The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has denied suppressing the findings of a highly critical independent report into its flagship "Troubled Families" programme, as the scheme's former chief Louise Casey hit out at "unedifying" attacks on its work.
The Troubled Families programme was launched by ministers in 2012 before being granted a £900m extension last year, and sees central government give councils up to £4,000 to identify and "turn around" families with entrenched social problems including unemployment, domestic abuse and truancy.
The families then receive a dedicated social worker to coordinate public service support to tackle their problems.
Troubled Families programme under fire after damning independent study
Speaking truth to power: CSW interviews Troubled Families tsar Louise Casey
Leaked report casts doubt on Troubled Families programme
But a report published this week by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) – which was commissioned by DCLG in 2014 – called into question the success of the scheme, saying it could find “no significant or systematic impact” that could be directly attributed to the multi-agency programme.
Appearing before the Public Accounts Committee, DCLG permanent secretary Melanie Dawes rejected suggestions that the department had tried to "sit on" findings it disagreed with, as Dame Louise Casey – who led the first incarnation of the programme – hit out at the NIESR for the way it had presented its own study.
Part of DCLG's analysis was leaked to the BBC earlier this year, prompting questions from MPs on the committee about why the department had taken so long to publish its full study.
Dawes insisted that, although the NIESR's research had been ready in August, it was one part of a wider evaluation exercise commissioned by the department which had not been ready for publication until the "synthesis report" uploaded to GOV.UK this week.
"I don't know what copy the BBC had, of course," she said. "It was a leaked document. What I can say is that the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) bit of the evaluation was finalised at the end of August – that forms part of the overall evaluation."
"It was big and complex and it did take longer than we expected" – DCLG perm sec Melanie Dawes
Seeking to justify the delays, Dawes said the NIESR's part of the evaluation was based on a "very complicated and quite kind of experimental national data evaluation", and said interim findings from the team had raised concerns in the department that there were "very many data issues" with its initial work.
As a result, Dawes said, officials had "challenged the fundamental basis" of some of the NIESR's analysis, and had called in an academic from the University of Cambridge to review the think tank's findings.
But PAC chair Meg Hillier said it was "extraordinary" that a report initially expected in early 2014 had only been published two-and-a-half years later – and just 48 hours before the hearing by MPs.
She asked Dawes what DCLG had been "trying to hide" through the protracted publication process.
The DCLG perm sec replied: "We weren't hiding anything. And, in fact, I should say I think the evaluation is very ambitious – the department invested in a way that no other social programme has invested in evaluation.
"But it was big and complex and it did take longer than we expected. And we have learned from that."
Casey, who is now leading a review into opportunity and integration for the government, said there was "no way on god's earth" that it would be helpful for the department to suppress findings.
But she attacked the NIESR for publishing its analysis separately of the department's wider report, a move she said had led the media to focus only on its negative findings.
"The frustration is that it is one part of a much bigger story," she said.
Casey: "I've got nothing to lose in a scenario like this"
The NIESR's report found that outcomes for families in the programme were almost identical to those who were not given special treatment, with 45% still claiming jobless benefits a year-and-a-half later, and anti-social behaviour, criminal offences, and truancy levels no lower than for those in the programme.
But while Casey said she did not dispute the central findings of the NIESR's study, she said the negative elements of its work appeared to have been "quite deliberately" emphasised.
"I've got nothing to lose in a scenario like this," she said. "I think lots of comment made by those closely involved with the evaluation – who have been leading on the press in the last few days – has been unedifying.
"They didn't wait until the rest of the evaluation was out. I'm sure they feel suppressed but that simply isn't true."
"My frustration, if I'm honest, is that we haven't had a chance to set the record straight" – Dame Louise Casey
Asked by PAC chair Hillier whether she was "unhappy" with the way the NIESR had conducted themselves, Casey replied: "I am, I'll be honest about it.
"I don't want to make it a personal thing, because actually I accept that this – within the strictures of this one piece of work, it doesn't prove what I hoped it would prove.
"But did I ask the department to sit on it? No I didn't. I think it's better to have that stuff out and washed out in the public domain so you can have a discourse about it. My frustration, if I'm honest, is that we haven't had a chance to set the record straight."
The former Troubled Families chief said "no one" would dispute "the fact that 116,000 [families] had problems and now have less of those problems".
"But were you to have read some of the publicity in the last few days and indeed what's been put out by this organisation you would think 'oh, the whole programme's useless'," she said.
Writing on Twitter during Casey's evidence, NIESR fellow Jonathan Portes said his organisation's press release promoting its findings had "simply reproduced" the executive summary of a report signed off by DCLG itself.