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Louise Casey: The Tories are done – and they need to go away for a while

The social policy fixer on the perils of "initiativitis" and how Labour can deliver in government.

By Alona Ferber

After the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens in 2021, the force’s failings became impossible to ignore. A much-needed review into how the Met dealt with misogyny in its own ranks was launched in February 2022. It was led by someone uniquely qualified for the task: the former senior civil servant Baroness Louise Casey.

The crossbench peer, 58, was the UK’s first ever victims’ commissioner, and she had led reviews and been appointed as a “tsar” on myriad difficult public service failings and policy challenges, from the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal, to the Respect task force, to community cohesion and extremism.

But Casey, sometimes referred to as a “social policy fixer”, had a record of achieving results in government, as well as identifying the causes of failure. “I haven’t done as many reviews as people think I have,” Casey told me in a recent video call from her kitchen in north London, dressed casually in a zip-up sweatshirt. “I’ve done more doing.”

Casey, the former deputy director of the homelessness charity Shelter, was appointed by Tony Blair to head his Rough Sleepers Unit in 1999. In the following years under New Labour, the number of rough sleepers in the UK dropped dramatically.

By contrast, “initiativitis” is the opposite of clear achievement. Casey recalled confronting Rishi Sunak in a police station when she was carrying out the Met review. “He just looked across the table as if I was completely mad when I said ‘you’re not making a dent in violence against women and girls’.”

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The Prime Minister responded by listing “initiative after initiative after initiative”, she says. “But you can imagine what I think about initiativitis. It doesn’t change anything, it just makes governments feel better.”

If Casey is against a glut of state initiatives, she is a fan of mission-led government – “Brown and Cameron didn’t have a plan, all credit to [Labour] for the missions” – but she has plenty of advice for Keir Starmer on how to ensure that his five national missions on economic growth, green power, fixing the NHS, reducing crime, and expanding opportunity don’t get lost in the fog of running a country.

Clarity is vital, whether for missions or targets. “Nobody likes the word ‘targets’ because it’s associated with Blair,” she says, “but his domestic work was extraordinary, and a lot of the time he set targets.” There is a problem there too, though: “You can hit the target and miss the point.”

The five missions “need quite tight control” without too much bureaucracy, she says. It’s also easy “to manipulate targets” or to create unintended consequences, displacing “problems from one place to another”. Casey is disparaging of “deliverology”, and the jargon that goes with it (“drill down” is a pet peeve). “There are books written about it, and presumably consultants make money out of this,” she says.

[See also: Will Labour grasp the opportunities of new technology]

Still, the five missions “are the right missions”, she explains carefully, if Labour wants to aim for national renewal: Casey believes unity and renewal are what the country needs. “I don’t feel like we’re a unified country in so many ways,” she says, “Not just politically, but the rich and the poor, and the fact that people who are aspirational can’t see their way through.”
But Starmer must beware of “mission creep”. Overarching missions shouldn’t “turn into massive hedgerows of every single thing”, or else they will be impossible to negotiate, as will the many people with “bright new ideas… it can get a bit exhausting when you’re the tsar in charge of it”.

What would Casey do if she had five missions to make good on? She would appoint a secretary of state for each one, alongside independent tsars, she says. Like her, I ask? “Like me.”

Prime ministers have to be selective, she warns. Tony Blair and David Cameron both associated themselves with key things. “The Prime Minister only has a certain amount of time, and I’ve worked for five of them.” They vary in how hard they work and how much work they get done, as well as “how good they are at decision-making, what their cabinets are like, whether they’re collegiate and all pulling in the same direction. All of those things vary.”

In 2011, she recalls, then prime minister David Cameron announced that he wanted to help 120,000 “troubled families”. This was a “nice Conservative policy”, she says. Cameron had a feeling that “a small number of people had a large number of problems, and often therefore caused problems in many ways”. (In November 2011, Casey became director general of the Troubled Families Unit at the Department for Communities and Local Government).

