"Neighbours from hell": who is the Prime Minister talking about?

How would you describe an unemployed single mother, with moderate depression, who can't afford new shoes for her children, and whose roof is leaking? The Prime Minister calls her a "neighbour from hell", and argues that she, and people like her, are part of a "culture of disruption and irresponsibility."

Now I am not saying, and indeed I don't believe for a moment, that this is what the PM thinks.  But it is precisely what he said.  What began as a shortcut taken by civil servants with the data was translated into a speech by the Prime Minister that simply misrepresented the facts. That in turn resulted in sensationalist and misleading headlines; the end result, more likely than not, will be bad policy.

Late last year, the Prime Minister made an important speech about "troubled families".  

"That’s why today, I want to talk about troubled families.Let me be clear what I mean by this phrase.  Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.We’ve always known that these families cost an extraordinary amount of money……but now we’ve come up the actual figures.  Last year the state spent an estimated £9 billion on just 120,000 families…"

then, later

"Up to now we’ve talked in terms broad numbers – 120,000 troubled families across the country. Today we are announcing, council by council, our estimate from data, mapping where these families are.  To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, there are an estimated 4,500 of these families in Birmingham, 2,500 in Manchester, and 1,115 here in Sandwell."

So the Prime Minister was very explicit.  When he talks about "troubled families", he doesn't mean poor or deprived families; he means those who, through "disruption and irresponsibility", cause "a large proportion of the problems in society".  And the government knows not just how many of them there are, but where they live, by local authority area, and is publishing the figures. The media response was predictable: reasonably typically, the Daily Mail described it as an "assault on the Shameless generation."  More moderately - but still, as we shall see, entirely inaccurately - the Independent talked of "120,000 of the country's most dysfunctional families."  

But where did the Prime Minister's numbers come from?  Good, local data on individual or family-level drug and alcohol abuse, anti-social behavior, and so on is hard to get, let alone to match across different data sets, which you'd have to do to establish this. And my suspicions were further aroused by the fact that, as the Evening Standard pointed out, the detailed numbers stated that Tower Hamlets had more such families than anywhere else in London, and more than, say, Newcastle. Tower Hamlets is a very deprived area by almost any measure. But, as far as I am aware, it is not particularly remarkable for crime or anti-social behaviour. Indeed, according the Metropolitan Police website, total recorded crime in Tower Hamlets is only about half that of Islington, where I live. 

So I did a bit more digging.  The Department for Communities and Local Government had, in fact, published an "explanatory note" to the figures.  And, looking at footnote 2, we can finally establish what the definition of a "troubled family", on which the Prime Minister's numbers were based, actually is. It is a family which satisfies at least 5 of the following 7 criteria:

a) no parent in work
b) poor quality housing,
c) no parent with qualifications,
d) mother with mental health problems
e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness
f) family has low income,
g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items

What instantly leaps out from this list? It is that none of these criteria, in themselves, have anything at all to do with disruption, irresponsibility, or crime. Drug addiction and alcohol abuse are also absent.  A family which meets 5 of these criteria is certainly disadvantaged. Almost certainly poor. But a source of wider social problems? Maybe, but maybe not - and certainly not as a direct consequence.  In other words, the "troubled families" in the Prime Minister's speech are not necessarily "neighbours from hell" at all.  They are poor. 

It is particularly ironic that this direct equation between disadvantage and criminality is precisely the one the Prime Minister criticised last August, when, discussing the summer riots, he said:

these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.

So, on the one hand, the Prime Minister says that it is wrong to claim that the riots were in any way related to poverty; but on the other hand, simply being poor, or suffering the disadvantages of poverty, is enough to get a family labelled, in a very detailed and carefully drafted Prime Ministerial speech, as part of a "culture of disruption and irresponsibility."  

I cannot believe the Prime Minister himself knew this when he made the speech. To return to where I started -  I cannot believe that he meant to say that an unemployed single mother, with moderate depression, who can't afford new shoes for her children, and whose roof is leaking, who can't afford shoes for her children - is, by definition, a "neighbour from hell."  Yet that is precisely what his speech said, and it is on the basis of this analysis that the government is planning to formulate policy and allocate resources.

To repeat, I do not think this was the Prime Minister's mistake - although someone somewhere in the government machine is definitely at fault. But it is his responsibility.   He has insulted, on the basis of an analysis that is not just flawed but plain wrong, a large number of families who have more than enough problems of their own. He owes them an apology.


Nikki's picture

I would say i have maybe 4 of the 7 critera to say i,m a neighbour from hell, well let me just say my 3 children have all grown up to be well adjusted young adults taking responsibility for their families maintaing a close relasionship with me thier mother and bringing my grandchildren up be well adjusted polite repectful human beings, so once again its a case of judging everyone the same, alot of words come to mind but being a polite and respectful person i,ll just say, ridiculous!!

Jim's picture

Jonathan, thanks for this. It's an extraordinary mess. Working backwards from the DCLG note, this is, as best I can tell, what happened:

The Treasury estimated in 2007 that a family suffering from *all of* the specific five problems of "depression, alcohol misuse, domestic violence, short periods of homelessness, and being involved in criminality" create costs of "up to between £55,000 to £115,000" a year. (See HMT, 'Aiming high for children: supporting families').

