“I think a year is a long time to wait,” says Dame Louise Casey when asked about the tardiness of the government’s response to her no-holds-barred review into opportunity and integration.
However, the former civil servant discloses to LGC that she has received indication ministers will soon finally answer the controversial recommendations of her December 2016 report.
Dame Louise is sympathetic to the workload of the Department for Communities & Local Government, as her employer until last summer was then named, which has occasionally given the impression of being too stretched by the scale of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster to also focus on areas such as cohesion. However, she also notes how the uncomfortable subject matter of the Casey Review makes any response politically difficult.
It compares educational attainment of people of different ethnic heritages, notes astonishing levels of segregation in some council wards and schools, hits out at self-proclaimed community leaders, and urges an end to the marginalisation of women in some Muslim communities, among other findings that have the power to unnerve those at both ends of the political spectrum.
“It’s, let’s face it, a challenging priority and some of this is very hard to get right,” she tells LGC. However, she is insistent the communities secretary is enthusiastic about his cohesion remit.
“Having worked for Sajid Javid in his department during the time of the review, he really does get these issues. Obviously, he understands these issues to some degree because of his Muslim heritage but actually he has gone out of his way ministerially to seek to understand them, both when I was there but also subsequently.”
Dame Louise says: “The contents of the report are quite tough because essentially they tell the story of a stocktake of the country that basically says we’re getting old… we are less white, we are less religious, we’re more progressive in many of our attitudes, and then there’s a sort of opposite of these trends within some minority faith communities, and specifically the largest growing number in that being those that would describe themselves as Muslim.”
Politicians’ reluctance to address such issues might stem from the fact “that in a country where there is more kindness than nastiness, nobody wants to make anybody’s life more challenging than it already is”, she says. However, her report is insistent tough questions need to be addressed for grievances to be overcome and life chances improved.
It’s, let’s face it, a challenging priority and some if this is very hard to get right
Dame Louise says she does not know whether No 10 has been a factor in the response’s delay but she says the publication of her report – several months after it was expected – was “challenging because of Downing Street”.
Her report was commissioned by David Cameron and it was after he had been replaced by Theresa May that its publication date slipped.
“Once I’d met the prime minister and we’d gone through it we published it,” Dame Louise says, adding, in perhaps her only circumspect remark in an hour-long interview with LGC, that this was an “interesting time”.
When asked for the litmus test issues which will show the seriousness of the government’s response to her review, Dame Louise immediately replies: “I know everybody is trying to say that money doesn’t matter on this issue but money does matter.”
This is particularly true, she states, with ensuring non-English speakers get support to learn the language.
She says that “if the only time we spend money or have views around these sort of issues” are in relation to Home Office-led counterextremism or anti-terrorism programmes, then “we’re in the wrong place”.
“We should be doing work on community cohesion and integration because we need a country that is knitted together and understands each other,” Dame Louise adds.
She goes on to reel off a string of statistics explaining why cohesion needs to be prioritised, such as the 35% unemployment rate for young black men and 60% of Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage women being economically inactive – three times the rate of their white counterparts.
Dame Louise also urges the government to act on English language provision. “I want to go all New Labour on it, to set a target and then say that by a certain date we want to make sure that everyone in the country – with some exceptions like older people – but broadly those that are of working age should all have certain language proficiency.”
And she is seeking measures to “route money and power into women” in minority ethnic or Muslim groups in which their status has been limited. “There wasn’t any money” for domestic violence or health projects, Dame Louise claims.
Once you reach women, you sometimes need to “tell them they are OK to leave the house on their own”, while it needed to be ensured marriages were legal under British law and not purely religious.
“Those women are incredibly disempowered within our society and that’s just plain wrong,” Dame Louise continues. “Actually, it’s the men in those communities and so-called religious and community leaders who are allowing that to happen and in many cases fostering it.”
She also calls on ministers to act against home schooling, describing it as a “problem”, which is leading to worsening segregation when “it takes a village to raise a child”. Dame Louise says: “I am nervous about alternative forms of education for children, including in the home, and I’d feel that way regardless of whether I’ve written a cohesion report.”
Dame Louise predicts local authorities could be asked to lead many of the processes required to improve cohesion as “they’ll have more connections and understanding and I think a lot of them wanted that.” However, hitherto “the only funding” available had been through the anti-terrorism Prevent programme, which is seen by many Muslims as targeting them.
“I’m tired of people constantly criticising Prevent,” she says. “The mistake was that the government did that in isolation of an integration strategy.” That strategy should soon be forthcoming and, freed from the shackles of the civil service, it seems certain Dame Louise will not rest quietly if ministers’ response falls short.