She has a lesson, here, in the options an administration has for solving problems: Jeremy Heywood, then Downing Street chief of staff, “very quietly said to me, ‘Can you have a look at whether anybody’s doing anything to meet this?’ I went, I looked, and I went in to see them.”

Casey presented Cameron and Heywood with three alternatives. Either “set up a target and take responsibility for it. Find some money and get the job done;” or “say you’re doing it” but set up a pilot, call it “innovation”, and then point to some minor success; or, third, collect evidence of things that the government is already doing. “Get the secretary of state to chair a group with committee meetings driven by the Cabinet Office,” she recalls suggesting. “Then ministers will turn up and take lines to take on: ‘somebody’s got a knife crime strategy, so that will help, someone’s got something on food strategies’.

Her least favourite is the pilot option: “In a funny kind of way, one and three are the most honest things that you could be doing. So you either do it, or you say that these strategies will help with it.”

From her decades working on social policy, Casey knows of other potential pitfalls. Projects that don’t change a fundamental problem with a system, that don’t take the opportunity for “revolution”, are ultimately a distraction. This is particularly salient now, given the state of the country. “Everywhere I go, the trains don’t run on time,” she says. The Conservatives are “spent, they’re done and they need to go away for a while”.

Casey has worked under both the Tories and Labour, but she describes herself as “more than left-leaning”, and she has a world-view.

“I don’t think we can have a world, let alone a country, where people don’t have food and they don’t have love and kindness… But we don’t have a country where that’s possible. And I think there are just some basics about why we work, why we earn money, why we pay taxes. There’s a deal between us all: I don’t expect somebody to pay for me, but I expect to have the opportunity to be able to pay for myself.”

[See also: Exclusive: High streets “worse since 2010”, say most Tory councillors]

In Starmer she believes “we have a man of integrity” and an opposition that, though inexperienced in government, “is busting to get some stuff done”. The five missions should bring focus, but Labour has only one chance to get things right.

Whether Labour can stick to all of its five missions is another matter. Casey identifies two 21st century trends that show society has lost its way: in-work poverty and “food hunger – the street homelessness of the 2020s”, with its apparatus of food banks and food kitchens. This month Casey launched the Coronation Food project, which will fight against food waste and hunger.

There have been reports that Casey could lead a William Beveridge-style intervention for Starmer – referencing the 1942 report that laid the grounds for the modern welfare state. But, rather than “have an argument about the two-child limit on child tax credit”, she says, “we need to think about what a welfare state would be in the 21st century. Our whole economy has changed, our population has changed.”

Casey is full of ideas on how to solve the most difficult problems facing government, and clear on the need for clarity of definition and purpose. On violence against women and girls she would “call it male violence against women and children”. The fact that “we can’t name the major reason… irritates the hell out of me”.

On crime, fairly fresh from her review of the Met, she notes that the police service “is old-school, very male, run largely by men with men. Sorry, that’s the brutal reality of it.” She believes that they didn’t think through what dealing with violence against women required. With rape victims waiting more than two years for their cases to get to court, a decision could have been made for temporary nightingale courts to prioritise that backlog, for instance. “That’s the sort of tough decision which I don’t think is as tough as people think it is,” she says.

As our call is about to finish, she volunteers, eyebrows raised, almost conspiratorial, that “We could even sort out the NHS and social care, if we wanted to.” How? Social care “is not just about money”, says Casey. “They’ve got a split delivery model. That’s the first mistake, and Labour aren’t rejecting it.” Splitting responsibilities on social care between local government and the health department was a mistake of the former Labour government. Casey believes that “you should never leave something that’s about human beings and their care” across two different bodies. That’s fine for railways, but not human beings, she argues.

Wes Streeting’s “National Care Service” doesn’t shift the model, either. And this highlights an additional risk for Labour’s missions: “Don’t put on a front, don’t paint the door to make a disused building [in a deprived area] look better.”

Casey thinks that we need “a five to ten-year period” for “a breathtaking series of things that change Britain”. Labour mustn’t overpromise ahead of the election – but the party must think carefully about what it does in the “first two or three years that allows the country to feel that systemic change”.

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight supplement. Read the full edition.

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