This article first appeared in the August edition of C’llr Magazine
Louise Casey is the director general of the Troubled Families Unit. No-one is more anxious to ensure that the dreaded word ‘czar’ doesn’t appear anywhere on her title – the epithet has dogged her since her days in charge of the Labour government’s Rough Sleepers Unit. Patrick Kelly talked to her about her new role.
Outspoken and occasionally brash, Louise Casey is absolutely dedicated to the most disadvantaged sections of society. From deputy director of Shelter through to Tony Blair’s point woman on anti-social behaviour, to commissioner for the victims of crime, Casey has deliberately chosen to front the unpopular causes and defend the hardest cases in social policy.
Despite her New Labour roots, successive Tory ministers, right up to the PM, have been impressed by her willingness to take on the Whitehall establishment to get the right deal for the groups she works for.
Indeed, it’s rare for councillors to describe any civil servant as “inspirational” but that’s what a few said of her appearance at the LGA workshop to discuss the Troubled Families Programme.
In return, she’s clear that she sees local government is a “key partner” in making a success of the Troubled Families Programme. “But not only that, local authorities have a strong leadership role in this initiative and it was strategic decision to make them so,” she says.
She acknowledges that there were some behind the scenes battles that preceded the announcement of the initiative and the £448m worth of funding that went with it.“I was under pressure from various places. Lots of charities were saying ‘Why didn’t I make this into a big charity programme with them at the core?’ We also decided that councils were to get most of the money upfront – £448m is a lot of money and local authorities can get most of it – 80 per cent. It took some persuading in Whitehall to get that.”
Putting local government in the driving seat also made sense because the scheme “had learned a lot from the various family intervention programmes up and down the country,” says Casey. “The Troubled Families Programme shows that the government can come behind issues that local authorities are already worrying about.”
She cites examples of local councils whose innovative work she admires – like Bradford’s Family Intervention Project or the Leeds City Region’s decision to make NEETs a priority area. “But they are small scale and not yet part of the mainstream.
The intention of the programme is that it becomes mainstream and the natural way of doing things.” But Casey points out that the concept of targeting the most troubled families is not a new one.
“In a sense this all goes back to the ‘Respect era’ (when the Blair government set up a task force, headed by Casey, to deal with antisocial behaviour and problematic young people and families). Many of the projects that came out of that were given to local authorities to run.”
Responding to the criticism that some parts of Whitehall have traditionally been less engaged than others in getting behind cross departmental initiatives like this one, she says, “Look, the Department of Health has dug deep in its pockets – £60m is a lot of money and the DWP are allowing access to information and records – that shows they are behind this.”
And she is adamant that government backing, though it does “come with strings attached” will not be result in more bureaucracy. “I will not be out with a clipboard checking that councils are doing this that or the other – that’s not the way it’s going to work.”
Local authorities will be free to choose who co-ordinates their local projects and which families they work with, she said. “We will start with what is already known at local level. I have consistently made it clear that not I am going to come from on high and say these are the people you must work with. If you want to use your own people, then that’s fine.”
Patrick Kelly is a freelance journalist.