On the Casey
She was Tony Blair’s tough-talking czar on rough sleeping and anti-social behaviour, now David Cameron has charged her with helping mend ‘broken Britain’ by turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled familes. Louise Casey tells Gavriel Hollander how she’s facing up to the biggest challenge of her career
The first thing Louise Casey does when we meet at her office on the top floor of the Communities and Local Government department is apologise for her language.
She has just got off the phone with an unnamed government department and, moments earlier, the word ‘flipping’ had escaped her lips. I venture to suggest that it’s not the strongest admonition she uses in her day to day job. ‘Probably not,’ she jokes.
Ms Casey’s name has become synonymous with certain hyphenated adjectives: tough-talking; no-nonsense; hard-nosed. She has been successive governments’ favourite tool for tackling whichever social blight happens to be filling the papers of the day. She headed Tony Blair’s rough sleepers’ unit and, immediately after, his anti-social behaviour unit which led her to take on the leadership of the short-lived Respect task force and, in 2010, the job of victims’ commissioner.
The 47-year-old’s latest challenge is to turn around the lives of the UK’s 120,000 most troubled families - those families identified by David Cameron both before and after last summer’s riots as the biggest contributors to his ‘broken Britain’.
In a report published in July she highlighted the problems these families face. Now, her job is to co-ordinate the agencies involved with turning around the lives of these families - police, local authorities, housing providers and schools - and produce tangible results.
The scale of the task means that it should be no surprise that ‘flipping’ does not always mark the apex of her bad language.
In the week we meet, Ms Casey has already made a typically forthright speech to the Police Superintendents’ Association conference calling on it to take a firmer line with councils when it comes to tackling difficult families. Having spent a career wrestling with the problems of endemic social breakdown, her attitude is that we need to get tough.
‘I do think we have a real challenge on our hands around finding people who are able to be assertive, challenging and authoritative,’ she says. ‘In my view, we need a sanctions strategy that’s not about leaving it until the last minute and doing evictions or taking kids into care or ASBO-ing them. We know that small steps of sanctions and consequences do make people wake up.’
She is speaking from experience, of course. Since the prime minister recruited her in the aftermath of the riots to help ensure they never happen again, Ms Casey has been travelling the country meeting families.
The fact that July’s report was based on face-to-face meetings with just 16 of these families has attracted criticism from some quarters, most notably from Colin Talbot, professor of government and public administration at the University of Manchester, who described it as a ‘quick cook’s tour of troubled families’.
Ms Casey, clearly not a fan of academics, is quick to dismiss the naysayers. ‘I’ve looked very hard to find a similar research report that has actually spent that amount of time directly with families and written it up in the way that we did. I felt it was worth doing, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered doing it.’
The report has also been accused of failing to offer tangible solutions and of providing conclusions that are, in Professor Talbot’s words, ‘crude versions’ of truths that researchers have long known. But for Ms Casey - and indeed the government - the report was never intended to prescribe answers as much as illuminate the problem.
‘I needed to articulate that, yes of course it is about 120,000 families and a reduction in the cost of those families, but it’s important to articulate the human face of what we’re trying to do,’ she offers by way of explanation.
Breaking the cycle
For Ms Casey, the biggest unifying factor she found in talking to a range of families, each with individual problems, was that cycles of abuse, addiction, poverty and joblessness tend to pass from one generation to the next with apparent ease.
‘God, it’s striking when you’ve got three generations sitting in one room in one interview and the person they’re talking about was the great grandmother who was also in a domestic violence relationship, who also had a history in care, who put her daughter in care, who’s sitting next to the next daughter who’s in care,’ she says.
‘We’ve got to cut through this intergenerational transmission.’
What Ms Casey and her troubled families team are trying to do is not only reverse these intergenerational cycles but also reverse the failure of successive governments and countless worthy initiatives to produce lasting change.
‘There is something underneath all of this that goes across my whole career, which is that we’ve let these families down. I’ve failed at this in previous jobs and I want to get it right,’ she admits.
Part of getting it right is taking what she has learned throughout her career - as well as over the past few months - and converting it into something that can be applied nationally. She is optimistic that this time Whitehall understands the need for a coordinated approach.
Getting to the source
Earlier this year, the government introduced its payment-by-results system for tackling families with multiple problems. It is a system about which Ms Casey is optimistic, not least because there is some £448 million behind it. The concept behind the new approach is that it is cheaper, not to mention more beneficial for society, to deal with the problem at source than to spend an estimated £9 billion a year cleaning up the mess.
‘Housing is all over this stuff. Some of them should be running family intervention work. They are very good at it.’
The payment-by-results system may be not a million miles from the bespoke, regionalised family intervention projects that preceded it, and which Ms Casey was instrumental in setting up when she was Labour’s anti-social behaviour guru. The difference this time though is that it’s not a piecemeal approach.
‘The history of social policy is that it is littered with good intervention pilots. There’s a world of pilots and the pilots never go to national scale. You do a pilot somewhere… [but] it’s rare that those things turn into something big and national and mainstream.
‘If I look back to the early family intervention work I would say we were doing it on the back of ASB and crime and we set that up as a boutique project; we didn’t change the mainstream.’
‘Mainstream’ is a word to which Ms Casey returns regularly. The individual stories she has encountered - and which have evidently affected her deeply, despite her reputation for hardness - seem most relevant to her if they can be used to change society at a fundamental level. Her positivity, her belief that, this time, things will be different is infectious.
Almost apologetically, she describes her work with families as ‘a personal crusade’ but she accepts she cannot do anything alone.
‘When governments do things, no matter who’s in power, you will always get some people that are negative and you get a lot of people that see the value in doing something and getting on with it,’ she continues. ‘My job is to work with those that want to make this work.’
According to Ms Casey, the housing sector can play a major role in producing results. She says she wants to get more housing providers ‘round the partnership tables’.
‘Housing is all over this stuff,’ she states. ‘I go out and talk to colleagues in housing… because housing has a lot of experience in this area. Some of them should be running family intervention work. They are very good at it. Some are superb on anti-social behaviour.’
As the former director of the Social Landlords Crime and Nuisance Group, Peter Jackson has plenty of experience working with Ms Casey. While he says he would like to have seen ‘more emphasis on the role of social landlords’ in the report, he doesn’t question her ability to make a difference. ‘If the coalition is fully behind her, then no one else around in government has the power to push this agenda like Louise.’
But Ms Casey’s vision is to have housing as one element - along with the police, children’s services, social services and myriad other agencies - of a unified approach to the problem.
‘What has got to work this time round, which we haven’t been very good at before, is collapsing all of those vested interests into one thing, which is …definable change that will happen in those families,’ she insists.
Ms Casey’s passion for the cause is obvious and she doesn’t shy away from being labelled a troubleshooter, even if it’s not a role she’s courted.
‘I am waiting for somebody to make me an offer of being a cheerful czar,’ she laughs. ‘I just seem to pick the more challenging areas.’
Shortly after taking office, David Cameron made a commitment to turn around the lives of the country’s 120,000 most troubled families. The payment-by-results system is designed to encourage local authorities to take a proactive role in doing this.
Having identified the families they will target on the three-year programme, councils and other partners will receive £4,000 for each family where certain outcomes are achieved.
These outcomes include: increase in school attendance; reductions in anti-social behaviour and youth offending; and progress towards continuous work or attachment to the government’s work programme.
In addition to the £4,000, local authorities will be expected to pay £6,000 towards the cost of family intervention.
Councils will receive a proportion of the money for each family upfront as an attachment fee, with the rest being paid on results.