BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guests to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is Dame Louise Casey, Baroness Casey of Blackstock, now a crossbench peer, she's worked under five prime ministers, tackling the country's thorniest social problems homelessness, poverty, crime, anti-social behaviour and family breakdown.
Baroness might be the grandest title she's earned in her career, but it's by no means the first. She's been known as the homelessness czar, the respect tsar, the ASBO queen, and on occasion, the tsar of Tsars. Her outspoken style and pragmatic approach have always set her apart. As one former colleague put it, there's no other civil servant I've ever met that's gone down a crack alley to find out why someone's homeless. But then she started at the sharp end behind the counter of the DHSS.
The poverty she saw there in the late 1980s moved her to find a job where she could offer hands on help. She began working for homelessness charities and by 1992 was the deputy director of shelter at just 27. By the late 90s, she was a government troubleshooter under Tony Blair. She led a drive to slash the numbers of rough sleepers under David Cameron. She ran the Troubled Families program. More recently, she chaired the covid-19 Rough Sleeping Taskforce. Her everyone-in initiative was credited with protecting over 14,000 rough sleepers.
She says, it's really important to me to make the world a slightly better place. I think if we can do something to help a person, we've got to get on with it. Dame Louise Casey, welcome to Desert Island Discs.
Thank you very much for having me. It's a real honour, actually. Nerve racking honour. A real honour. So thank you for having me.
Well, you're most welcome. So, Louise, kindness and compassion are your watchwords. And you talk a lot about the need for a culture of kindness in the last year. Of course, we've seen that, haven't we, in with neighbours and communities all rallying round to help each other. That must gladden your heart to see that.
I think the best thing that has happened because of the pandemic is just this extraordinary surf wave, really, of kindness towards each other. 750,000 people volunteered for the NHS last year. So many that people can go get us down a food bank just the other week. And they've got endless people volunteering, you know, and wanting to volunteer. So, you know, the goodwill is there. We've just got to make sure that it converts into something that is, you know, longer and not just once.
We're all vaccinated. Everybody thinks they'll go back to normal because there won't be a normal for a lot of people.
Tell me about that volunteering then. That was where you started. And I know that you've been back doing outreach again. Why did you want to go back to the sharp end of volunteering?
To be honest, I've never really stopped. That's just, you know, the way I sort of approach things is I think you've got to see, feel and understand what's actually happening, as it were, on the street, in the homes, on the housing estates and getting on a train and going to see people and listening to them and trying to understand what their lives were about.
Louise, I know that your work has often taken you into some really difficult situations and that you often work long hours to how do you relax and decompress from all that?
I love socialising when that who's who thing came years and years ago when I was first a civil servant, I couldn't fill in because they that what are your hobbies? And I said, drinking and reading novels. I love to go out, socialize and I love to read. I have nothing else to add really.
Let's get into your disks. This is your first choice today. Why are you taking it to the island with you? We used to go to Mass, particularly on a Sunday night, and if the mass went on, I couldn't get home in time to listen to the top 40 and saved up. I was working from quite a young age and I saved up for one of those tape recorders. You know, the one you put the tape in like that and just press down on the buttons.
And the first tune I ever taped to my unending joy was this particular one in my bedroom after mass on a Sunday night.
I'm in the phone book if you want to call. If you don't have the right to bring it on. About. Blondie and hanging on the telephone, so Dame Louise Casey returned to public service last year after time away to chair the government's covid-19 rough sleeping taskforce, and you led everyone- in, which was an emergency initiative to get rough sleepers off the streets and protect them from the virus. How did you get involved?
Well, I stuck my nose in - Interviewer: and involved yourself - .
I chose to persuade people that they needed me.
I was doing the Cabinet Office to do something had to do there anyway. Anyway, I just walked down Whitehall and I texted Robert Jenerick, who's the secretary of state for housing and local government, and I texted the permanent secretary and said, I'm in reception. Do you want a hand, really?
And it was, you know, considered a largely very successful initiative during that first wave. But you did say about that time, I was like a civilian wandering about trying to find solutions. And no, I couldn't. Did you feel on the back foot? I mean, looking back, is there is there anything that you would do over do differently?
Um, sometimes I've looked back and thought maybe I should have been even more challenging to some of the system. I was deeply disappointed that when we had a lot of these people in hotels, many of whom were able bodied and okay and could have worked that could I get anybody to give them a job I found really frustrating and I couldn't really get enough attention onto that. We left people in those hotels for too long without getting them out and into jobs.
