‘Telling it like it is’? A critical perspective on The Casey Review into Opportunity and Integration

‘Telling it like it is’? A critical perspective on The Casey Review into Opportunity and Integration

Stephen Crossley

The government’s Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper draws heavily on The Casey Review into opportunity and integration, undertaken by Louise Casey, a then senior civil servant. The review is mentioned in the foreword to the Green Paper and at various points throughout the document. Two quotations from the Casey Review are highlighted and the report appears in the references three times. Perhaps the best indication of the influence of the Casey Review, however, can be found in the similarity between many of the review’s recommendations and the actions the government proposes taking in the Green Paper. By way of example, Casey called for ‘attaching more weight to British values, laws and history in our schools’, whilst the government proposes to ‘support teachers to promote British values across the curriculum’ and to include the ‘promotion of fundamental British values and integration within [Ofsted’s] new inspection arrangements’ (p14). Casey also recommends that ‘Central and local government should develop a list of indicators of a potential breakdown in integration’ (p167) and the Green Paper proposes to ‘develop a clear set of integration measures at the local and national level so that policy makers and practitioners can monitor and measure progress’ (p15).

Such synthesis is not surprising, but this does not mean that it should be welcomed. Louise Casey has a long and problematic relationship with the collection of evidence in support of policy development which should concern us, and which should cast doubt on the validity of the recommendations she sets out in her review. Despite a reputation for ‘telling it like it is’ Casey’s approach could also be characterised as ‘telling it as politicians want it to be’. Her review into opportunity and integration, her last major piece of work before leaving the civil service, does not break this mould.

Casey has rarely hidden her indifference (at best) to empirical research. In her infamous after-dinner speech in 2005 Casey was reported to have rhetorically asked ‘Topic for the evening. Research: help or hindrance?’ before answering ‘Hindrance, thanks very much’. One of the most widely-publicised comments of the evening was ‘there is an obsession with evidence-based policy … If No 10 says bloody ‘evidence-based policy’ to me once more I’ll deck them one and probably get unemployed’. Following criticism of the government’s misuse of research statistics in relation to the initial figure of 120,000 ‘troubled families’, Casey argued that ‘a lot is made of this, in retrospect, which needn’t be’. In 2012, DCLG published her report Listening to Troubled Families which highlighted the problems faced and caused by 16 families that Casey had interviewed. Some academics were concerned enough to highlight flaws in the report, with one Professor of Government calling it a ‘shoddy exercise’, full of ‘spurious generalisations and dubious conclusions’ that amounted to an ‘almost worthless piece of research’. It was established, following Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, that no ethical approval procedure had preceded Casey’s interviews with the families. In 2013, Casey effectively invented a survey and a statistic that she claimed, ‘encapsulates the problem [of ‘troubled families’] in one story’ and which demonstrated the need for ‘radical reform’ of local services. When the independent evaluation of the first phase of the Troubled Families Programme found no discernible impact of the programme, Casey called the judgement and integrity of some of the researchers involved into question.

Casey has been involved in carrying out other pieces of research related work and her inspection of Rotherham Council following the Child Sexual Exploitation that took place there was largely welcomed. The final report however, has been criticised because of a lack of clarity about how information was collected and analysed and the lack of an obvious methodology.[1] Despite claiming in the report that culture is ‘hard to inspect’ (p28), she proceeds to highlight ‘an archaic culture of sexism, bullying and discomfort around race’ (p9), a ‘culture of covering up uncomfortable truths’ (p10), a ‘culture of shouting and abuse’ (p30) and numerous other ‘cultures’ that she uncovered and inspected during her time in Rotherham.

