Who's responsible for problem families misreporting?

18 July 2012

The publication of a report by the Government's 'Troubled Families Tsar' this morning has reopened old wounds about the scale and nature of the social problems caused by difficult households.

Ministers have been fond of claiming that 120,000 families around the UK are "in trouble or causing trouble", and that these "neighbours from Hell" are costing the taxpayer as much as £9 billion.

However as we found, these 120,000 families aren't necessarily those leading depraved lives, but rather those in difficult circumstances, suffering from a combination of low-incomes, poor qualifications or mental health issues. Attaching a £9 billion cost to these families proved even more problematic.

Undoubtedly Louise Casey's review paints a bleak picture of families struggling with crime, addiction and domestic abuse, however it only considers the experiences of the 16 families she interviewed, not 120,000.

In fact, it only mentions the 120,000 figure twice in the whole report, and is careful to draw attention to the fact that her study actually tells us nothing about the situation that these families find themselves in:

"It must also be noted that this is not formal research and that these interviews and the information they gave us is not representative of the 120,000 families that are deemed as 'troubled'."

Nevertheless today's press release from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) seemingly ignores this advice and is quick to suggest a link between the two, with the first paragraph reading:

"Louise Casey CB has published a report highlighting the chaotic personal histories of the kinds of families who will be targeted as part of the Government's commitment to turn around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by 2015."

Sure enough, when we look at the stories that have appeared in the morning papers, several confidently apply the findings of Louise Casey's report to all 120,000 families singled out by the Government.

The Sun reports:

"SEX abuse, violence and crime in 120,000 families from hell is exposed in a devastating official report today."

Meanwhile the Daily Mail tells its readers:

"A hard-hitting report on 120,000 problem households reveals that those responsible for antisocial behaviour feature a high incidence of incest and sexual abuse, physical violence and a spiral of alcohol abuse and crime."

Indeed the Mail goes further, using the report to draw conclusions far beyond those reached by Ms Casey, claiming that "incest and sexual abuse at heart of antisocial behaviour." 

(The story was also covered, with varying degrees of accuracy, by: The Guardian, The Daily Star, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Daily Express, The Times, the BBC, ITV and Sky.)

This reporting is clearly wrong - Louise Casey's study did not draw any conclusions about the 120,000 families - and we will be asking the papers concerned to correct the record.

However the mistake is understandable when you look at the information that journalists have been presented with by the DCLG's press office.

The Civil Service code is explicit that those working for Government departments have a duty:

"to give Parliament or the Assembly and the public as full information as possible about their policies, decisions and actions, and not to deceive or knowingly mislead them."

Similarly the Propriety Guidance given to Government communications teams requires that press officers are careful not to:

"Oversell policies, re-announce achievements or investments and claim them as new, or otherwise attempt to mislead the public."

It is difficult to read DCLG's press release without making the implicit link between the problems identified in the Casey report, and the 120,000 'troubled' families.

While it is disappointing that not all journalists seem to have looked beyond the press release to the report itself, DCLG's take on the story doesn't seem to give reporters and the public "as full information as possible" on the facts of the matter, and we'll therefore be asking the Department and the appropriate watchdogs to take a closer look at the press release, to ensure that the mistake isn't repeated.

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