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For more than two decades, Baroness Casey has been the go-to figure for governments of all stripes to tackle some of our most intractable problems. But does she really have all the answers? Chaminda Jayanetti reports
Former New Labour adviser and strategist John McTernan describes himself as a “massive fan” of Baroness Casey, who has now spent more than two decades either in or around the highest levels of government.
The then-Louise Casey was initially recruited from Shelter by Tony Blair to lead his fight against rough sleeping. She went on to perform a succession of roles in Labour and then Conservative administrations, overseeing government efforts on anti-social behaviour, troubled families and community cohesion. More recently her remit has expanded; she has been called on by a range of other institutions – this year she will begin a report on the culture of the Metropolitan Police, in the wake of the Sarah Everard murder.
But why do governments keep turning to Casey as a serial social policy fixer? And does her actual delivery match her evident reputation in Westminster and Whitehall?
When Casey started work as head of the Rough Sleepers Unit in 1999, civil servants drafted a note to the minister warning that it was unlikely the unit’s bold targets would be met. She refused to sign it, and remembers telling them: “If anyone on this team doesn’t really want to buy into the idea that we’re going to bloody do this, then you’d better find another job.”
The Rough Sleepers Unit met its target to cut street homelessness by two-thirds ahead of schedule. It remains Casey’s clearest success in government.
If you ever want to go into battle on any issue, she would be the best person to go into battle with that I know of in public life.
It’s easy to see Casey as an outspoken bruiser who entered the fusty world of Whitehall and put noses out of joint, but those who’ve worked with her describe a more emollient approach. According to the former Liberal MP Bill Pitt, who worked with Casey on anti-social behaviour in the early 2000s, her approach to disagreements was to say: “’Well I see what you’re saying, love, but I’ve got the final decision.” And she did it in a very affectionate way – she wasn’t someone who thumped the table.”
“She wouldn’t let anybody from the establishment or from a vested interest in the public services stand in her way,” says McTernan, “but I don’t think it’s her against the establishment.”
Nor does Casey see it that way. She suggests her style and the traditional, more cautious civil service approach both have their place. “Prime ministers need to alight on certain things that they feel… will make very significant change, and sometimes then you need a different approach [in areas such as] rough sleeping, anti-social behaviour, troubled families, integration. But you can’t have too many of those – a lot of it needs to be done in the way that it’s already done [by the civil service].”
If Casey did not see herself in conflict with the Whitehall establishment, there is another tension that emerges from her subsequent roles in government. It is not an issue she mentions herself, but looking at her work on anti-social behaviour and so-called “troubled families,” it’s possible to identify friction between her assertive, interventionist methods and the more cautious, “first do no harm” approach of social work.
Pitt led efforts to tackle anti-social behaviour in Manchester in the 1990s – a forerunner of Casey’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) drive in the 2000s, which he worked with her on. “Traditionally what I saw was that local authorities and police seemed to have gone down a sort of social worker route. And so they were looking at the needs, the difficulties, of the perpetrators,” he says.
“We saw victims of anti-social behaviour who had had service providers explaining the range of difficulties that the perpetrators had – so they’d been badly brought up, they were living with difficult parents, they were from generational deprivation. How does that sound when your kids are afraid of going to school? Somebody is coming along to you and explaining that the perpetrators are in a very difficult family.”
While there is little consensus on whether ASBOs and the TFP ‘worked,’ there is no doubt that Casey ‘gets things done’
Pitt says Casey’s attitude was not that social work with perpetrators should stop, just that authorities had to tackle the anti-social behaviour first. “She was very clear – get on with what you’re doing, but for God sake make sure those people who are being harmed, that stops.”
When the Tories took office in 2010, David Cameron’s team brought her in to lead the new “troubled families” agenda the prime minister had recently outlined in, as Casey puts it, “a speech with nothing to back it up”.
Having been persuaded at length that the government was serious, Casey became head of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) in 2011, with an objective of turning around an initial 120,000 troubled families with multiple problems through targeted interventions.
The scheme was controversial from the start, criticised by some for demonising its subjects and lacking clear criteria, as councils scrambled to identify families that fitted the central prescriptions. And the interventionist approach did not sit well with everyone.
“When I first heard her talking about the programme, she was just so instrumental about acting on other people’s lives,” a manager in local authority children’s services tells The House. “A key worker goes into your home every day and makes damn sure your kids go to school and your partner doesn’t do crimes and you get off your arse and get a job.
“The baleful influence I expected her to have was to move family policy and practice away from evidence and towards a punitive short-term focus on compliance with tick-box criteria, and no long-term investment in communities or services that might genuinely enable people to transform their lives for the better from their own motivation.”
