Eric Pickles latest strategy to deal with troubled families is little more than a sticking plaster for Government cuts and based on crude misogyny, guesswork and complete ignorance of the problems faced by those with least.
Pickles is planning to get tough on families deemed ‘troubled’ by blaming them for situations which are entirely outside their control. Parents with disabilities, in low paying jobs or living in poor quality housing can now expect to be blamed for their own misfortune by an army of council funded busy bodies who are to be given the power to tell them off without fear of ‘political correctness’.
According to the Government, a troubled family is to be deemed to be one that meets five out of the following seven criteria: a low income, no-one in the family in work, living in poor housing, parents with no qualifications, having a mother who has a mental health problem, one parent with a long-standing illness or disability,or where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.
Pickles has been justifying his latest scheme in the Independent over the weekend with a series of made up stories such as the teenage father who refuses to speak to his allegedly non-english speaking child or the mother ‘on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ because she didn’t know how to use a washing machine.
Pickles, who favourably compares himself to woman-beating racist Geoffrey Boycott, has a bit of a thing about women’s mental health. This may explain his patronising attitude to Caroline Flint in the House of Commons, who he refers to as ‘dear’, or be the reason he suggested a ‘charming’ female Camden Councillor should take ‘anger management classes’ for having the gall to write him a letter. Once again the crude misogyny at the heart of the Tory Party rears it’s ugly head.
Despite mental health services being cut to the bone, mothers (but not fathers) with mental health conditions will be singled out as especially to blame for their illness and will be told off very strongly. This new strategy of lecturing and moralising at people whilst stripping away vital housing, healthcare and benefits will be rolled out across the country with local councils paid according to a system of crude results. The scheme has echoes of Chris Grayling’s disastrous Work Programme, which attempts to blame unemployed people for being unemployed. Latest figures suggest that less people are finding jobs on the Work Programme than if they had been left to their own devices.
Councils will be able to claim £4000 should they find someone a job for three months, which is a reasonably heavy incentive to provide three months temporary employment themselves. This will be a boon to the aforementioned Work Programme, who’s private contractors will also be able to pick up a fat fee should they have the individual on their books. The factors deemed to indicate families which are troubled are so crude that it will include the vast majority of the very poorest. Councils will be able to cherry pick people to work with from a huge base, which is no doubt why they’ve agreed to the scheme.
Unfortunately there is nothing on offer in terms of real help. What people who are in poor quality housing need is better quality housing. With the ruthless Housing Benefit cutting regime currently in place they will get the opposite. Families who can’t afford basic food and clothing need more money, not benefit cuts. Unemployed families are unlikely to prosper at a time of Tory created high unemployment, whilst there is little or no provision in the Work Programme to help those without qualifications. Disabled parents will find themselves forced into the brackets of being a ‘troubled family’, simply because this Government has plans to strip away benefits from 20% of disabled claimants.
Meanwhile there is a real danger that families who do not fall into these groups will become sidelined and ignored as social security budgets are slashed for anyone who doesn’t fit Eric Pickles’ criteria.
Pickles claims that ‘nice people’ asked him during last year’s riots what the parents of the children involved were doing. Pickles is right when he insists that they were not at a ‘whist club or a Sunday social’. What he fails to understand is that many of them were probably at work. The problems Pickles is seeking to address are far more complex than his over-worked little mind can seem to grasp. This is why the current solutions, crude and often ineffective as they are, can appear complicated and messy and involve different agencies.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some simple solutions that could make a big difference. Decent housing, a liveable minimum wage, the restoration of grant funded education and EMA, benefits that actually pay the bills, better funded mental health care, access to real training for unemployed people, an expansion of youth clubs and a halt to the devastating cuts in public services would all make a difference. This Government’s policy is to pursue the very opposite, by making the poorest poorer and then seeking to blame them for their plight.
The current obsession with simplifying and streamlining services is just Tory spin meaning more cuts. They hand out a few pence with one hand whilst laying entire cities to waste with another. The obsession with payment by results simply means that the easiest to help are targeted, often those who didn’t even need the help in the first place. The most vulnerable, chaotic, anti-social or indeed troubled families will be sidelined simply because there’s little chance of an ‘outcome’ payment at the end. And what those ‘outcomes’ should actually represent are little more than what a Government minister decided on the back of an envelope that morning.
Pickles’ new strategy is a panicky and vague response to last year’s riots and was actually first announced by Cameron last Autumn. Whilst vital public services are being decimated it will not make the slightest difference to the lives of ‘troubled families’ or the communities they live in. Steeped as these plans are in the usual out of touch Tory dogma, shop keeper’s son Pickles may actually end up making things even worse.