Louise Casey: It's time for local government to show its worth

By Heather Jameson | 10 October 2017

After an 18-year career in the Civil Service, running the social exclusion and troubled families unit, as well as leading high profile inquiries into Rotherham and integration, Dame Louise Casey talks to Heather Jameson.

Throughout your career in the Civil Service and the voluntary sector, you’ve never shied away from the tough issues. Do you think there is a tendency for public servants to do that?

I think people on the whole shy away from conflict. It does not make you popular and obviously politicians have to get themselves elected and therefore they often think that’s about popularity. To some degree, it is.

I’ve never had to get myself elected…I have been able therefore to look at and talk about stuff other people have not been able to do. I have to say, quite often when you say something, the vast majority of the public say ‘thank God someone is talking common sense’.

Have you enjoyed tackling the tough issues?

Yes and no. My contribution to our public service has to be one of the things I am most privileged and proud. Quite often all I am doing is reflecting what I have seen or felt or heard, or raising things that other people feel unable to do so. By not shining a light on the areas that are difficult or challenging, we are making huge mistakes for ourselves and the consequences get worse as times goes by.

The personal cost is you turn into a Marmite figure. People either love you or hate you and you’ve just got to get on with it. It can be personally tough but at the same time the people that love me outweigh the people that hate me – the benefits outweigh the downsides.

Your roles have tended to focus around people. Do you think the Civil Service sometimes forgets they are dealing with people, and organisations – local government included – and get tied up with processes?

I’ve felt that in every single job I’ve done and I think sometimes that is because it’s much easier to see somebody as a number or a system…rather than to see them as a human being who, as a system, we are failing. Sometimes when we humanise people’s problems that’s, I think, when we get the most effective responses to their problems.

I arrived back in government in the Civil Service to set up the Troubled Families programme. The first thing we had to do was get a systematic, payments by results regime out. The thing we very quickly then did…is wrote Listening to Troubled Families, because I didn’t want people to see that these were just statistics.

You look at universial credit…Everybody wants to think you are restructuring benefits so they are significantly less complicated… and the overall strapline that work has to pay is a good thing. The flipside is, benefits shouldn’t punish. If we actually understood those human beings, nobody would have ever created a system – unless they were designing it to punish people – that meant they would have to wait a month to six weeks before their benefits kicked in. I suppose I am worried that because we haven’t humanised that policy and we haven’t understood what it’s intention is, if it indeed isn’t to be cruel.

Essentially we are going full circle back to Cathy Come Home, watching people become homeless, watching people rely more on foodbanks and there is nothing colleagues in local government can do apart from pick up the pieces. Which is what they always have to do.

Is there a coherent social policy within central government and is it possible to get these things right? Are there solutions?

I think local government says there is no coherent policy in central government, and central government says, it is coherent and local government just doesn’t understand and I suppose I am in the middle. I can see it from both sides. My starting point is that I often feel some colleagues in Whitehall, particularly because they have never worked closely with or been part of local government, don’t understand that local government is a smaller version of central government, but it has to do all the department’s jobs.

You mentioned the Troubled Families unit. That was declared a success before there were any real results, then it was trashed as not having enough impact. Do you think central government has a tendency to not allow things to go on for long enough?

There is something in that in terms of parliamentary life cycles. Everybody is waiting for the next reshuffle. But sometimes when Prime Ministers decide something is going to happen, they do have a longer life line.

If you look at the six evaluation reports of the Troubled Families programme the one that was pre-briefed and leaked was the only one that knocked it. We don’t dispute that the changes have happened in these families…We just can’t attribute that change to the Troubled Families programme. Well I have met countless workers throughout the process who absolutely attribute it to the programme.

Do I think the Troubled Families programme was a success? Yes, I do.

Some of the issues you have tried to tackle can be quite expensive. Do you think the public has an appetite to pay for expensive programmes for hard to reach groups?

These are demanding families, they have problems and they cause problems. I think there is a really strong economic case. We know if we help those families it takes the public sector purse down in other areas, and I stand by that. It seems patently obvious, and I can persuade any member of the public, I feel, that’s still a good use of resources.

You stop spending money on prevention, you will start spending money on cure. That’s why, in my own view, the current housing strategy is not enough. It’s not fit enough for the challenges we face as a country as we go forward in the next decade.

In your cohesion report, there were a few things that could have been very misrepresented in the media. Were you nervous about it coming out?