However, the children’s services manager says, councils instead melded the Troubled Families money into existing services using their own models of practice, reclassifying cases and “dredging up evidence” in order to meet the programme’s criteria for funding. “She was convinced of the value of her own ideas, saw struggling families as evidence of social work failure rooted in wishy-washy liberal values.”
The impact of ASBOs and the TFP have been heavily debated. ASBOs were widely used and gave communities a tool to fight back against often violent anti-social behaviour – but most ASBOs were breached at least once, with around 40 per cent breached twice or more. Having initially been devised as a route away from custody, ASBOs were scrapped by then-home secretary Theresa May out of concern they had become a conveyer belt leading young people to prison.
Meanwhile, the “final synthesis report” of the first wave of the TFP was “unable to find consistent evidence” that the programme “had any significant or systematic impact”.
“All the other evaluations tell you this was a good thing to do,” says Casey of the TFP. “I stand by that work, actually; very, very much so.”
Looking back, a former minister from the Blair government says: “So many of these policies were conceived well, and conceived thoughtfully. It is not just Louise, and it is not just the Labour Party, everybody finds it very hard to step away from something if it doesn’t work or if it changes in a way that hadn’t been planned, and then to revert to an evidence-based approach. Everybody finds this really difficult in politics, especially when it’s very high profile.”
But while there is little consensus on whether ASBOs and the TFP “worked,” there is no doubt that Casey “gets things done”. ASBOs went from a little-used measure to a household phrase and cultural trope. The TFP has been rolled out to hundreds of thousands of families. And rough sleeping plummeted.
This record of “getting things done” helps explain why successive governments of different stripes keep turning to her. However effective it may or may not have been, the TFP has survived far longer than David Cameron’s Big Society.
“Point her at a problem, and she will understand what ordinary people need sorted, and then she’ll just get it sorted,” says McTernan. Her passion and commitment are well known.
Casey herself raises another point – her high public profile gives ministers someone to blame if a programme fails. “The upsides are that [ministers] can claim the glory when it works, and they can also say ‘well, she’s bloody hopeless’ when it fails. That comes with the territory if you’re a public-facing civil servant.”
That public profile stems not just from her willingness to speak openly to journalists, but also to vouch for the policies she is implementing.
In an interview from 2006 – when ASBOs were at their zenith – she said: “The fact that ASBOs are a household expression and appear in the dictionary and on EastEnders is something we’re proud of. Why? Because of the peace and security brought to thousands of people’s lives because of them and that people know that real action will be taken against anti-social behaviour.”
“Governments go to her again and again because she stands out, because she can bring that to bear internally and externally,” says McTernan. “Because you don’t just want the internal change – you want the change championed, and that’s one of her strengths.”
She sees herself as an example of social mobility of a kind that low pay has driven to the margins
Casey left the civil service in 2017 after 18 years, and having returned to a government advisory role on homelessness in February 2020, she stepped aside again later that year on being elevated to a crossbench peerage.
She says she would consider a return to Whitehall in a role she wanted to see action on, “as long as they are utterly serious and have good intentions”.
“But I am also very conscious of being 56; I’ve done a lot of jobs, and there are lots of younger people,” she adds. “There must be other people out there that can do those sorts of things.”
‘Why Louise?’ is one question – ‘Why always Louise?’ is quite another. Why is Casey so often the go-to person when a social policy problem needs fixing?
A possible clue came from the late former cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood. “I remember Jeremy saying to me, ‘they’re your people Louise,’” remembers Casey. “I went, ‘what do you mean?’ ‘Well, you know, your housing estates, those sorts of things. There’s just too much crime going on. You have to go in and do something about it.’”
There was nothing in particular in Casey’s background to suggest she would become the nation’s go-to fixit person. Her Irish father arrived in Liverpool as a teenager after his own father had died, and made a living installing phones in prisons. Casey herself initially found work at a holiday camp café before passing her A-levels second time round and graduating from Goldsmiths College in London. She took a job working at a benefits office before rising up the ranks in the homelessness sector and then moving to head up Labour’s Rough Sleepers Unit. She sees herself as an example of social mobility of a kind that low pay has driven to the margins.
New Labour recruited Casey from the homelessness sector to tackle rough sleeping. That connected her to the highest levels of Westminster and Whitehall. There are plenty of people in the various social policy fields – health, care, education, social work et al – but very few have those kinds of contacts, especially within the senior civil service.
When the government wants someone to fix a social policy problem, it’s either ring Casey or make the effort to find somebody new.
Casey says she got a frosty reception when she first started working in Whitehall, not fitting into any of the cliques – she was neither a politician, nor a Labour member, nor a special adviser, nor an established civil servant.
“By the end I think they saw me very much as a civil servant but also as an outsider – it’s really weird – ‘but she’s our outsider’.”
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