Interview with Martin Narey

Martin Narey took up his new role as chief executive of Barnardo’s towards the latter part of last year to have a three month handover period with former chief executive Roger Singleton who retired. Here, following the handover, Narey explains to website editor Clare Jerrom the reasons behind his departure from the Prison Service, confesses his fears for children in prison and elaborates on his hopes and plans for the new role at one of the largest UK children’s charities.

Clare Jerrom:- Your career at the Prison Service spanned more than 20 years. Why did you decide to leave?

Martin Narey:- There weren’t any negative reasons. I’m sometimes quite surprised that I left myself as I probably thought that I’d never do anything else. I mostly loved my time in prisons but I led the Prison Service and then the Prison and Probation Service for seven years. It’s a long time. When I was spoken to about Barnardo’s I just thought the challenge of doing something with young people, something which could get at young people rather earlier where the work might be more constructive, was very, very tempting. So much as I still look at the headlines about offenders and I’ll forever be interested in that I feel refreshed and stimulated by this new challenge.

How did you feel while you were working in prison and probation about the government’s reaction to the rising numbers of children in prison?

There were some things about government which I didn’t like but I feel quite passionately about the loyalties of a civil servant. I’ve no truck for people who leak and if you’re there working within it and taking the government’s money you loyally serve the government of the day. But privately I was very troubled by the rise in the prison population and most particularly about the ludicrous number of children we lock up. I’ve said so publicly a number of times since. This country is in love with incarceration even when, because of the typical length of many sentences, everybody knows that it’s futile. I led the Prison Service for 7 years and working in it for 23 years and I knew it was futile. I think in the right circumstances imprisonment can work. I think in the right circumstances custody has to be appropriate for children. But we don’t need to lock up 3,000 children. Anything I can do in the next few years to influence the government to take a more constructive approach to reducing crime, I want to do.

In what circumstances do you think custody is appropriate for children and so which children who are currently in prison shouldn’t be?

Clearly grave crimes of violence and sexual offending and things like that do require in the interests of retribution and deterrence certain crimes have to result in confinement and I reject entirely any notions that there are no circumstances under which you can lock children up, I think that’s rather self-indulgent notion. But we lock up an awful lot of children who in terms of reducing their crime and criminality and in terms of protecting communities we would be far better advised to keep them in the community. 

I think some of the things the Youth Justice Board has pioneered – their work on parenting programmes, the ISSP to my observing closely I think they can have a very significant affect.
I would love to be able to say is that short terms of custody for children can have an affect but they simply cannot and dumping someone in Feltham where there just aren’t enough staff to do any more than keep order, cannot possibly be in the interests of the young person or the society which he’s offended against. We need to keep more out of prison.

Ironically if we could do that, if we could divert say 1,000 of the 3,000 children in prison, of the 2,000 that remain we can really start to make that a useful experience.

Did you leave on good terms with ministers or were there things where you were disagreeing with ministers that may have tempted you to leave sooner than you otherwise would have done?

There were things about which Charles Clarke and I disagreed, most significantly sentencing policy. But I left on genuinely excellent terms with Charles Clarke. He wrote very nice things to me when I left, said nice things to me, the day before I left he and I had a glass of wine together. He was Home Secretary, he was entitled to his view. I was entitled to go and do something else if didn’t agree with him.

What exactly did you clash on? What areas of sentencing policy did you disagree on?

I think clash is too big a word. Charles is a very engaging politician, he really likes debate and argument. Meetings with him were actually rather enjoyable, they were very cut and thrust, he says what he thinks but he really liberates his officials to say what they think. And he and I disagreed fundamentally about the number of people we send to prison and about the inability of the Prison Service to cope with the sort of pressures its under. But he’s Home Secretary, he has to make the decisions. Although we disagreed, I left very amicably.

But it was a contributing factor to you leaving?

I took over the Prison Service when Jack Straw was Home Secretary and I thought with Jack’s support we made significant improvement to prisons. Working with David Blunkett I thought those improvements to prisons continued and I thought that David Blunkett started to say some very brave things about sentencing. He established the Sentencing Guidelines Council, gave me a remit to work very closely with the Lord Chief Justice – Harry Woolf who I think is one of the greatest men I have ever met. To work with him closely to see if we could work with the judiciary to control the amount of people we send to prison and yes it was deflating to have to begin all that again as clearly Charles Clarke had a rather different view about the prison population.

