Listeners to the Today programme this morning will have heard a clearly disgruntled Eric Pickles trying to bat away questions about the evidence base for the government’s ‘Troubled Families’ initiative. How has a modest (£450m) scheme to encourage joined-up intervention to address problems of anti-social behaviour and truanting come to be mired in statistical controversy? Mr Pickles described criticism of the government’s figures as ‘academic’, but there are serious issues here concerning the Whitehall policy process and the abuse of official data. And Mr Pickles, along with the Prime Minister, has only made the government’s position less credible by making aggressive claims about the rationale for the scheme and its potential.

Two figures dominate the government’s presentation of the ‘Troubled families’ initiative: 120,000 families and £9bn. Last year David Cameron stated ‘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’. ...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.’ This claim was featured uncritically in the Today programme’s headlines this morning, but in the words of Ruth Levitas, professor of sociology at Bristol University it ‘turns out to be a factoid – something that takes the form of a fact, but is not’. You can read her detailed paper on the subject here and listen to an interview with her on Radio 4’s More or Less here . Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, has been no less scathing on the 120,000 figure : ‘it is difficult to conclude anything except that the Department [of Communities and Local Government] and the government have become hung up on the 120,000 number despite the fact that they are well aware that it is now completely discredited, either as a national estimate of the number of "troubled families" or as a sensible guide to local policy.’ There’s an excellent round-up of the controversy by Jules Birch here Jules notes that no detail has ever been given on the basis for the £9bn figure. [Update 19:43 Full Fact provide some detail on the £9bn figure here ]

Ruth and Jonathan’s independent criticisms of the 120,000 figure turn on the same point: government has been presenting a figure which refers to one thing as if it referred to another. The 120,000 figure was generated using a set of seven criteria: 120,000 is the estimated number of families which met five or more of these criteria. Here they are:

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

Two things are striking about this list. The first is that there is no reference whatsoever to anti-social behaviour, truanting or criminality, which are the issues the government claims to be targeting. Why does the government think that meeting five of these criteria means a family is ‘troubled’ or causes trouble for others? Not one shred of evidence has been offered to support this identification of disadvantage with these patterns of behaviour -and let’s be clear: government’s presentation of the policy involves an identification of the two, not just a statistical relationship between them, as seen in the claim that these putatively identified families are costing precisely £9bn a year.

The second, to me at least, is the high level of redundancy in some of the criteria: if no parent is in work, the chances are very high that the family has a low income and there’s a pretty respectable probability it can’t afford some food/clothing items. Likewise if the mother has mental health problems there’s a high chance that at least one of the parents has a ‘longstanding disability/illness’ because, by definition, one of the parents already has a disability. So as a method for identifying multiple disadvantage on five or more dimensions, this is laughable. You have a high chance of qualifying for the 120,000 – that is, as an allegedly ‘troubled family’, allegedly causing problems for your community- if you are experiencing poverty combined with just two of some other widespread social risks: poor housing, low qualifications or disability. Does this sound like the ‘neighbours from hell’ the Prime Minister has claimed the policy is aimed at?

Mr Pickles’ ungracious response this morning was to refer to criticisms of his figures as ‘academic’, as if it was pedantic for people to point out that the government was making misleading use of official statistics. I find this bizarre, as there was an obvious way to field the criticism, and one which might be expected to resonate with both Conservative and Liberal political values.

What Pickles could have said was this: ‘It is absolutely right to say that we don’t really know how many families cause serious trouble for their communities, still less what social factors might be associated with this. The UK government does not spy on its citizens as a matter of course, nor does it maintain detailed dossiers on every aspect of their lives, for perfectly good reasons. The public might think government should keep close watch on problem families, but in order to even identify these families we would have to keep close watch on all families, including those of your listeners. Does anyone seriously believe this would be, on balance, a good way to address this problem? As a government we are working in a situation of imperfect information, and a good thing too!

‘We wanted to put some resources into finding better ways to deal with an issue which many local authorities think needs attention, but when it comes to quantifying and targeting those resources, we are frankly shooting in the dark. However we had to start somewhere in order to identify an amount of money to earmark and some non-arbitrary way of distributing it. The key principle here is that when information is limited- and in this case it is virtually non-existent- there are still better and worse ways of proceeding. We asked government statisticians to come up with something rough-and-ready to give us a starting point.

‘Those estimates are of course subject to severe reservations, as has rightly been pointed out . The most I would say about them is that they are better than nothing. Not much better, perhaps, but better. This is a provisional approach and I expect in the future when we have a better idea of what we’re doing we will look back on these statistics and shudder at how crude and irrelevant they are. But I hope people will judge that it was better to proceed now, even on such a flimsy basis, rather than wait perhaps years until better information is available. ’

Had Pickles said something to this effect I suspect some of those who have criticised the government would have been sympathetic, while still querying the set of measures that were used for the exercise. But he said nothing of the kind, instead striving to maintain the fiction that government knew exactly what it was doing and citing anecdotes from his own experience as proof.

It is possible to make policy, even sensible policy, with severely limited information, provided you are aware of just how limited it is. That is not what is going on here. Instead of recognising the uncertainties surrounding the issue, the government is filling the information gap with unadulterated prejudice, promoting a blanket identification of poverty with anti-social behaviour. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that that is, at least in part, the aim of the policy. After all this would not be the first case of politicians promoting symbolic initiatives which are really intended to send signals to the electorate rather than address social problems (remember ‘Foetal ASBOs’ ?

Yesterday, in an interview in the Independent, Mr Pickles said ‘Sometimes we've run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame.’ I’m not sure who ‘we’ is supposed to refer to in that sentence, but if there is one thing the coalition has never run away from, it is categorising, stigmatising and laying blame, provided the target is people on low incomes. That is not, on any reasonable understanding, a good way to make social policy: rather, it is a substitute for policy for those unwilling or unable to put in the hard work that serious policy requires. We can only hope that the local authorities benefiting from this initiative make more of an effort than the government has.