Similar inconsistencies, omissions and generalisations can be found in her review into opportunity and integration. Despite being told that 800 people were spoken to and over 200 written submissions were received, we are not informed how all this data was collected, stored and analysed. There is no indication that there was a systematic approach to evidence collection, and no hint of any methodological approach. Chapter 2 is titled ‘Why conduct an integration review?’ and, over the next two-and-a-half pages, we are told why, but we are not informed as to how, the review was conducted. In addition to the lack of a methodology, there is also no information on ethical considerations, the resources that were involved (including members of the review team), the sampling method(s) used when collecting data, how existing literature was reviewed, if at all, or if any theoretical framework informed the analysis. An example of this unsatisfactory approach can be found in Annex B – a ‘rapid review of integration in a selection of European nations’. There is no indication that the review, even though it was rapid, was carried out systematically and there is no information as to why, for example, the six countries concerned were chosen, what selection criteria (if any) were used, and why others were omitted from the review.

Casey states that ‘no review starts from a blank piece of paper’, that she is ‘grateful to all whose research and opinion I could call upon to help guide the work’ and that her review ‘takes and builds on all that expertise’ (p5). Again, however, we do not know what was already on the piece of paper, what the terms of reference for the review were (they were never published separately), what was ‘off-limits’, or indeed whose expertise she drew on. We are informed that Casey ‘wrestled with what to put in and what to leave out’ (p5), but we are not told how she made these difficult decisions. Annex A which examines and summarises past UK community cohesion reports and programmes provides no mention of the substantial academic critiques of these programmes, suggesting that the review was not built on this body of knowledge.

Casey reports that ‘I went where the evidence took me’ (p5) despite also acknowledging that ‘in many cases … the available data are already feeling out of date’ (p7). No new or specific research was commissioned for her review. There are over 350 end-notes in the review, which, at first glance, appears impressive and comprehensive. However, upon closer inspection, many of them are repeat entries and most are political speeches, media reports and statistics or research produced by government departments, commissions or quasi non-governmental organisations. Given Casey’s previous involvement in the misrepresentation of government statistics, we should also be concerned about the conclusions she has drawn from the documents listed.[2]

Very little ‘independent’ academic research can be found in the end-notes, leaving open the possibility that the review was conducted in an echo chamber, with little attention paid to competing or contrasting views. Casey going where the evidence took her is the data collecting equivalent of simply ‘riding to the sounds of the guns’. It is an approach that has been largely discredited since the 1950s when Edwin Lemert and other sociologists encouraged researchers to look in different directions and to not just follow the path of least resistance in conducting their research. These aspects of the Casey Review suggest that Casey adopted a largely unquestioning ‘common-sense’ approach to what she saw and what she was told, and continued to view critical academic research as a hindrance, rather than a help. In keeping with this approach, less tangible structural and political determinants of opportunity and integration remain relatively undiscussed in her review.

These concerns are not, however, examples of academic snobbery or pedantry. Nor are they ‘ivory tower’ anxieties about the quality of the ‘debate’, or the ‘impact’ of academic research in our society. They are legitimate concerns about how policies, which affect the lives of millions of people, many of them disadvantaged and marginalised, are formulated. When the government publishes proposals to improve the cohesion of our society, we should feel confident that such proposals are built upon the best possible available evidence. We should feel confident that large amounts of data, on a sensitive and important topic, and which undoubtedly contain differing and diverging perspectives, have been collected ethically, and analysed methodically, such that the information is not subject to (un)conscious bias. We should feel reassured that the terms of reference for the review were appropriate and that the resources available to carry out the review were sufficient for the task in hand. Perhaps most importantly, we should feel confident that the individual leading the review has a robust track record for integrity and honesty, and the ability to carry out such an important task. Unfortunately, the appointment of the putatively ‘straight-talking’ Casey to lead the review, and the report she produced provides none of these reassurances, and feels more like a government commissioned confidence trick.

[1] Crossley, S. and Leigh, J. (2017) The ‘troubled’ case of Rotherham, Critical and Radical Social Work, 5, 1: 23-40.
[2] Crossley, S. (2018) Troublemakers: The construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem, Bristol: Policy Press.


Stephen Crossley is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Northumbria University

Image by Sam Leighton, used under Creative Commons licence