And I think it's where the other thing I think is - you've got to be careful that you're not pretending you're solving something when you're not. And actually the truth is it wasn't a rough sleeping strategy. I mean, I'm not running down the work. You know, it was amazing. And it's shown that it's possible. But you need a strategy to sort out these really difficult and challenging problems. And that's what we'll need as we come out of the pandemic.
So do you in your working life, you've served under five prime ministers, both Labour and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and the Conservatives and David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson. Today, obviously, you're a crossbench peer as well. What's your approach to keeping politically neutral?
You know, I often think of it as like a stone with the water, like a....... actually endless big waves coming at you, and that what you have to be is a stone that weathers those waves, that if you're doing really important big things for society, you have to hold your own. And that can be very difficult.
How do you know when you're striking the right balance? I think you don't always know because you can't always handle politics. So, you know, I thought that the transfer from Blair to Brown would be smooth because I thought it was the same party and it wasn't that smooth. Actually, it took a while. I didn't hit right at the beginning. I got the ball in the wrong net. And then again, in the transfer between Cameron and Theresa May, a Cameron led agenda actually wasn't what she wanted.
And it took me a while to work my way into getting that final review that I did for them at that point on extremism and integration. It took a while to get that out and published. So.
But we did. We did. And I do.
And, you know, that's what you've got to hang onto.
It's time for some more music, Louse. Luise's second disc today. What have you chosen and why?
Well, got to have Louis Armstrong. What a wonderful world. It's a no brainer. I don't know why you don't have it every week.
It's..... It was the first 45 that my parents had. It reminds me that regardless of how dark and sad and painful many things may be in our communities and our families and our society, that the world remains wonderful.
I see trees of green. I see them bloom. And I think to myself. Louis Armstrong and what a wonderful world. So, Louise, Casey, I know that you don't often talk about your private life, but if you don't mind, I'm going to take you back a little bit. Now, you were born in Cornwall, but grew up in Portsmouth, and your dad had come to the UK, to Liverpool initially, I think from Ireland when he was a teenager.
Why did he make the move?
My dad was one of many brothers.
Some died, some lived, and then their father died when he was 42 in both, which is north of Dublin County Meath in Ireland. And my grandmother basically had no choice but to put them all. I mean, everything went, the house went, the house came with the work.
You lose your tenant farmers, they were tenant cattle farmers, actually. And so she put all of the boys on boats to different parts of the world. My dad came in to Liverpool, so that's quite a tough, tough call. He arrived in Liverpool in the days of no blacks, no Irish, no dogs.
So your dad eventually found work installing telephones in prisons around the country. And he and your mum, after some time settled in Portsmouth. That's where you and your brother grew up. What was your relationship with your dad like?
My dad, you know, wasn't always easy. And I think my brother would agree. He could be very controlling. And I don't want to cast off every man, but he had a tough life. It doesn't excuse some of his more difficult sides, but. But yeah, I think you are closer to your mum, and in fact, she had been a civil servant herself in the war office before she had children. Strange beyond, isn't it?
And it's it's one of the lights she never saw. You know, she never saw the honours and realized what I did, I think she just worried that I wasn't married and didn't have children. I didn't quite understand what all of this was about. But when she died and I was down at the house, I realized that she'd kept clipping after clipping the bad ones as well as the good ones.
Wow. Fair's fair. Yeah, no, I'll take that.
Looking back, Louise, would you say that you had a happy childhood? Um, yeah, yes, of course, you know, there's definitely happiness in the you know, when my brother left home, I found that quite difficult. Yeah, because, you know, I was I was home alone and I yeah, yes, no. Do you think that's shaped the life that you've chosen later? Etched throughout my face?
Etched throughout everything in me is my beginning. I don't think it's the defining thing. I don't know if I hadn't had that beginning of I wouldn't be like this anyway. But I certainly think that.
For one reason or another, it's my privilege really to have some sense of what being in the dark is like and what facing difficulty is like, particularly as a child or young person.
And I think that that means, you know, I'm empathetic, so there's a strength to it.
But it also means that you I we whoever I feel very impotent that I can't affect more change, particularly for women and children.
Louise, it's time to take a minute for some years, it was just number three. Tell us about this choice. It's la Boheme.
When my mother loved this, she had to be carried out of the Manchester Opera House by one of the bows early on because she was crying so much.
