Council battles to turn lives around

Jim Hopkinson, Head of Targeted Services Leeds City Council
Jim Hopkinson, Head of Targeted Services Leeds City Council
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JUST 19 of the 1,000 most ‘troubled families’ placed on a flagship support programme by bosses at Yorkshire’s largest local authority have actually been helped back into work, MPs have been told.

But members of the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) praised Leeds City Council’s pioneering approach to dealing with problem families after hearing how in more than half the households approached so far, children are attending school again while repeated issues of anti-social behaviour have stopped.

The Coalition has put huge stock in its so-called Troubled Families programme, pledging to “turn around the lives” of 120,000 problem families across the country by 2015.

The scheme builds on the highly targeted approach to anti-social behaviour first initiated by Tony Blair’s Government, offering financial incentives to local councils to identify specific problem households within their communities and work closely with them to get their children back in school and move the parents away from crime and into work.

Leeds is seen as one of the exemplar local authorities for its work since the new scheme was launched in 2011. But evidence published by the PAC following a question-and-answer session with one of the authority’s senior officers reveals the difficulty in helping people make the final step off benefits and into the world of work.

Just 19 of the first 1,000 families on Leeds’s programme have managed to secure a job which has lasted more than six months – less than two per cent of the total.

Jim Hopkinson, who runs Leeds City council’s troubled families programme, told the committee he was hopeful the figure will rise in the coming months through closer working with JobCentre officials.

“I hope that number will increase, and in fact our challenge from our chief executive is very much that he wants to see that figure increase,” Mr Hopkinson said. “The massive boost that we have had is the secondment of Jobcentre Plus employees to our programme.

“We have a central programme team with some local authority workers, a senior probation officer, an inspector-level police officer and now two members of staff from Jobcentre Plus and 
two additional workers just joining.”

The Government also classifies a family as having been “turned around” if its children are attending school at least 85 per cent of the time, so long as complaints to police of violence, anti-social behaviour and criminal activity have also ceased.

By this second measure, Leeds’s targeted intervention programme has been a marked success, with the council claiming success in 532 of the 1,000 families involved so far.

Mr Hopkinson said the authority was on course to have turned around the lives of around a third of the 3,000 problem families it has identified in the city by this month – half way through the three-year programme.

Committee members said Leeds has made a “good start” and described the 35 per cent success rate as “excellent.”

Louise Casey, the Government’s so-called ‘troubled families tsar’, said she expects the figure to increase as local authorities learn lessons about the best way to help people turn around their lives – and stressed that to do so is in everyone’s interests.

“We have to stop these families ending up in the enormous difficulties where there is a young offender doing five or six offences in six months, police calls-outs up to the eyeballs and people using A&E because they don’t have a clue how to use Calpol,” she said.

“We cannot carry on like that.”