Will your new role allow you to speak out more about the issues you feel strongly about?

I have an independent voice now. There are times I will criticise the government and I one or twice I have already done that in terms of talking about the adverse effects of the prison population and the desperate need for this country to reduce prison overcrowding.

But there are plenty of things the government are doing that I will shout loudly my support. I think the prostitution strategy which Fiona Mctaggart published last week is a huge step forward.
I met Beverley Hughes, the minister for children, this morning and I said to her how incredibly impressed I am with Sure Start. I think it is astonishing and to be fair to the government I think it has had pretty scant recognition for an astonishing investment. I think Sure Start and children’s centres are doing some of the things that I have always believed from the point of view of being in the criminal justice field are likely to have a very long-term positive effect on the children who go there.

Although you were overseeing the Prison and Probation Services for over seven years, leaving Noms was after just over a year wasn’t it?

I managed prisons and probations for about three years. The establishment of Noms was in January 2004 so it was about 20 months and a year before that of doing the preparatory work.

Did you not feel you wanted to take things further? Even after 20 months it’s still in very early stages…

Part of me wanted to take it further. But at the end of 1998 when my appointment as director general was announced I was strongly advised to strictly limit the amount of time I would do that job before moving on to do something else. So that anniversary came at the end of 2002 so by 2005 I’d prolonged that quite a bit and there was always a general understanding between myself and the then cabinet secretary Andrew Turnbull that I would move on to do something else in the summer of 2005.

So it wasn’t a shock for them?

It wasn’t a shock for them at all. I think the expectation was that I would go on and take up another permanent secretary and indeed I had discussions with the cabinet secretary early last year and it was just after those discussions that I thought about the possibility of doing something very different for a few years.

One of the things I know you wanted to achieve was a reduction in re-offending rates and I think the figure that was banded about was 10 per cent. Have you been able to achieve any where near that before you left or is that something that will take years to achieve now?

In terms of the trajectory towards reducing re-offending, the initial target and the one we were being tested against was a five per cent reduction of re-offending, with a longer-term target of 10 per cent. We were well on the way to achieving a 5 per cent reduction, even when the measures of re-offending we have are fairly primitive. I remain as confident as ever that in terms of reducing crime, in terms of reducing the seriousness of offending and the volume of re-offending, that Noms will make a significant difference. But the extent of the difference will be gravely affected by the burden on the two services. The extent to which prisons can make a difference is hugely influenced by the fact that there are just far too many prisoners. What regime there is is spread out among far too many individuals.

So are you saying the only way that Noms can succeed is if the numbers in prison are dramatically reduced?

I am. I think integral… well no not dramatically reduce, it’s nowhere near that demanding, there are some things that are politically realistic about reducing the size of the prison population.
Integral to the success of Noms is the stabilisation of the prison population. The reason for the establishment of Noms and putting management sentencing at the centre of the whole initiative was the very real prospect of a prison population of 93,000 by the end of the decade. And that would just, even with the most optimistic thought about resources coming into work with offenders that would just absorb all those resources into locking people up. But if the prison population could be held at around 80,000 and with the money already promised to Noms I’m sure the further reductions to re-offending could be made.

The pathfinder into Noms wasn’t that favourable. It did highlight quite a few significant problems.

Which pathfinder? There were so many…

The one towards the end of last year which found the cost implications of travel by offender managers to prisons was a problem, there were pressures on YOIs to free up beds, concerns with probation staff as to whether they could carry out their visits due to their high caseloads, there were a number of problems that came up…

I think we did a lot of pathfinding work but the main area we did the so-called pathfinder work, I think research would not be the right word as we were testing working arrangements, yes of course it produced a number of problems but it also produced some hugely encouraging findings.

For me to visit establishments like Thorn Cross in the north-west and see a pre-released board chaired not by the prison governor but by the offender manager, the probation officer from the local area who was exerting a real influence on the preparations for his release, it just crystallised for me what we were about and what we could achieve.

So yes of course we are very realistic about the problems and we discuss them more readily. And there are workload issues, not just for prisons but for probation as well. But I have never ever been in any doubt that having a single offender manager to determine what we do with offenders in and out of custody is the key to making improvements in our crime reduction work.

So you do think it can go on and be successful?

