It looks as if our streak of Sunny Monday mornings is well and truly over. In truth, it probably never existed anyway. But such observation is a harmless distraction in a land where a liquid climate reigns.

Less harmless though, is the way the government tends to use statistics. In our latest Question It series, we look at how the government quantifies and pin-points ‘Problem’ or ‘Troubled’ Families. Eric Pickles, in an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday said that the government was going to crack down on ‘Problem’ families by confronting them and employing the use of stigmas and blame to confront this issue; the only trouble is, the data being used, doesn’t really add up.

In a very thorough piece by Jonathan Portes, the Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, he argues that statistics quantifying ‘Troubled Families’ are unavailable at worst and at best, very hard to gather. The result is that the data being used to label troubled families and quantify them, is actually data which is completely unrelated – data, which actually highlights and quantifies disadvantaged families, instead.

Portes goes on to observe:

“The Department for Communities and Local Government had, in fact, published an “explanatory note” to the figures.  And, looking at footnote 2, we can finally establish what the definition of a “troubled family”, on which the Prime Minister’s numbers were based, actually is. It is a family which satisfies at least 5 of the following 7 criteria:

a) no parent in work
b) poor quality housing,
c) no parent with qualifications,
d) mother with mental health problems
e) one parent with longstanding disability/illness
f) family has low income,
g) Family cannot afford some food/clothing items

What instantly leaps out from this list? It is that none of these criteria, in themselves, have anything at all to do with disruption, irresponsibility, or crime. Drug addiction and alcohol abuse are also absent.  A family which meets 5 of these criteria is certainly disadvantaged. Almost certainly poor. But a source of wider social problems? Maybe, but maybe not – and certainly not as a direct consequence.  In other words, the “troubled families” in the Prime Minister’s speech are not necessarily “neighbours from hell” at all.  They are poor”.
So, our question for you this week is this: bearing in mind the delicate nature of political work and the need to be razor-sharp with facts when you’re running a country, should the government and its agents be penalised for misrepresenting or misinterpreting data?
Possible answer: There should perhaps be more stringent policies in place, to ensure that any debates about social welfare are accurate and fair. Maybe penalising politicians for misuse of data might also act as a deterrent?