On Monday afternoon two well educated and well paid men had a conversation amongst their peers in a place of great scrutiny, but due to the difficulty in observing all such conversations, this one could so easily have been missed. The conversation took place in the context of a wider debate on ‘Heads of Household – Oral Answers to Questions, Work and Pensions’:
Simon Kirby (MP for Brighton, Kemptown) ): What steps he has taken to increase support for heads of households in the workplace.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): In October we introduced the family test, putting the family at the heart of policy making across Whitehall. From April 2015, for the first time ever, shared parental leave will enable both parents to retain a strong link with the labour market, allowing fathers to play a greater role in raising their children and helping mothers to return to work at a time that is right for them.
This was not an earth shattering exchange and something that most of us would see as a positive outcome. However Mr Kirby and his friend were not finished:
Simon Kirby: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. How many troubled families have been helped in Brighton, Kemptown?
In asking this question Mr Kirby was using code (albeit a rather nasty code), for a Government programme that is intended to help some of the most vulnerable people in society. Had Simon simply meant families who are troubled by matters outside of their control, then the number of families could have been substantial, potentially most families in the city. As someone who Marched against the impending War in Iraq, my family continues to be troubled that our Government ignored our appeal and went to war in any case. Can there be any families who are not troubled by the cost of energy or the revelations of the CIA report? The answer to the coded question could have been provided directly to Simon from Brighton & Hove City Council, but presumably he felt that this was a way of getting the city mentioned in the House of Commons. However my concern and the reason for my blog is in Mr Duncan Smiths final comment in this exchange.
Mr Duncan Smith: The troubled families programme has turned around the lives of over 69,000 families in England, and 120,000 had been helped by August 2014. In Brighton and Hove, the programme has worked with 675 families, changing their lives, and 417 families were turned around by August 2014, giving them a new start in life.
It seems to me that any future DWP Ministers must learn from this use of appalling and patronising language. The troubled families programme in truth is not about turning families around, even if such an action could be ‘done to’ families. It is about joining up the Government agencies which are so frequently incoherent and have conflicting priorities. Much of that conflict has its origins in Westminster or Whitehall and their directives which seem to lack any real connection to a truly holistic approach to public policy. What right does Mr Duncan Smith have to claim to have turned any families around, apart from perhaps the Duncan Smith family. Turning around is what happens to vehicles, or inanimate objects. One might even say that organisations can be turned around, but no Government programme can turn peoples lives around any more than they create jobs or in general build houses. They might need help from a variety of sources including from the foodbanks that Mr Duncan Smith has all but ignored ever since he arrived in office, but every single family and life that has been able to turn itself around, did so as a result of its own determination and motivation. Each of the 675 families behind Mr Duncan Smiths data is a family that deserves the dignity of being applauded by all of us, but especially deserves the appreciation of a Government that appears instead to be trying to commodify disadvantage and life’s struggles!