“Norfolk remains on my worry list, and it will stay there until it improves” - troubled families tsar Louise Casey
Troubled families tsar Louise Casey has added her voice to a growing list of Whitehall voices raising concerns about Norfolk County Council, telling MPs it is on her “worry list”.
But the senior civil servant - who shot to prominence when she was appointed to tackle anti-social behaviour by Tony Blair - described the temporary boss of its under-fire childrens services department, which is also under pressure from watchdog Ofsted, as a “breath of fresh air”, adding that she had “some faith that we will make some progress”.
During a Commons evidence sessions about the Troubled Families Programme, she was questioned about the lack of permanent department heads at Norfolk County Council by MP Richard Bacon, who directly asked her if the county was a concern.
Ms Casey, who is tasked with turning around the lives of 120,000 families across the UK, told MPs: “To say I am not concerned about them would be a lie to you.”
“Norfolk remains on my worry list, and it will stay there until it improves. It is going through all those changes, etcetera etcetera, but I am worried about Norfolk and I am not going to sit here and say it is all great—it isn’t.”
Norfolk received one of the biggest government grants shortly after the scheme was launched in 2011 in recognition of the fact that it had many families to turn around.
The project, which is called Norfolk Family Focus locally, aims to help to identify and tackle the causes of family crisis. The idea is for a variety of different bodies to work together from the council, to the police and the job centre.
Norfolk County Council said it had already worked with 700 families,many with a wide range of complex issues that are affecting their child’s education and future well-being.
James Joyce, cabinet member for safeguarding children, said: “The most important issue for us is that these families are receiving much earlier targeted help so that their children can fulfil their potential. The feedback we have had from families, schools and other partner agencies suggests that, on this basis, the programme is proving a success in improving the lives of Norfolk’s children and young people.”
Ms Casey said: “We get reassurances, but they know that I am coming to see them. They know why I am coming to see them and they know that I will help them try to work out what they can do to make sure that they are able to use this programme to the best of their ability. To say that I am not concerned about them would be to lie to you.”
Mr Bacon said he was reassured that Ms Casey was aware of the situation at Norfolk County Council.
“It is not surprising that she had the confidence of the last three prime ministers. When she says Sheila Lock is a breath of fresh air, she is worth listening to. She says what she thinks and she speaks human.”
Ms Casey said: “Once you get the right leader you can move mountains pretty quickly. That is what is so interesting about this programme. I have had other areas that I have worried about, and it is about making them realise that it is a top priority for them because it can help them in a wider way, trying to remind them why we do this—because none of us wants kids growing up in these families—or persuading them on the finance argument. If you get a good leader—and it has to be the chief executive or someone equally senior—things can move really quickly. Once we have unlocked the door in Norfolk—and I think Sheila Lock might be our way to do that—we will move quite quickly.”
The councils are paid by results and Mr Joyce said that in order to claim the rewards the council had to prove that the programme was having an impact by using a range of data.
He said: “This is extremely complex as it means collecting information from several partner agencies and providing evidence on a number of areas including improvement on anti-social behaviour, which is not formally measured. This has created some challenges in making claims and on one occasion has resulted in an over claim.
“In addition, the national criteria for categorising a “troubled family” does not directly relate to the families in Norfolk that we believe need this kind of focused support. This is something we are raising with the DCLG because we want to work together to ensure that the right children and families are benefiting from the scheme.”