Shortly before the first lockdown began last March, Louise Casey flew back to Britain from Australia, where she’d been working as an adviser on homelessness. She doesn’t, she says, travel well. But when she landed, there seemed to be no possibility of giving in to jet lag. Though she’d been away for only 10 days, the change in London was palpable. At the airport, her taxi driver told her that half of his colleagues had just been laid off; he was surviving on two fares a day. Later that afternoon, she dragged herself to the supermarket. It was, she remembers, chaotic. Outside, she looked in the bins where food bank donations can be left. They were almost empty. When she asked a staff member about this, the woman could only gesture at the battalions of half-crazed shoppers, their trolleys full to overflowing. Seemingly, its customers were too intent on stocking their own cupboards to worry about anyone else.
In this situation, most of us would have gone home to bed, and everything would have looked better in the morning. Casey, however, is not most of us. I’m not sure when we first began referring to those overseeing particular areas of government policy as “tsars”, but if there is such a thing as the tsar of tsars, she may well be it. Under Tony Blair, she ran the Rough Sleepers Unit and the Respect Task Force; under David Cameron, the Troubled Families Unit. Last March, she hadn’t yet begun her latest job, which was to carry out a review of the Johnson government’s homelessness strategy – but the prospect of doing so now seemed only to be so much fiddling while Rome burned.
After some sleep, she sent a text to Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, tapping it out as she stood in the lobby of his department in Whitehall. “I’m in reception,” it read. “Can we talk?” She laughs. “It’s always a moment when you get a message from me saying: I’m downstairs,” she says. “I mean… nightmare.” Then again, as she also observes, while she is still (just about) an outsider in political terms – as disdainful of hierarchies as she is of spin – she is at least their outsider. Jenrick duly saw her, and the review was put on hold. Henceforth, she would be working on a “mission critical” project to ensure that self-contained accommodation was found for every rough sleeper in England. This scheme came to be known as Everyone In, and the miracle of it is that it was largely successful. During the first lockdown, around 33,000 people were given beds in B&Bs, hotels and student accommodation.
There is some debate about how things stand now. If the government maintains that Everyone In never came to an end, homeless charities have reported that funding has dried up, and rough sleeping is back to pre-pandemic levels. Casey is adamant that the truth lies somewhere in between – “there has been a huge improvement,” she insists – but this said, what matters most to her now isn’t so much the figures themselves as the way in which the pandemic gave clarity to the problem. “It took all the faffing out of it,” she says, a little amazed. “From the right-on-osphere on one side [the liberal left is nervous of being seen to “round up” rough sleepers] to the I-don’t-want-to-spend-money-on-the-feckless on the other. We just got on with it. We approached it from a public health perspective – the homeless could have been super-spreaders, especially those in communal night shelters – and that was liberating.”
It’s this kind of clarity that the government, she believes, needs to hang on to as talk of what the post-pandemic world might look like begins. “This is the moment,” she says. “The thing I feel – and this is the first time I’ve talked about it, even among friends – is that we have to grasp it. Are we ever going to create a Britain that’s for everyone? And if not now, then when? We’ve shown we don’t have to have rough sleepers, which means that we could now decide as a country that this is it. That we will not have rough sleepers ever again.”
From such a starting point, it should, she says, be equally possible to decide that no one will be hungry either, and that old people should be able to look forward to safe care at the end of their lives: “We can do some really clever, different things. The pandemic has changed attitudes. Polling shows that 74% of people are OK with the tiny uplift [£20] in universal credit. They want it to continue. If we asked, say, the 750,000 people who wanted to volunteer for the NHS whether they could afford to give a quid to the government – a voluntary contribution – wouldn’t many of them be happy to do so?”
This is the third time I’ve met Casey. She lives near me, and today has come to my office to talk, a sheaf of typed statistics under her arm. But though I’m used to her very particular energy by now – beside her, I often feel anaemic, like a plant that has been kept too long in a cupboard – I’m still surprised at the straightforwardness that follows. It’s as if she has been waiting, and now, all of a sudden, she is ready.
“We need to move into Royal Commission territory,” she says. “A new Beveridge Report [drafted by the economist William Beveridge in 1942, this was the document that led to the founding of the welfare state]. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.” Crikey. Is this a job she would like to take on herself? I look at her steadily, wondering if she’s going to indulge in a bout of it’s-not-for-me-to-say. But, no. She doesn’t much go in for let’s pretend. “Yes, I’d love to be part of that,” she says. “Government can, if it wants to, do something on a different scale now. The nation has been torn apart, and there’s no point being defensive about that. We’ve got to gift each other some proper space to think. We’ve got to work out how not to leave the badly wounded behind.”
