I've only met Louise Casey the one time. She came to speak to me in 2008 as part of a consultation exercise for what became her report, Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime.
She sat politely. Smiled at the appropriate moments. Paid no attention to anything I said and wrote a report short on evidence and long on ideology and gut prejudice.
Parenting was a preoccupation of that report. Done badly, it put 'children at risk of getting involved in crime and anti-social behaviour'. Done well and it acted 'as a protection against poverty, social exclusion and poor educational attainment, as well as preventing crime and anti-social behaviour'.
Can parenting, however good, really protect children from poverty and social exclusion? Can poor educational attainment or deliquency really be laid at the door of 'bad' parents? Not for the first time, a basic truth – that a stable and loving emotional base is key to healthy childhood development – became invested with a significance and expectation far beyond what could be delivered.
Now, in her role as head of the 'Troubled Families Team' Casey has called on workers supporting families to start 'rolling up their sleeves and getting down and cleaning floors if that is what needs to be done'. Among her other suggestions are showing parents 'how to heat up a pizza' and 'going round three times a week at 7am to get Mum up'.
Louise Casey is what might be described as a 'colourful' character. Back in 2005 she extolled the benefits of binge drinking to an audience of police chiefs, suggested that government ministers might perform better if they 'turn up in the morning pissed' and joked that she would 'deck' Downing Street advisors who spouted jargon at her.
For most civil servants this would have been a career-ending speech. For Casey it merely burnished her reputation as someone not afraid to speak her mind. So it is with her latest intervention.
Headline grabbing statements aside, the 'troubled families' programme fronted up by Casey is but the latest in a long line of initiatives by successive governments to address apparent parental and family dysfunction.
According to the latest definition, a family is 'troubled' if it manifests five of the following characteristics:
- no one in the family is in work
- living in poor or overcrowded housing
- no parent has any qualifications
- mother has mental health problems
- at least one parent has a longstanding illness
- a low income
- an inability to afford a number of food, clothing items
Addressing these profound personal and familial needs is, apparently relatively straightforward. 'Turning troubled families around' involves 'getting children back in the classroom and not wandering the streets commiting crime' and 'getting parents onto the work programme'.
I doubt that anyone within or outside of government really believes it is as simple as this, or thinks that it amounts to a coherent programme for supporting families in crisis. Past experience of the family intervention projects is not encouraging. The risk that needy and desperately marginalised adults will simply end up being blamed for problems outside of their control is high.
And while it is easy to focus on the idiosyncrasies of a high-profile, outspoken civil servant, the real challenge is to develop policies that support individuals and families in need, and not just see them as a problem that needs to be tackled.
Update, May 19, 2012: More or Less, the BBC Radio 4 programme that explores the world of numbers, yesterday looked at the facts behind the claims about troubled families. Ruth Levitas, the University of Bristol research interviewed on More or Less, has also published a useful analysis on the Poverty and Social Exclusion in the UK website.