And basically, it's our tune. So on a Sunday when my dad was down the pub and Noel was probably with him, we would put La Boheme on and blare out the top of what that little record player could possibly do and sing it. And the last time I got my mum to anything operatic was Pavarotti in Leeds Castle.
And we were right at the back. And, you know, he wasn't his finest day, but it was one of her finest moments.
A lot of money. Hospital, you see your your very whatever. Oh, he saw some. Cagily Darmanin now from Puccini's La Boheme, performed by Luciano Pavarotti with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert Von Karriem. Dame Louise Casey. You were educated then at a Catholic comprehensive in Waterloo Vale just north of Portsmouth. And as you mentioned earlier, you had some problems at home. How did those difficulties affect you at school?
Well, I think I threw myself into school and relationships in school lock, lock, stock and barrel. Really got there as early in the morning and left as late as possible, was endlessly involved in all sorts of after school activities. I was assistant director of a school play and all of that type of stuff. Yeah.
And I became hat girl president of the school council. Yeah.
But I think, Louise, that your academic work did begin to suffer as you grew up, as he got older.
Well I would say I mean I had a buffer really after Noel left home. That was my A-levels year. And if that happened now, I would have been a write off. Whereas because of the school and particularly because of a woman called Sister Rita, I'm not.
And I wasn't.
And I was trying to find actually, because what this little thought of things, this note that she wrote on Christmas, telling me I had a future and I had a gift to give and that I was worthy.
And, you know, I kept it for quite a long time, a squirreled away and kept it for a long time when I would read it when things were tough.
People like Sister Eita and others have the gift of giving the shaft of light and the shaft of love, and that can just make someone keep going again. It can make them go to school. It can make them cope with things when they're difficult.
So unfortunately, he didn't do very well in your A-levels and you decided to leave school and get a job. You also wanted to leave home. So you were looking for residential work and found a job in the cafe at the Sunshine Holiday Camp on Heeling Island. Was it fun?
I absolutely bloody loved working at the holiday camp. We used to get, you know, it's routine, wasn't it? We got up every day, rang the cafe all day, and then, you know, when everybody goes to bed, we all took to the dance floor and had a really good time. And it was it was a really, really great place to be, actually. I loved it.
Well, with that in mind, time for your next desk. What are we going to hear?
This is Love Train, which, of course, for me is a dancing song. And it just it's like a sparkle of joy.
Oh, no. The O'Jays and Love Train, so there you were, Dame Louise Casey at the Sunshine Holiday Company may have still been there if Destiny hadn't intervened in the form of Sister Etta. She arrived. What happened?
Well, basically, she just said, look, I've re-entered you for a level English. You're going to take it, you're going to pass it, and then you're going to go to university is like there wasn't really much more to say, frankly. And it was like reasonable management instruction issued by Sister ITR.
So you did what you were told and you went on to study history at Goldsmiths, University of London graduating in 1987. And I think it was actually your worries about your student debt that prompted you to apply for a position at the Department of Health and Social Security. It was in South London. What was your job there?
I was working on the reception, which at that point was the most violent in the London reception in any and it was violent because people were desperate.
So what we see and day to day, oh, God, people would we are security guards on the doors, both at the front and the back chairs were screwed to the floor because people were going to get them up and crush them into the windows. Somebody came in once with a pickaxe.
And then the thing that did for me actually was this woman have been coming in all week, Dragana, kids in Godlove. And she was just desperate.
And every day I had to say no. And she sat at the back.
Right. We were getting to Friday. Absolutely clear now that the follow that she was with was taking every single penny. And despite that, the computer says no.
And so I went to the bank on the Friday to the office and I just said, what can we do? We we can't. It's like it's the weekend. She's got nothing. And the guy in charge of the desk said, would you just shut up about her?
There's nothing we can do. It's nothing to do with you. He just sort of shouted at me and I was like 21 or whatever or 20. And this other woman called me over and she said, we can give us some tokens. Don't tell him I'll get you some tokens. And I go over tokens for milk and for sanitary towels. And she took them under the thing and she put her head on the desk and wept. And I thought, I can't do this, I can't do this, so literally the next day I read City Limits, the moment that magazine in London City Limits was a listenings magazine, the listings magazine, same as Time Out.
And they had they were looking for volunteers at a night shelter for young people. And I thought, that's it. You're going to volunteer there. You work during the day, you volunteer and you'll try and help properly.
It's time to your next desk. Louise, what's it going to be and why are you taking this with you today?
My next desk is abide with me. And this is obviously Shirley Bassey.