Yes. Yes I do. But you can only make an impact if offender managers have reasonable workloads. If offender managers have workloads of 60 or 80 they are going to be going through the motions.

One of the things we spoke about the last time I interviewed you [in July 2003] was that you felt there was a hug gulf between prison and probation. Do you think they are a lot more united now than they were three or four years ago?

I would say probably ever year of my work in prisons and then working across both services that I saw the services come a little closer. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves, there are still some very significant cultural differences between the two workforces. There are still some prison officers who are antipathetic to things like resettlement and regime and there are still some probation staff who have a rather romantic notion about offenders and perhaps a very adverse and unfairly adverse view of prison officers. So there’s still a lot to do.

But I think the two people leading those services, that’s Phil Wheatley and Roger Hill, are working together like nothing before to pull those two services together.

But there are big difference you know. The motivation that causes you to want to be a prison officer is frequently very different from that which causes you to want to be a probation officer. The
one is generally coming in to work with modest qualifications, perhaps some GCSE’s, the second has to go to university and get a qualification that is at under graduate level so they are very different people culturally and educationally.

Talking about your new job, it is obviously very different. What were the reasons behind such a dramatic shift?

Well first of all I was initially flattered by Barnardo’s interest and the first thing that warmed me to them were initial discussions with head-hunters about the job. I guess initially I thought it was pretty unlikely. There’s nothing special about me but as people are in senior positions, I’ve been approached a number of times in the past few years to express an interest in jobs but I have resisted that and looked at one or two things but always decided not to proceed with them and Barnardo’s was the first job I applied for out of the civil service. And I think it was because the more I looked at Barnardo’s the more excited I was. It has a fantastic diversity, it does so many different things with children and young people. It does a lot of difficult gritty work that not many other people are doing. It doesn’t just do the fluffy marketable stuff it does work with child prostitutes, it does things with children who sexually abuse others, it works with problematic young people leaving care, it does work with fathers in prison – tough demanding stuff which fill real gaps.

So I became quite excited by it. But I guess most of all I just thought – as I’ve always known – that the chance to do some work with children at a younger age could have such a profound effect on some of the things we’ve already talked about. I’m in no doubt at all that young people right now benefiting from Sure Start will not go to prison when otherwise they would.

What do you intend to focus on in your first year in the role?

Learning. I’ve just been at a seminar on fatherhood this morning held by Fathers Direct and Beverley Hughes was there and the four children’s commissioners and it was a long morning debate and I said not a word and that’s because I think I’ve got a huge amount to learn. And I’ve been spending all my time since October visiting projects, talking to staff so it’s too early yet to say where I want to take the organisation but there are some things that I am keen about. I want the public to understand better what Barnardo’s do.

Do you think the public understands that Barnardo’s does this gritty work you mentioned?

No they don’t. If you ask the public what Barnardo’s do, people know what we used to do, that we used to deliver in orphanages, but they don’t know what we do now and they certainly don’t know about the gritty work so I want to get an appreciation of that.

We need to raise £1 million a week to maintain what we do now so it’s very important that people know what we do. I want Barnardo’s to have more influence. I want it to be an organisation that government turn to more for advice. I want to influence government policy, particularly regarding children, and I simply want us to be seen as an extremely effective organisation that does great things for children.

How do you plan to stamp your authority on the charity given the longevity of his reign there?

Roger will go down in Barnardo’s as one of the most significant figures in the history, arguably the most significant figure after Dr Barnardo himself. I can’t compete with that. Roger and I got on extremely well and he’s been extremely helpful to me, but we’re very different. I see my job as to take Barnardo’s off on a new chapter building on the legacy which he left me. We’re going into a very different environment, one that involves a great deal more commissioning, a great deal more competing for work and so forth and so I’ve got to do to Barnardo’s what Roger did four or five times during his career which was remodel and rechange the organisation.

I would say if you look at change in management, if you look at what Roger inherited at Barnardo’s and how he left it, it is the most astonishing change in the purpose and function of an organisation. But it’s not finished yet and it’s got to continue.

Do you see a place for Barnardos and other charities running a greater variety of services such as tenders for youth justice if the government decides to open up the market further?