* * *
I meet Casey for the first time on a cold, wet January morning at the Queen’s Crescent Community Centre in Kentish Town, north London. Having stepped back from her work for the government last August (“I’d shown what could be done; I just felt like I was being pulled back into the system”), she has turned to making as much noise as possible in the media and elsewhere about the devastation she believes the pandemic will leave behind – and because of this, she makes lots of visits to such places: in this case, somewhere that, sensing desperate need, turned itself almost overnight into a food bank. Data, she believes, is meaningless unless backed by experience – what she calls, using a phrase from the long-ago days when she worked in homelessness outreach, “eyes on” – and never more so than now, when we’re all indoors, oblivious to what may be happening outside.
Thanks to the new variants of Covid-19, clients can no longer enter many food banks – hence the street-facing counter, behind which, when I first clap eyes on her, Casey is standing, wrapped in her long green coat. Every week, at least 150 people seek help here. It works like this. Clients explain both what they need, and what they don’t. “I’ve got bread at home,” they might say, “but I’d like some potatoes, please.” Volunteers then describe what’s in supply. “What about a lettuce?” they’ll ask. Or: “Would you like one of these curries?” Finally, a shopping bag is filled and handed over. It’s friendly, kind and quick.
What tends to go unspoken, unless someone is in open distress, is how sad and desperate a time this is for those in line. It’s obvious that many of those pitching up here are new to food banks, just as they’re new to the benefits system – like the young woman who comes forward as the volunteers are about to shut up shop, holding the hands of her two little girls. “Could I have some milk?” she asks, uncertainly. Casey, who is ever-brisk, but so warm, too – an old-fashioned, soft-hearted, hyper-efficient battleaxe – reassures her that, yes, of course she can. But isn’t there anything else she’d like as well?
Three weeks later, when we meet to talk properly, I remind her of this woman. Afterwards, Casey’s eyes had filled with tears as we went over what we’d seen. “Yes,” she says. “Well, it was upsetting. You were very upset, too. I suppose it’s because these are people who’ve always coped in the past. I met a woman at another food bank in Bexley. Her friend had driven her there, and I helped her to the car with her shopping so I could find out what was going on. She and her husband had three children. They were both furloughed. Money got tight. He left. She’d waited two months for universal credit. I defy anyone to live without any money for two months. The cracks in the system are growing and the most obvious issue around those cracks is hunger.” Casey believes that hunger is only set to grow in Britain, for the very stark reason, she predicts, that it will not be long before approximately 25% of the population will be in some form of hardship.
“We can get there quite quickly,” she says. “By March, there will be 6 million people on universal credit [in October, there were 5.7m]. Almost 4 million people are furloughed, and those still working are on less income [in a survey by the Resolution Foundation, 26% of adults reported suppressed wages during the first lockdown]. Unemployment has doubled [it stood at 1.72 million in November 2020], and will keep rising. Two million people are still on legacy benefits – which means they didn’t get the £20 uplift that came with universal credit. Then you add in the 5 million people who are in debt [42% of adults report using at least one form of borrowing to cover everyday living costs].”
Pre-pandemic, there were 280,000 homeless in England and Wales. Earlier this month, the government announced that the ban on bailiff-enforced evictions, which protects private renters, would be extended to the end of March. But it will end eventually. “At which point, family homelessness will rise,” says Casey. “If 25% of your population is affected, then you can’t just tweak old policies, working out the least expensive, least challenging thing that can be done. You need big new policies.”
Casey understands that many people will think about all this, and feel something close to despair; we have, she accepts, lost faith in politicians to effect change. “That culture of never answering a question,” she says. “It’s not that they’re dishonest. But they are disingenuous. Sometimes, I can barely listen to them myself. People in power have got themselves into this situation where they have to pretend everything is OK all the time, instead of saying: no, it isn’t, and let’s figure out what we can do. This constant rebuttal, it’s like an arcade game: ping, ping, ping. I think it started under Labour. It’s about action, not solutions. Food banks, free school meals: they’re all action. But are they solving hunger? No. It’s like me, before I went to Rotherham [in 2014, she led an inspection of children’s services at Rotherham Council, following the child exploitation scandal in the town]. My GP said to me: Louise, I can give you prescriptions for this and that, but at some point, you need to work out how you are going to stop needing those prescriptions. You need to lose weight.”
From her, though, you pick up two emotions. Despair, yes. But also a determination that could certainly pass for optimism. Whenever she speaks – as she did to local government staff in Wales the other day – she always goes down a storm. People find her inspirational, galvanising. (Though the initiatives she has overseen have not always been entirely successful: her work on troubled families for David Cameron, for instance, did not, perhaps, make the kind of inroads it should have.) What motivates her?
