The appointment in January of Frances Done as Youth Justice Board chair was greeted by some with bemusement. The move was described as “bizarre” and “baffling” due to what was perceived as her lack of background and profile in the sector.
In response, Done shows a thick skin undoubtedly honed by her early days as a local politician. “I am not worried by what people are saying now. The issue will be how I am judged in three years [when the contract is up],” she says.
Done is keen to spell out her experience. As a former chief executive of Rochdale Council, she oversaw the creation of the first youth offending team in the area and chaired the Yot management board. Later, as managing director for local government, housing and criminal justice at the Audit Commission, she was responsible for research including a youth justice report in 2004 and audits of police and probation. Her CV – which also includes organising the 2002 Commonwealth Games – is not the only area in which Done differs from her predecessor, Rod Morgan.
Morgan became increasingly outspoken about the criminalisation of young people that led to the “swamping” of the youth justice system. After he resigned in January 2007, the professor of criminology told colleagues he did not believe he had the “confidence” of then home secretary John Reid. Rumours circulated that the government was keen to replace Morgan with a “yes man” or former Respect tsar Louise Casey. Done, who took office in February, speaks on-message while appearing tough.
On becoming prime minister last June, Gordon Brown split responsibility for the YJB between the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The move was welcomed by many in the sector. But alleged wrangling between justice secretary Jack Straw and children’s secretary Ed Balls led to questions over the board’s future and delay in appointing Morgan’s replacement. Done admits Straw and Balls have “different perspectives” but she does not see this as a problem. “I applied for this job because it is accountable to two secretaries of state, and bridges children services, criminal justice and community safety. It is the right model,” she says
Done is equally on-message when responding to rumours that she asked the YJB’s chief executive, Ellie Roy, to leave last month over a “conflict of interest” due to Roy’s marriage to the head of the prison service. “Ellie had been on a four-year secondment from the Home Office which came to an end this month. She did an excellent job here. That’s all I am prepared to say,” she states.
Now, despite daily headlines about knives, guns and gangs and evidence that many of Labour’s youth justice reforms have failed, Done looks confidently to the government’s forthcoming youth crime action plan, expected next month. She wants more emphasis on prevention, better access to education, training and employment and “innovative” alternatives to custody. Done also insists that the future of the YJB is “not unclear”. She adds: “There is plenty to do, but there is no suggestion that the YJB is not going to be involved.”
Last month, it was revealed the YJB had missed its target of reducing custody numbers by 10% from 2005-8, while its 2007 report revealed it was on course to miss most of its other targets. And last year there were damning inquests into the deaths of young offenders Adam Rickwood and Gareth Myatt. The coroner in the Myatt case called on the government to question whether the YJB was “fit for purpose” in providing safe environments. Done defends the board, saying every death of a child in custody is treated with the “utmost seriousness”.
Custody numbers ‘stubbornly high’
But she admits the number of children in custody remains “stubbornly high” and welcomes new police priority targets for reducing first-time entrants into the youth justice system and re-offending among young people. She also urges councils to prioritise national youth justice indicators, as part of their local area agreements.
The YJB is also working hard to make courts and youth offending teams “feel confident” in alternatives to custody, Done says. Intensive fostering – where young offenders are offered support in people’s homes – is also being piloted. “It is common sense that £90,000 is saved for every young person not in custody every year,” she says, without a flicker of doubt.
- Listen to executive editor Mark Ivory grill Frances Done on our weekly podcast, Ivory Tower.
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