There isn’t anything at which I wouldn’t want Barnardo’s at least to look at. I do think there’s work in the youth justice arena that we could do well. I’ve seen lots of evidence of for example in the work I’ve seen of young people leaving care of very effective work. I’ve been very impressed with the first of the Barnardo’s schools which I’ve visited which I think are doing some astonishing work with troubled children excluded from schools on multiple occasions. So I’ve seen a lot to suggest we have something to offer there. But that’s a debate for the future and it depends if and when the YJB want to look at what the voluntary sector can contribute. I’m quite sure that the voluntary sector, not just Barnardo’s, could contribute very constructively to reducing the criminality of young people.

Do you think Barnardo’s would take up new services that they haven’t looked at in the past?

I think the answer to that must be yes because the diversity of what we do already is quite breathtaking. One of the things I want to hang onto is a great deal of independence to the three nations and the six regions. One of the things that appeals to me about Barnardo’s is that what we might to in the south-west might be very different to what we doing the north-east because we have responded to local needs and that makes the regions very different and I want to keep that. So as long as we’re doing work which is reasonable value for money and provenly and high quality, there isn’t any area of work with children and young people that I wouldn’t want us to contribute to if one of my regional or national directors said they thought it could make a significant contribution.

And one of the things that I’ve already explained that I love about Barnardo’s is that we do do a lot of difficult stuff and if we weren’t there – the schools a good example – I’ve seen lots of evidence at the school I visited in Tunbridge Wells of children who have essentially been dumped by schools on multiple occasions but who in a rather unfashionable residential setting were likely to achieve significant educationally. And I feel very proud to be part of an organisation that’s doing that.

How long do you intend to stay at Barnardo’s and what would you like to achieve while you are there?

The way I feel now is I feel that I would like this to be my last job. I’m only 50, I know I look a lot older, and I feel I’d like to stay here for a very significant period indeed. That’s not entirely up to me I have see what my trustees think in the long-term about my appointment but I’m certainly here for the long haul. One or two staff have asked me whether I’ve come for a brief taste of the voluntary sector before going back but no, I’ve come here for some years.

So you couldn’t see yourself going back to the Prison Service?

I certainly wouldn’t go back to the Prison Service. It’s not impossible that in five or six years time I might return to government and the door has been left open. But I’m here for the long-term for Barnardo’s.

And will you miss the Prison Service?

Yes. I miss offenders who can be a remarkably interesting, entertaining and sometimes touching group of people. When you meet offenders, always be reminded of how when you take away drugs and drink from the vast majority of them they are pretty ordinary young people. So I miss that very much and I miss some of the people. But that is more than balanced by the stimulation of the new challenge here.

Do you think it will be a different style of management in the voluntary sector?

I think it is a different style of management. There’s much less crisis. My phone doesn’t ring at night and at weekends. I think particularly when I was director general of the Prison Service you get to the point that when the phone rings in the evening or the night you think what’s happened? And you know very frequently particularly at weekends that call would be to tell me that someone had taken their own life. So there’s much less of that, so there’s less crisis management. I’m enjoying working with trustees for obvious reasons, they are more strategic than fast-changing ministers. I had a period of stability with Paul Goggins but I had 8 or 9 ministers in 3 or 4 years in prisons so I’m enjoying a greater degree of stability. And the workforce is very different. I had some hard nosed things to do in prisons not least in getting rid of staff who I thought had no place in the organisation and I was proud to get rid of them and sack people who had ever laid a hand on a prisoner. And I don’t have that at Barnardo’s, I’m surrounded by fantastic, committed, caring people and I still after 3 months to visit a project and have a staff member complain to me about the terms and conditions of service and that’s very refreshing after the prison and probation.

What do you think you’ll be remembered for regarding your work in the Prison and Probation Service?

I’ve been asked that before and I hope the answer s decency. I hope it’s decency in prisons and perhaps education in prisons that was built on a decency platform and trying to I hope prove that offenders are not a lost cause educationally and to use an old-fashioned term that compensatory education can change lives.

What do you think about the government’s prostitution strategy?

I welcome it very much and I’m very proud that Barnardo’s has taken a role in its formulation. We have 15 different services dealing with children and young people who have been drawn into prostitution – boys and girls – and I share the inherited view in Barnardo’s that there is no element of choice in this. Young children who go into prostitution are being sexually abused and I’ve been very impressed in Middlesbrough at a partnership that Barnardo’s do with the police who deserve a good deal of praise for the way they have concentrated their efforts on the pimps and the punters and let Barnardo’s concentrate on trying to get an avenue out of prostitution for the young people affected by it.

