Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Troubled families programme extended to younger children

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has today announced details of an expansion of the government’s Troubled Families programme.

Work will begin this year in 51 of the best performing areas, which will be funded to work with 40,000 extra families. This expansion was included in the Budget in March 2014, but today’s announcement reveals the areas to benefit, and the extension of the programme from working with school-age children to include those under five.

The Understanding Troubled Families report published last month showed that families within the current Troubled Families programme have an average of nine serious problems such as truancy, crime, anti-social behaviour, worklessness and domestic violence. And new data published today highlights the poor health issues in troubled families, with 71% having a physical health problem and 46% a mental health concern.

In response, the criteria for inclusion in the expanded programme have been widened to include health and domestic abuse problems. Now a family will have to be referred by specialist agencies and have two of the following six problems:
  • parents and children involved in crime or anti-social behaviour
  • children who have not been attending school regularly
  • children who need help
  • adults out of work or at risk of financial exclusion and young people at risk of worklessness
  • families affected by domestic violence and abuse
  • parents and children with a range of health problems.
The number of Troubled Families Employment Advisers will also double to 300, and their remit will include working with young people at risk of becoming unemployed.

In addition to today’s statement, it was announced in last year’s Spending Round that the Troubled Families programme would be expanded to work with 400,000 more families from 2015 to 2020, with £200 million funding for 2015 to 2016.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

IDS speech: Getting Britain Working

Despite predictions in the press that Iain Duncan Smith would announce new welfare cuts in a major speech in London yesterday, the Works and Pensions Secretary instead focussed on a strong defence of the welfare reforms already implemented or in progress.

IDS set out his case that the welfare system the government inherited was failing to deal with the root causes of poverty, instead trapping families in worklessness, and suggesting that the failure of sufficient economically inactive people taking the jobs on offer fuelled inward migration.
"Everything we have done – every programme we have introduced – has been targeted at supporting the hardest to help into work."
He was bullish in defending the benefit cap and bedroom tax. Of the former, he said:
"People have dealt with these changes by looking for work, negotiating with landlords and, in some cases, moving to more affordable accommodation. But there has been no mass migration - where people have moved 80% have done so within 5 miles and the most part for personal reasons rather than as a result of the reforms."
and with respect the bedroom tax:
"This policy is about striking an appropriate balance between the support that we provide to people, and the burden put upon the taxpayer. It is not right or fair to subsidise spare bedrooms in the social rented sector when this provision is not available elsewhere in society."
The latest official figures on the benefit cap were published last week, showing that 45,000 families had been subject to the cap since its introduction, with just over 27,000 being capped at the end of May 2014. Quoting figures from this statistical release, IDS said:
"Since the start of the cap a total of almost 7,400 of those who were once in capped households have [moved into work] for each and every one of them, a hugely positive step towards security and independence."
The Secretary of State concluded his speech with Universal Credit, claiming that his flagship reform was bang on target following the "reset" of the programme last year. Building a benefits system which changes the lives of those on benefits is not, he said, just about building a new computer system, but about delivering a service that can support this life change at a local level, as well as at a national level. He said his department was working with local authorities to support people unable to manage their own finances or with other social problems.
"With improved incentives under Universal Credit, and more support to help people into work and progress in work I expect people to get into work quickly, stay in work longer and increase their earnings."
The Daily Express trailed a forthcoming report from the centre-right Policy Exchange think tank that will suggest reducing the current benefit cap of £26,000 a year by 10% for people living outside London and the South East, to reflect different income and housing costs across the UK, and the press widely expected IDS to announce such a move in his speech.

Asked in a BBC interview about the Policy Exchange ideas, the Secretary of State said he would not reject the ideas, saying they were things that had been looked at in the past but were not being put forward as government policy "today".

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Government promises to improve communications with benefit claimants facing sanctions

The government has accepted the recommendations of an independent review of benefit sanctions for claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance who have been sanctioned after being referred to a mandatory back to work scheme.

Which? economist and former head of economics and social policy at influential centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, Matthew Oakley, concluded that the system is not fundamentally broken, but identified a number of areas where improvements need to be made, particularly for more vulnerable individuals.

Oakley reported that one area of concern that came up repeatedly through the review was the impact that adverse sanction decisions had on the receipt of housing benefit. Sanctions considered under the remit of the review should not impact on housing benefit, but the review team heard of instances where local authorities ended a claim for housing benefit after a sanction had been applied.

He recommended that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should work with local authorities to improve the coordination of their approach to delivering housing benefit for claimants who have been sanctioned. In the short-term, all letters and communications informing claimants of the application of a sanction should advise claimants already in receipt of housing benefit to contact their local authority about their claim.