Yes. The cohesion report got stuck over that summer and into the autumn because of course it is a very, very challenging report. It holds up a mirror on things that people find difficult to talk about, not just Islamic extremism or indeed far-right extremism but actually the day to day existence of many women. On top of that, black young men between the ages of 18 and 25 are 35% likely to be unemployed as opposed to – I think it is – 17% or 19% of their white counterparts.

So it was a very difficult report….I think it got to the point of being hard. Credit, though, to the Prime Minister and others that she allowed me to publish that report in December. She and Sajid Javid, and the Home Secretary were positive and supportive of the content.

Do you think there will be outcomes?

Well, there has to be. The country at the moment is frayed at the edges. You know, it’s a bit like the chapter on immigration, I say the pace and scale of immigration has been a little too much for some parts of the country. That was my most ‘Civil Service-ese’ as a way of saying, look, come on everybody, people are finding this very hard in certain areas of the country.

That takes us back to Rotherham. It took a long time for the council to accept liability there. Why do you think that happened?

I think that it surprised me. You would think after Alexis Jay had published her report that by the time we got there, they would be going ‘OK’. Instead of that, it is almost institutional, because people cannot think they are doing anything wrong.

I also think it is a bit like politicians and politics. The climate nowadays for saying you have done something wrong or you have made a mistake…I’ve admitted that not everything was perfect…but you know, I don’t have to get myself elected and I’m no longer a civil servant.

In terms of Rotherham, do you think the sector has learned lessons?

Its probably a really mixed picture.

Do I think society has learned its lesson? No I don’t, and I think that played out in the week of the Newcastle case over the summer. Fantastic job by Newcastle City Council and the police and the survivors and victims.

I thought [The Sun newspaper] leading with an article that said we have a Muslim problem was just so ridiculous and negative and islamophobic, it was deeply unhelpful.

I’m sure local authorities read the [Rotherham] inspection report and loads of them went back to local safeguarding, overhauled their processes. But do I think we as a society have learned the lessons? No I’m afraid I don’t think we have.

The HMRC report that was published in January this year cited a case where a child who was labelled as wayward had gone missing over 30 times. And I thought, Oh, OK, well clearly the Rotherham inspection report didn’t make it to you then.

So I think that we are getting there but there is something here about society overall taking responsibility for how we view vulnerable young girls, basically, and women.

You have been in the Civil Service for 18 years, what is it like to be out?

[Laughter] Really strange. I think I’m fairly institutionalised.

I feel, over time, the weight of being in the type of roles I was in was getting heavier and heavier and heavier, and I felt a kind of metal straitjacket was getting tighter and tighter and tighter. And that’s no one’s fault, that’s just politics. I’ve worked for four Prime Ministers, I’ve gone through quite a lot of secretaries of state, as it were, and other ministers, and I have had some wonderful, phenomenal civil servants that I’ve worked with. But I feel like that weight has been lifted. And I feel, personally, very positive about the future.

What is it that you would like to say that you weren’t allowed to say as a civil servant?

Most of what I’ve just said to you [laughs]. You have to be very careful. I’ve watched people as tsars, come into the Civil Service and start thinking that they can have a view on anything. Suddenly, they are a personality. You are seeing them in photoshoots for fashion or you are hearing about their views on everything. And actually, when you are in those sorts of roles, you run your policy, you take accountability for your policy. The successes are ministerial, the failures are yours, that’s the division of labour.

What would be the one or two things you would say ‘actually, if you could sort this out it would make things much better’ to local government?

Well, obviously, I think social care is the burning platform. It just doesn’t feel like we are making headway.

But I’d also look at children’s services. I still feel we are not brave enough to do a fundamental reform of children’s services and we attempt to move in when it has gone too wrong in the family. I looked at one point at the spend in children’s services [it] hasn’t gone down in comparison to other bits of local authorities, yet still feels like the Cinderella service to me.

Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you wanted to say?

I think that gets me into more than enough trouble, don’t you [laughs]?

The only thing I would like to say is, now government is weak…and politics feels at sea to the public….Who knows when you are a normal member of the public who you can turn to that is telling the truth?

I sort of think, OK guys in local government…You have a voice here which is legitimate. You know the best of local government is better than any part of Whitehall I’ve ever seen. Local government at its most effective is jaw dropping. It can inspire its citizens. It can stand up for doing things that are right. And sometimes I feel ‘come on you lot, show the country – show the bloody country – local government is worth something’.

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