Also in 2007, the Cabinet Office noted this finding, and came up with an estimate that around 140,000 families in Britain (or 117,000 in England as the DCLG note says) had five or more of a *completely separate* list of problems - the ones in the list you quote. It is completely clear that they are not saying there are 140,000 families who are characterised by "depression, alcohol misuse, domestic violence, short periods of homelessness, and being involved in criminality".

But somebody must have skimmed the report, assumed there really were that many families with all those issues, multiplied 117,000 by some figure from the range found by the Treasury, and got nine billion pounds.

Jonathan Portes's picture

Yes - that sounds depressingly plausible. See also Matt Cavanagh's blog here for further background:


anita66's picture

Honestly, this PM is treating disadvantaged people as citizen of a different nation. They are not part of his Britain, they build a different country he has to control and if necessary discipline. He and his cabinet seem to be bothered constantly about the fact that Britain has to pay for these people. In the same way as he called the rioters "scum", not even accepting that a growing young population is day by day hammered with consumer items and ambitions to make money and become rich. It was only a matter of time that they want to get a piece of the cake that has been handed around infrot of their eyes.

Faiz's picture

Ideologically, the Tories want to reduce people's dependence on the "welfare state". However, the Lib-dem's are a constant thorn in the Tory side.

So, besides gross incompetence of some mandarins, it is also possible that the civil-servants knew about the numbers, informed the government that the analysis is mixing apples and oranges.

However, the real-politik within the coalition government possibly played out like this -

1. We (the Tories) want to ensure that we can achieve our ideological goal
2. We know the story sells really well , in that, given the backdrop of recent riots, most people believe that poverty = social-disruption
3. We can sell the story but what of the lib-dems
4. Well if some smart arse like Jonathan Portes catches us on this, then we can always claim "mandarin gross malfeasance" ...if not, then, voila!

I know it sounds like a conspiracy theory, however, I would not put it past the Tories.

NickGreeny's picture

It is indeed a depressing subject and I suppose that the current PM has to address it just like any other. It's in the job description. After all, John Smith was vocal on this very subject and he was probably the last decent PM in waiting Labour ever had.
No one group should be pigeon-holed, because of the obvious overspill or other failure to fully encapsulate a problem to be addressed in society.
But how else can one exemplify an issue? There's 70million of us, and I cannot think of a single method by which you can analyse society to see what is and what is not working. This is by no means a Conservative issue - the social engineers in waiting are the Socialists and surely they (and me, with a small 's') would have to capture this as well. If we get too involved in the semantics, and cherry picking the most obvious exceptions or going though speeches or off the cuff comments looking for signs of evil intent, then surely all we are doing is evading a general point that we would probably agree with in principle if a friend said it down at the pub.

john perry's picture

The issue was covered last year on the Red brick blog, in this comment:
On this occassion the culprit was Eric Pickles, but the figure being quoted of 120,000 'troubled families' is the same and Red Brick looks further into the background. Red Brick makes a similar point that there is no reason given why families that have the specified problems are necessarily a source of 'a large proportion of problems in society'.

jaylen watkins's picture

Thanks for this quite unique post.

Hardship letter

Primula Monkey's picture

Not really. Starting with some easy ones, recorded crime may be lower in Tower Hamlets than it is in Islington, but so what? The word “recorded” i.e. it has to go through a specific process that may be influenced by area specific cultural factors, is a bit of a giveaway as to whether this point is in any way valid.

The bigger thing here though is the traditional social science concept/indicator problem. The concept here is “troubled”, which I’m guessing is about families living in relative poverty that are unemployed AND ALSO tend to have an above average degree of involvement with/support from/meetings with such state funded and/or related agencies as social work departments, social housing departments, schools, the CSA, charities, the CAB, legal aid lawyers, the police and so on. Hence the perfectly reasonable claim that a relatively small number of families already dependent on taxpayers via the state for their incomes and housing adopt lifestyles that impose additional and disproportionate costs on society as a whole.

The indicators for measuring this i.e. the at least 5 out of 7 criteria used to map troubled families, do seem a bit pants especially, as the poster notes, because they leave out drug and alcohol abuse. There again they are indicators i.e. they're indicative rather than definitive so perhaps the real challenge here is to refine them rather than dismiss them altogether?

But, before the Prime Minister proffers the apology the poster requests, perhaps the poster should clarify to what extent he accepts the validity of the “troubled families” concept?

Personally, I feel kinda soiled for challenging a critique of the Tories, but due to the analytical leap it entailed, and associated potential for obfuscation, I don’t think it was especially well made.

Voidstorm's picture

How would you describe an unemployed single mother, with moderate depression, who can't afford new shoes for her children, and whose roof is leaking?

"Somebody I ought to be helping, even if thats just with a dry towel and some black plastic sacks".

Andrea Desouja's picture

They are being cut off from family and friends.They have lost their children, or other important things in their life.Intervention services

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