Abide with me is saying to God, and if you don't believe in God to for me, each other to humanity, it's saying, please be with me, be with me and carry me in the times that are hard, people are there for me in my darkest moments and I will be there for them.
And abide with me is for Sister ITR. Wendy. Abide with me, Dame Shirley Bassey with the Morristown Rugby Club Choir. Louise Casey, by 1992, when you were only 27, you were deputy director of shelter and you were instrumental then in setting up shelter line, the country's first 24 hour telephone helpline for homeless people. You describe your work as a vocation now. Was it the same back then?
I think vocation and calling is probably to it makes it sound like it's to thought through.
I mean, you know, I was writing a leadership story or something like that. I might try and retrofit, but no, not at the time.
I was just driven to work and fun. I played hard and I socialized hard.
Take me back to that first czar ship then, if that's the right word. It was 1999 and Tony Blair appointed you the head of the new Rough Sleepers unit, which was set up to reduce rough sleeping in England. And that engie, the title homelessness czar. How did you take to being a civil servant?
Well, we were going to reduce the number of people sleeping rough by two thirds within a two to three year period. And then bless the civil servants. On my arrival, they'd written note that I was supposed to send up to the minister saying it's going to be really tricky, we may not make it. And I was like, I got everybody in the room. And I went, look, I just need to be really clear here.
I've waited all my life so far to eradicate sleeping. Right. We're going to do this. And anybody that doesn't want to be part of it or doesn't believe it's possible, you need to go and find another job and civil service. I'm not the easiest of people to necessarily work for is one way of describing it.
And you did do it. How quickly? Well, we met the target within two years. Actually, it was at that time of the New Labour government. Actually, amazing things happened during that time. You know, we did it. You've got a prime minister in your corner, right? You've got a cause that people feel they want to actually do something about.
The charities were with us and we had a methodology. So God knows, if we hadn't done it, then somebody should have sacked me.
And you went in all guns blazing by the sounds of it. How did the civil service take to you, do you think?
I would say that I've always been an outsider and I think even, you know, I got a CB, which is like is the civil servants honour amazing.
But I think I became their outsider.
It's time for your next desk. What is it? And why have you chosen it? Oh, this one's a bit of a killer. This is Danny Boy from brushed off the film, brushed off the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.
And there's something extraordinary about brass bands and the dignity.
And the story of Brassed Off is the story of taking the dignity away from working people. It goes deep into my own family. And so when I listen to a brass band played Danny Boy, it takes me into my soul about those people.
And the fact that it is Irish, of course, is about really some of the tides of immigration. And those tides have made this country the country that it is, and we should embrace it and accept it.
Danny Boy performed by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, Louise Casey, you're well known for your plain speaking approach and for holding some pretty forthright views. And when you were at the Rough Sleepers unit, you accused other charities of keeping homeless people on the street of enabling homelessness, if you like, with certain practices. And you were criticized for denigrating other agencies. Good work. What was your thinking and how did you respond to that criticism?
Well, I you know, a few times in my career and not my finest hour, I would say that what I was trying to say is, look, we've got to get people off the streets, not keep people on the streets. Instead of that, I said rather brashly that handing out better sleeping bags on the Strand than you and I can buy, you know, the best camping shop. So it wasn't sensitively handled, but the point remains the same.
It's hard to imagine right now. But imagine you were back in the Times that actually what you wanted was help off the street, not on the street. So I wanted to do we wanted to encourage people to come inside for help. And if we made everything on the street, then there would not be the incentive to come in. It's it's tough love.
After the Rough Sleepers unit, you're appointed the head of the Anti-social Behaviour Unit at the Home Office, the media, then the baseball queen ASBOs were controversial and your support of them didn't always go down. Well, you must have known that there would be pushback. Did that bother you at all? It's interesting.
I found the ASPO criticism, which was pretty unilateral across the left really hard, because actually I genuinely believed and believe that a lot of the housing estates that people were living in were just not good enough.
Right. Bad behaviour that actually got to the point where people were shoving basically what the human waste through people's front doors. They were putting fireworks through people's front doors. They were ganging up on people that were blind. Things weren't okay. It's alright for the liberal intelligentsia to have a problem with the fact that many people would have anybody exposed if it thought they brought safety and peace to their community.
And is there a part of you, Louise, that kind of relishes the fight?
I won't naturally go with the grain if I don't think it's the right thing, Lauren.
