Emma Harrison reached the height of her influence with her "family champions" idea. The government reckoned that there were 120,000 "troubled families" responsible for most of what was wrong in the country, and Harrison persuaded ministers that she had the solution. There were many people at the time who criticised both the analysis and the proposed remedy. One established charity, Family Action was particularly concerned about the damage which Harrison's approach could do. Now a report has been published which shows the flaws in the original thinking. It has been written by Professor Ruth Levitas for the Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK Project, and can be accessed through the Indus Delta site.
Levitas shows how the original figure of 120,000 families was based on a misuse of statistics, and how "troubled families" were redefined as "troublesome families" by government rhetoric. She quotes a Cameron speech: "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…that is around £75,000 per family." The government has conflated families which have disadvantages which are not self-inflicted with those who cause expensive trouble. Levitas goes on to show how this rhetoric has fed a vindictive attitude towards the poor. It's an excellent report and well worth reading.
Emma Harrison was not, of course, responsible for this. It would be truer to say that she jumped on the bandwagon. She proposed a simplistic solution; volunteers could work with these families to get them into work. "Working Families Everywhere", a pilot scheme, was born, and we had the toe-curling suggestion that these volunteers be known as "Emmas". But Harrison had, possibly unwittingly, ruled A4e out of bidding for the contracts for European Social Fund money to pay private companies to do the work with local authorities in a professional way. A new "tsar" was appointed, Louise Casey, a woman with very different experience from Harrison's. And when the torrent of bad publicity for A4e was unleashed, Harrison stepped down from the ongoing WFE scheme.
I am tempted to draw lessons from this story, but readers can do that themselves. Perhaps the lesson for Harrison is that hubris results in nemesis.