What do you think about the Respect agenda and the government’s concentration on tackling antisocial behaviour?

I thought the re-launched Respect agenda gave me some encouragement as it had an emphasis on parenting and I have seen both in what Barnardo’s do and what the YJB is doing and I think there’s a lot that can be achieved by working with families and helping parenting. Parenting is really tough for any of us – it’s almost impossible when you’re in poverty. So that’s very encouraging. But there are other parts of the Respect agenda that I am concerned about. I think asbos on themselves are a hopeless waste of time for young people and they are catapulting some children and young people into custody who wouldn’t otherwise be anywhere near custody and that’s very disturbing. I’ve said publicly before that asbos have their place if we are wrapping a lot of support around the young person and the family as well but asbos on their own and asbos as we’ve seen given for 3 and 4 years to a 14- year-old, that’s infinity, that’s ludicrous.

Do you think antisocial behaviour legislation is biased unfairly against young people?

Yes. I think it’s been part of a demonisation of young people which has been very damaging. Young people are responsible for some crime but young people and children are much more likely to be victims of crime in the UK rather than perpetrators of crime. But the antisocial behaviour discussion has tended to demonise and it’s been pretty simplistic – with the suggestion that everything on a particular estate would be fine and dandy if you could just deal with two problem families, life is not that simple.

Do you work with children accused of antisocial behaviour and their families?

We do a lot of that already we work with the sort of families whose children do get drawn into that sort of trouble. Indeed some of the child prostitutes we work with have been the subject of asbos, most inappropriately in my view, but nevertheless they are and we have to work against that context.

Do you agree with the current age of criminal responsibility?

The honest truth to that is I don’t have any hard and fast views on it. My own experience is that very young children are treated reasonably well and compassionately by the criminal justice system. I think where the criminal justice system becomes much more intolerant is ironically with older children. I worry much more about the way we treat 15,16 and 17-year-olds than the way we treat very young children so it’s not very prominent on my agenda at the moment.

How do you think the current system could be changed to prevent children in need ending up in the youth justice system and indeed custody?

I think much more work with families helping with parenting, trying to work with families who are in poverty. I very much welcome the government initiatives to get more people back into work. And I think there’s something about the children themselves and we need to raise our aspirations for the children. We should have the same ambitions for the children we work with as we do for our own children. Sometimes there are some well meaning discussions about teaching young people vocational skills and a trade so they can get jobs and that will sometimes be appropriate but sometimes we should have greater ambitions and look at the children we work with and want them to go to university and achieve more.

I was discussing this with my deputy at Barnardo’s Chris Hanvey the other day. I’ve always with offenders and I think it’s the same at Barnardo’s now, whenever you meet a child, before you come to any conclusions about what they might achieve if you ask yourself if you would be happy with those ambitions for your own children.

Do you think following the Munby judgement that the Children Act is being applied in YOIs?

I think the Munby judgement was skilfully marketed by the Howard League for Penal Reform a trifle unfairly and I say that as someone who has a great deal of affection for Frances Crook. If you read the full judgement, Mr Justice Munby said a great deal of positive things about the extent to which the Prison Service had tried to enshrine the spirit of the Children’s Act. So my answer is yes I think the spirit of the Children Act is being delivered with the important proviso that I think there is too many children being locked up for the Prison Service to be able to do a job which is sufficiently caring and sufficiently interventionist.

I think one of the issues that some charities are concerned about at the moment is that home social workers are closing their books on children when they go into prison. Have you witnessed that?

I have witnessed that a lot in my past career, I have despaired of it. I think not only social workers but some probation officers too see time in prison as almost down time when nothing can be done. And it’s actually the time at which you need the greatest support. From the moment a child gets locked up, the work of resettling them back into the community needs to begin.

What are the main children’s issues that Barnardo’s will be campaigning on in the future?

It’s too early for me to say, it would be precocious of me to say. We are just about to start the work on a new corporate plan – essentially what we’ll be doing for the next 5 years and I want that to be very consultative within Barnardo’s and then of course it has to go to the trustees and it would be quite wrong of me to say at this point the things which should be in there.

So watch this space. Thank you.


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