Dame Louise Casey has used her valedictory speech as a senior civil servant to urge public servants to “seize the moment” to bring in a new culture of humanity to support the vulnerable following the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Speaking at the People’s Powerhouse conference in Doncaster yesterday, Dame Louise – who in the past two decades has come to be regarded as the most straight-talking civil servant – also hinted that she would was relishing the opportunity to fully speak her mind about policy upon leaving Whitehall after 18 years later this month.
Dame Louise who has been homelessness tsar, led the Troubled Families programme and reported on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham before serving as director general of the Casey Review into isolated communities and cohesion said: “I am looking forward to being ungagged, live and uncut.”
She said of the Grenfell Tower tragedy: “If ever there was a moment for the public to know and see the value of what we all do in this room and what we all do in the public sector and its wider family, it’s now.
“This really is a ‘seize the moment’ moment. Seize the power of love and the power of kindness. I believe in the hope that humanity brings and I believe in service for others.”
Urging her audience, predominantly of public servants and third sector workers, to target support for the vulnerable, she said: “Change must be demanded, cultivated and encouraged by those of us outside Whitehall. Take it and use it, you have the power.”
Addressing the failures of organisation at Kensington & Chelsea RBC that followed the fire, she said: “At Kensington & Chelsea we haven’t got to people on their terms. We have to get to a connection that’s been lost between the system and the personal. Yet we’ve professionalised, built systems and processes around something that is not a process or a system but a person, something that’s about human interaction.”
Dame Louise urged an end to attempts to “dehumanise” systems. She said that although she supported digitalisation, “we have to be careful that it doesn’t depersonalise our interaction with human beings”.
She spoke much about public servants’ ability to choose which path they should take, urging them to make “the choice of what’s right, rather than that’s easy”, adding: “That’s one of the reasons I’m leaving central government.”
“My reflection on politics is that it often falls down this divide of doing something on the left or something on the right rather than thinking about what’s right and what’s wrong for our country and what’s the best thing to do in the interests of the country and the people,” she said.
She gave examples of the public sector failing the vulnerable including children’s centres that closed on Friday evenings, homelessness services that closed for a summer break and housing outreach workers who focused on younger people rather than the long-term homeless.
“Counterintuitively we should start with the hardest first,” she said. “This isn’t about metaphoric low hanging fruit, this is about sorting out the issues that are the hardest.” She added: “No one is beyond hope.”
In her speech she addressed Britain’s current political instability, taking on the conference’s theme, stating: “The time has come for power to be seized outside Whitehall and people to take things into their own hands.
“If you are looking for direction from Whitehall then don’t – actually, bypass it, go on, do your own thing.”
In an often emotional final speech as a civil servant, Dame Louise talked about most aspects of her work over the past 18 years. “I’ve got some stuff right; I’ve got some stuff wrong – I can’t say everything I’ve been involved with was stellar,” she said.
“There’ve been long and difficult moments,” she added.
Dame Louise was particularly powerful in her defence of the Troubled Families programme, the evidence base for which was criticised in a government-commissioned report last autumn, saying it had got 100,000 highly vulnerable families lives “on track”.
Hinting that she had been unable to properly defend her work, Dame Louise said: “I was deluged by people that came forward, saying ‘where are you?’; ‘don’t let them do this to our scheme’. It won’t be long folks.”
She described her work on integration as “a big challenge for everybody in this country, including the government”.