Actions the government has agreed to implement include:

  • setting up a specialist team to audit all communications including claimant letters, texts and emails and transform how claimants on all benefits are provided with information about their responsibilities and the support on offer – this team will take on board the latest academic research and innovations in private sector communications
  • streamlining the checks and balances that are in place that give claimants the opportunity to provide evidence of why they haven’t complied with the rules
  • clarifying guidance and updating the process in which claimants can access hardship payments once they have been sanctioned
  • working more closely with local authorities to coordinate their approach to deliver housing benefit for claimants who have been sanctioned for not doing the right thing
  • ensuring the contract that claimants sign up to in exchange for their benefits – the Claimant Commitment – in which they agree what they will do to get a job, can be shared with their provider throughout their time on a back to work scheme
  • working with providers, stakeholders and advocates for groups to continuously explore alternative formats for all types of communications with claimants.

The government says it will take the recommendations from the Oakley review even further and roll out changes to other types of benefits where practicable.

Two thirds of 'troubled families' living in social housing

Early family monitoring data from of the government's flagship Troubled Families programme shows that 70 per cent of families who entered the Troubled Families Programme up to December 2013 are living in social housing compared to 17 per cent of the population nationally.

Over a quarter (27 per cent) are in rent arrears and one in five families (21 per cent) were at risk of eviction.

To qualify for help under the Troubled Families Programme, families need to have at least three problems related to children not being in school, youth crime or anti-social behaviour, worklessness, or being high cost to public services locally. However, an independently compiled report from Ecorys hows that families have many more problems than this, with an average (median) of nine different problems within each family.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has published its own report on the analysis “Understanding Troubled Families” which notes that, in addition to the problems that qualify families for the programme:

  • 71% also have a health problem
  • 46% have a mental health concern
  • 29% are experiencing domestic violence or abuse
  • 22% have been at risk of eviction in the previous 6 months
  • 35% had a child of concern to social services or who has been taken into care
  • 40% have 3 or more children, compared to 16% nationally

Furthermore, almost half of families had at least one police callout to the home in the last six months, with an average of five callouts per family. One family had 90 police call outs in six months, and 21 families had more than 30 callouts in six months – more than once a week.
Head of the government’s Troubled Families programme Louise Casey CB said the findings showed the need for a new approach from services to helping the most troubled families turn their lives around that “gets in through the front door and really understands what’s going on across the whole family”.

She said: 
“This report paints a picture of families sinking under the weight of multiple problems and is an illustration of why we can’t treat the individual problems of individual members of a complex family in isolation.

“It shows that these problems are interlinked and that they spiral out of control unless we do something about it.

“The best services understand that and provide practical solutions as well as challenge and support. However this data also shows how big the challenge is and why we need to take this approach to a wider group of families with a wider set of problems as soon as we can.”
The Ecorys report warns that the data collection is in its very early stages, of varying quality and, at this stage, the researchers and the DCLG are unsure whether the data submitted is representative of all troubled families going through the programme. 

A new fuel poverty framework

In a package of announcements made yesterday, the government set out how it intends to overhaul the framework to tackle fuel poverty in England.

The government laid its draft Fuel Poverty (England) Regulations 2014 before Parliament to put in place a new long term fuel poverty target of ensuring that as many fuel poor homes as is reasonably practicable achieve a minimum energy efficiency standard of Band C by 2030.

To support the Regulations the government published a consultation document on its new fuel poverty strategy for England. The consultation document's emphasis is on helping low-income households who are not connected to the gas grid and those whose health can suffer from living in the cold.

Separate proposals for energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector in England and Wales will empower private domestic tenants to request consent for energy efficiency measures that may not unreasonably be refused by their landlord.

The government has also published its Fuel Poverty Energy Efficiency Rating Methodology, setting out in detail how to measure energy efficiency standards of fuel poor households in relation to the new fuel poverty target.

Unveiling the new proposals, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said:
"These proposals mark a radical shift away from old policies of tinkering at the edges without tackling the root causes of fuel poverty – homes that need too much energy and leak too much heat to be able to keep warm."

"We'll target the worst properties first, where people in the most extreme cases face paying over £1,500 more than they need to. We'll work with partners - including GPs and others working in healthcare – to make sure the right help gets to those who need it the most."

"And today I'm reaffirming our commitment to the most vulnerable households by confirming that the current levels of help they are getting through the Energy Company Obligation will be maintained, and will continue for an extra two years – helping over half a million more low income households."
Fuel poverty in England is now measured using the Low Income High Costs approach which is explained in section two of the Fuel Poverty: a framework for future action, published last year.

Inside Housing reports that the government has been slammed by campaigners over its plans to target fuel poverty.