The most striking feature of this week’s government announcement of new ways to tackle problem families was the figure work. Apparently the 120,000 worst problem families in the country cost taxpayers on average £75,000 a year. That is the cost of benefits, housing, social work, police time and the rest, as a small army of state emoloyees try to provide support and discipline to families in need of practically everything from their neighbours – or the state as they are known.
The government is right to ask where all this money goes. Why do we need so many different staff and agencies to tackle these problems? Couldn’t one person go in and sort out a range of issues, whether they are in the housing or schooling or benefits box? Will the appointment of a single point of contact by each Council work? Will Councils co-operate? Will they choose people with authority and judgement? Will these new guardians defend the public interest and public purse, or will they take the line of least resistance, acting as advocates of more state money for the families they have to handle?
How can the state, on behalf of the taxpayers, ask for responsibility, discipline and effort from the families it is helping? What should we, and our representatives expect? If a costly education is provided for the children, shouldn’t they turn up? (the poorest areas receive far more per pupil than the richer areas) If they turn up, shouldn’t they show some willingness to learn, some understanding of the power of education to lfit them out of benefit dependency and relative poverty?
If benefits and housing are provided to the adults, shouldn’t we expect those adults to make every effort to find and hold down a job? If training is provided, how much willing participation should we expect? If they live in higher unemployment areas, how much understanding should we show of slowness in finding work? How far, if at all, should we ask them to travel to do a job?
These questions have been around for years, but there has been a reluctance to ask them. It has been an easy answer for government to invent some new programme with a new title, recruit more people to tackle problem families, and to say it is all a matter of resources. Now we have got to the point where every problem family receives an average of £75,000 a year we are entitled to ask what happens to all the money. Surely for that amount we could start to bring the number of problem families down?
What do you expect in return for your money being spent like this? What sanctions if any should the state impose, if families ignore the help and remain a trouble to their neighbours and themselves? What should these new officials do to make a real difference?