But I'm not a politician. I don't have to be popular. It it took a particular moment in my career where I delivered a particular after dinner speech where essentially after that I realised that I couldn't just go out there and say what I think. I had to be more more careful about the environments I was talking in and not try and be funny and various other things.
Yes. This was during your time at the Anti-social Behaviour Unit. You gave an after dinner speech to a group of police officers and you have described that event as one of the lowlights of your career. What happened exactly?
I use the F word 17 times in one speech. You know, that's not really what you expect of senior civil servants. And I felt ashamed of myself.
Really messing up in public is incredibly painful, but you can learn a lot from it.
I didn't do many more after dinner speeches.
I can tell you now that was on the Bandler for quite some time. But, you know, I learnt from it. You pick yourself up, you live to fight. Another day is as long as you just try and do the right thing.
Louise, let's take a second for some more music. This is desk number seven. Oh, why have you chosen it?
I spent the best part of six months in Rotherham conducting an inspection into Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, famous because of its failure to protect children from child sexual exploitation. And it was one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life. I used to go across to Donny and get on the train to come down to Kings Cross every Friday night. And then I'd have sat at home on Sunday mornings. I used to sit down early and I'd review the evidence of the week and plot out what I wanted to find out next.
And I put this on.
It's just simple and beautiful and it just carries you.
So it was in and out of my life for six months every week.
Chopin's Nocturne number two in E Flat Major performed by Daniel Barenboim, Dame Louise Casey, last year, you stepped down from your government role as chair of its task force supporting rough sleepers when lockdown ends. Why was it time for you to go?
Well, I felt that I'd done what we'd set out to do. And at the same time, I'd accepted a crossbench peerage in the House of Lords. And so it felt like the right thing to do at that point. Clearly, then I instead of going into the House of Lords, I've avoided that so far. But I got very involved in hunger, basically, particularly trying to make sure that we were, you know, much ready for to keep going, getting food out to all these vulnerable households.
And so I've been I've been pretty much on that actually law. And I will get to the House of Lords. I'm slightly overwhelmed by the thought of it.
You're definitely going to turn up. Definitely. Definitely. Definitely. Definitely.
Well, you can't go just yet because I'm about to send you to the islands. Are you good at relaxing, kicking back? Not doing much? No. You're shaking your head.
No, I'm not great at relaxing. Unless, of course, I'm with my mates in a bar or in a restaurant and then a couple of glasses of rosé. I think I'm fluent in Spanish, particularly in the language of topos, and I play the spoons.
An impressive and perhaps underrated skill. Louise, so before I cast you away, it's time to hear your final disc. Tell me about this piece, please.
This piece is by the Self Isolation Choir, and my friend is one of the 6000 people that is in this self isolation choir.
And it's just an extraordinary thing, I think, to think that people all over the world get in front of the, you know, telephones and whatevers and they record together, you know, dear God, I hope as the clouds pass and the sun shines again and we're through this, that we will all meet again and we will meet again together and that we will leave no one behind. But we will go back and we will check that people aren't angry and we will check that people aren't homeless.
And we will check the communities who've been driven by unemployment and by despair have hope and that that's what this song means. Well. Oh. Quantic Qualia, the self isolation choir, so Louise Casey, it's time I'm going to send you away to the island now. I'm giving you the books to take along with you the Bible in the complete works of Shakespeare. You can also take a book of your choice. What will that be?
I'm going to take the collected works of Jane Austen. There is something just incredibly comforting about Jane Austen.
You can also choose a luxury item. Would you like?
I would be hopeless here. There'll be no reflection thinking through how I could be a better person and take time out on the island to improve myself. Do yoga? No, I will literally be reading and drinking. If I could have an annual supply of wine until you rescue me. That would be great.
100 percent. And finally, which one of the eight tracks that you've shared with us today would you rescue from the waves if you had to?
I'm going to go for Love Train because I think I need some wine. I need a few books. I won't bother with the Bible or Shakespeare, to be honest. I might do. I get desperate. But, you know, I'm going to have a party on the island until somebody somewhere comes and gets me.
Dame Louise Casey, thank you very much for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs. It's been an unusual and fantastic experience.
So thank you very much, Itself's. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Louise, we'll let her turn the odds up and enjoy her party. Over the years, we've cast away many crossbench peers, including Baroness Jane Campbell, Baroness Hayley Afshar, Lord Inderjit Singh and Lord Victor Adebowale. You can hear these programs on the Desert Island Discs website and on BBC sounds. Next time, my guest will be the writer, Maggie O'Farrill. I do hope you'll join us.
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