidst the detailed statistical analysis the author often lets out howls of righteous rage. His rage is understandable, but given all the forces ranged against him you can also why this might not serve his argument and why it would be easier to marginalise and ignore his perspective.

In this context I think he is right to make it so clear that while the TFP is certainly unjust, it is also a fraud. Money, time and effort has been invested in something that doesn’t work and almost everyone involved must know that it doesn’t work. Yet it continues.

In this case the fraud has not been practiced by charlatans, by tailors with invisible threads, instead the fraud has been manufactured by multiple agents from across politics and the civil service. It is bureaucratic fraud because there is no clear individual fraudster who can be held to account. But it is a real and damaging fraud which has, instead of offering women and families in greatest need real and practical help, perpetuated lies and injustice about those families, further damaging their status and place in society.

I hope the Centre can continue, in its own small way, to support those like Professor Gregg, who manage to speak out against injustice and to do whatever it can to help give voice to those women and families subjected to this unjust, unhelpful and means-spirited interference in their lives. The Centre will also continue to seek root and branch reform of our constitutional arrangements and so try make it much less likely that the Troubled Families Fraud can continue.

The publisher is Green Man Books.

The Great Troubled Families Fraud © David P Gregg 2017. 

Review: The Great Troubled Families Fraud - a case study in bureaucratic fraud © Simon Duffy 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Review | 15.01.18

children and families, intellectual disabilities, local government, mental health, politics, England, Review

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