She has a powerful and abiding sense of the precariousness of life: of the thinness of the line that separates those who are surviving from those who are thriving. “I don’t talk about my private life much,” she says. “But to sound like Nick Clegg for a moment, my brother, who is a barrister, and I are both stories of social mobility. My father got off a boat from Ireland as a teenager. His father had died, and all the brothers were dispatched to different places. He came in to Liverpool.” What did he do for a living? “He put telephones into prisons. I’m not sure in 2021, that what happened in our case, is possible. I left college with a £300 overdraft, and I was worried sick about that. It would never have occurred to me to go to university if it had incurred the debt it does now.”
Casey went to a Catholic comprehensive school near Portsmouth, where she grew up. “I owe those nuns,” she says, with real feeling. (Alhough she is no longer a believer, at key moments, she has often found herself sitting at the back of a church, trying to make up her mind what to do.) But having failed her A-levels, she took a job at the Hayling Island Sunshine Holiday Camp, where she worked in the cafe. She hoots with laughter. “All my Christmases came when, one day, they didn’t have a Yellow Coat who could call the bingo. I thought I’d arrived. But they never asked me again.” In those days – it was the 80s – work paid. She ran this job alongside a couple of others, one on a Saturday. One of the things that worries her most about Britain in 2021 is the fact that, in the gig economy, work often doesn’t pay – and that this is so little acknowledged.
She retook her A-levels, and did her degree at Goldsmiths, in London. She wanted to be either a social worker or a journalist. “I got a job in a benefits office to see if I could hack it – social work, I mean.” Working behind a Perspex screen in Brixton – people would often punch it, and on occasion even take an axe to it – frequently made her feel powerless. How little she could really do to help. But it also sent her, eventually, in the direction of St Mungo’s, the homelessness charity, where she worked next, and later Shelter, where she would rise to be deputy director. She was appointed to run the Rough Sleepers Unit by Tony Blair in 1999.
Casey got a DBE in 2016, for services to families and vulnerable people. “I loved being a Dame,” she says. “That was enough for me.” But last July she was made a crossbench peer – a civil service appointment – and perhaps this played into her decision to walk away from the current government. “I’m a bit of a one-woman-from-Finsbury-Park show at the moment,” she says. “I roam around the place, annoying people.” The Lords will, she hopes, give her a base: “When Mark Sedwill [a former cabinet secretary and the head of the civil service] rang to tell me I was going to be nominated, he said: ‘We would like to make sure that you are secure for life to speak without fear or favour.’”
She repeats the words more slowly, italicising them: “Without fear or favour.” How did she feel at that moment? “I couldn’t speak. Mark said: ‘Have I just silenced Louise Casey? That’s a first.’” She looks away, on the edge of tears. “I felt very upset, I think. I was overwhelmed.” Why? “It’s not for people like me, really. It’s a big thing, and an odd thing. It has trappings that leave a taste in your mouth, but at the same time… how glorious.”
Is she ready, now, to be a tsar once more? For a big new job that, if I’ve read her right, might be the biggest and most vital of her life? “I sort of feel like I’ve got something in me, yes. I’m only 55. I think that women often start to disappear at this age, and that’s when we are in our prime. I don’t think there’s anything that fazes me any more. I’m very tough. I’m full of energy. The grey matter is all there. I always feel that I put myself down a bit to make other people feel better, when I should be saying: I’ve worked for five prime ministers.” She smiles at me, knowing I share her frustration. “Men at this age are seen to be statesmanlike, aren’t they?” she says. “What’s the equivalent of that for a woman?”
* * *
A few days after our visit to the food bank, Casey and I go out with St Mungo’s, whose outreach workers, acting on calls from the public, or from homeless people themselves, must try to find those who are still sleeping rough in order to offer them accommodation. We meet at 9.30pm, and the hours that follow are so strange and sad. It’s heartening that relatively few people seem to be on the streets at the moment; more than once, we approach a bundle of bedding or a tent, only to find it empty. But the preternatural quiet in this part of the city – we’re in the middle of Westminster – is unnerving. There is no one around. No commuters, no late-night revellers, no taxi drivers and, above all, no police. If rough sleepers are always in some danger, they can rarely have been so vulnerable as in lockdown. Anything could happen, and no one would be there to intervene. The men we do find are both foreign nationals – in the pandemic, so many people have got stuck – and both have chosen to sleep near churches. “I’m always struck by the fact that even now people still think of such places as safer,” says Casey.
In the car on the way home, I tell her that for the first time in 30 years of living in London, I’d felt nervous as I walked from the tube to meet her: a stranger in my own city, with footsteps that were too loud, and a shoulder that had to be looked over every other minute.
“Well, this is what I mean,” she says, or something like it, as we drive north on the traffic-less streets in record time. “For a lot of people, everything – not just rough sleeping, I mean all of it – is going on somewhere else, out of sight.” Her job, she thinks, is to make people see what at present they cannot, the better to be prepared when they do finally step out into the world once more. Again, she uses her favourite phrase. “Eyes on,” she says, as we swoop down into the Kingsway underpass.