David Cameron would like us to think he’s a family man. In a speech last December he launched a programme to target workless families. Cameron talked about 46,000 ‘troubled’ families costing the state over £4 billion a year. The Department for Education talks of 120,000 families with multiple complex needs. Cameron’s troubled families are high cost to the taxpayer, and the government is right to be concerned about them. A4E’s Emma Harrison was tasked by the PM with getting these families back to work through the Working Families Everywhere programme.
Few would dispute that those who can work should. Work is one of the answers to lift children out of poverty but if you have a parent struggling with a mental health issue, domestic violence or substance misuse their first focus must be on being a good parent. For the ‘troubled’ families that the government has in its sights getting back to work at all costs might not be the smart intervention that supports families, safeguards children and delivers for the taxpayer. The best interests of children should be to the fore.
Family Action works with disadvantaged and vulnerable families across England. One of their programmes, Building Bridges, is a home-based family support service which involves professional family support workers working alongside families in their homes at whatever hour of the day they’re needed. You can read a summary of the new independent evaluation for Building Bridges and the difference it makes for families here. In 84 per cent of cases Building Bridges’ holistic support is targeted at households with workless adults. The service works in the family home, stabilising and strengthening families and making sure children are safe. Concern about children in these families is so great that often there are seven or eight agencies involved in the families. The families who Building Bridges work with might have problems including parental mental health, a young carer at home, difficulties in parenting, children with mental health or behavioural difficulties, relationship issues, safeguarding issues and financial and material hardship. These are families on the edge, they are the ‘troubled’ families that the government talks about.
But is the government’s mantra of work at all costs the best and most effective answer for them?
Forcing these families into work will not solve their problems. Welfare to work won’t work for children and families if the government doesn’t ensure that there is support available for workless parents with these problems or sees work as the only answer to these problems.
We need to look at the root causes of worklessness. For these families with complex needs the priority should be for parents to learn to parent effectively as their top priority – and we need to invest to give them that help to prevent family breakdown. Very often becoming better, more confident parents helps them on the journey to being better citizens, volunteering in their local communities and, when they’re ready, moving back into sustained work.
The parents Building Bridges support have difficulties establishing routines and keeping their children safe. If they’re being pushed to hold down a job before they’ve dealt with other issues like a mental health problem their children could suffer neglect.
Pressuring these families into work while these other issues are unresolved will not lead to sustained employment. Instead, it could lead to further breakdown or mental health relapse and further costly interventions if parents struggle to cope. The impact on children shouldn’t be forgotten in the rush to push parents into work.
As the Labour party embarks on a policy review we have an opportunity to forge a new narrative for these families and for their children. The Family Action experience is that these families want to work. They are not idle, or feckless. They are in crisis and need sustained support. Getting to the root causes of the problems these families face will turn them into families with opportunities to provide for their children and play an active part in their local communities.
While Cameron targets these families as ‘trouble’ we should give them the opportunity to transform their lives. We need smart investment to support and strengthen these families. Work will follow.
These families and their children need Labour to have hope in their potential.
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