Transcription d’un entretien téléphonique avec Rod Morgan, ancien chef du Youth Justice Board (avril 2004 à janvier 2007), le 22 mai 2008

E. Bell: I’m examining the so-called punitive turn in penal policy in the UK in recent years. I consider that the declining influence of academic criminological experts in the policy-making process certainly goes some way towards explaining that trend. When you were head of the Youth Justice Board, it seems you believed that expert criminological opinion was indeed ignored – I gather this was the main reason for your resignation. Yet, at the CCJS conference at King’s College in July last year you said that the academics failed to come to you. So, in your opinion, do the academics share some blame for their exclusion from the policy-making process or, given your experience, would they have been ignored in any case?

Rod Morgan: Well, let’s take this piece by piece. I think there was, there developed some growing mistrust of research by the politicians. There was spent, as you will I’m sure know, the largest sums that have ever been spent by any government on criminological research by New Labour when they first took office. So that the crime research programme that was initiated by NL, certainly within the Home Office, was enormous during the period 1998 through to 2002: the crime reduction programme and so on and so forth. I’m not sure that the programme was particularly well-managed. Indeed, in many respects it was not and that’s been widely written about and I’m sure you’re familiar with the literature on all of that from Tim Hope and Mike Maguire who have written about aspects of the programme. So, I think great hopes were raised that the research programme that was initiated during that period would produce results on which ministers could rely. And of course […] mismanagement I think you have to call it. I think that people who understood the policy-making process and research commissioning process would have advised taking it much more slowly but, you know, people come in, ministers want results within the period of their own office, they want to make changes rather rapidly but the net result was that by the time we got through to around 2000/2002, the results of the research that had been commissioned were pretty inconclusive. As a result of which, ministers, I think, to some extent, lost faith in the value of the whole enterprise.

So by the time I got through to being appointed to the Youth Justice Board, there was a lot of suspicion on the part of our political masters to the value of research and the research that was being commissioned was much more instrumental, much more technical, much more narrow and so on. At the YJB, our capacity to commission research was pretty limited. We had a very small budget for the size of the organisation and its overall budget. The proportion that could be spent on research was pretty limited. And because of the peculiar history of the YJB, I tied our research budget much more tightly with the Home Office. And the reason I did that and this is possibly something that I haven’t spoken about publicly before - the reason I did that was because I was aware when I’d been in the Probation Inspectorate where I was from 2001 to 2004, I was very conscious of the fact that the YJB under my predecessor, Lord Warner, was regarded with some suspicion when it came to research as engaging in a good deal of spin in terms of what it claimed it was achieving. So if you go and look at the YJB annual report for I think it was for around 2000/2001, you will see it is claimed that youth crime has declined during the period by something over 20% and this is attributed to the new institutions established by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and to the operation of the Youth Justice Board. Now I think anyone with any sort of knowledge of crime and the effects of changing crime policy would regard a reduction of over 20% as totally implausible but it was trumpeted and the Prime Minister was quoted as, you know, praising the YJB for the extraordinary achievements that it had managed. And all of that was included in annual reports. Now what subsequently emerged of course was that the 20% plus reductions were found to be seriously flawed and the reason why the Home Office Research Unit, because it was all down to them, they had produced the figures for the YJB, they did the analysis but in fact there were a lot of missing data and the missing data, we can’t go into the technicalities of all of that – if you chose to go into the technicalities of all of that, you could incidentally because it’s all written up and not least by Tony Bottoms at Cambridge who twigged pretty early that things were wrong and wrote to the Home Office regarding all of that. The 20% was seriously flawed and when the figures were reworked and subsequent cohorts were fed through the analysis, you got down to figures which are not incomparable to those that are being published today – sort of 2, 3, 4, 5 %.

So, when I came into the YBJ, I said to our single research officer, because that’s all we had, you know we’re talking about an organisation with over 200 staff but only one person responsible for the research programme, that we had to achieve a much higher level of legitimacy regarding our own research and that which we’d commissioned, that it all had to be checked and that it had to have the imprimatur of approval by the Home Office Research Unit because we had to get away from this reputation of some spin amongst both academics and some practitioners. You know, and that’s partly as a result of my experience in probation which had been relatively starved of resources compared to the youth justice system. The youth justice system had a lot of money spent on it in its early years and that was regarded with some disfavour by some practitioners locally who saw youth justice as being able to do all sorts of things which other services were not. Social services were hard-pressed, probation was hard pressed but youth justice seemed to be having money thrown at it – that was the perception. So we had to achieve greater legitimacy, so I insisted that we didn’t publish anything without it going through the accreditation process if you like of it being checked and cross-checked by reputable academics and researchers both in the Home Office and elsewhere - the standard process that all Home Office stuff goes through.

Likewise, certain bits of research had been commissioned by the Youth Justice Board and when I saw the stuff that was coming in, some of it was scarcely worth the paper it was written on. That’s a hard thing to say but some of it was of very shoddy quality. We had commissioned some bits of research by people in the academic sphere who frankly weren’t up to doing it. When the stuff came in, we’re talking about very small samples, not rigorously analysed. You know, not all the stuff that doesn’t get published is not published because someone feels uncomfortable with the result. Some is probably not published because it’s no damn good. So the fact that we got into bed more tightly with the Home Office Research Unit meant that the overall change of climate within the Home Office affected us, so that’s the downside. Are you understanding what I’m saying? So, when I insisted on this policy, it seemed the right thing to do to build our legitimacy. The downside was that it all happened at the period when big changes were being made in the Home Office which were arguably disadvantageous but if you were going to go through this process then the consequence was that certain sorts of research which arguably you wanted to have done weren’t going to be done because of the new standards that were being applied in the Home Office as a result of the catastrophe over the programmes from 1998 to 2002.

The first thing that happened was that we had to substantially cut our research budget anyway because the numbers of young people in custody, the costs of custody and, remember that the Youth Justice Board initially did not have responsibility for commissioning custody – it only took that in 2000. And that was something that my predecessor, Lord Warner, fought for and got. It wasn’t something that the Youth Justice Board was originally given. The costs of all of that escalated dramatically. We were not given additional funds proportionate to the increased costs for which we were now responsible – because we were paying for all of custody. And so we had to cut other parts of the budget and there isn’t much you can cut of the Youth Justice Board – it’s not a big organisation. I insisted that we not cut the grant that we give to the Youth Offending Teams in the country – they get a core grant from the YJB – we had to pay for the custody ( I’ve already mentioned that) and that was taking 70% of our costs. One of the few things that we could easily cut without the quality of the service being given by practitioners locally and in custody being affected, was the research budget, so we cut it. So the amount we could commission was relatively small.

And then some of the bits of the research programme that had been saved started producing pretty uncomfortable results. And I’m thinking here in particular about the research about Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Packages – you know all about that. Well that was a big research contract, the biggest that the YJB issued which was longstanding and which was being undertaken by the University of Oxford. And the results of that research of which there are two major reports which I’m sure you’ve seen were, they provided a mixed picture. The problem with it was that some of the results showed that ISSP packages were working pretty well in terms of the seriousness and the frequency of the offending by the people subject to the packages. The problem was that the overall headline rate of reoffending hadn’t reduced much but the frequency and seriousness of offending had. And the Home Secretary at the time, David Blunkett, initially said that this stuff wasn’t going to be published and I made it absolutely plain that for me this was a very serious issue – everyone knew we’d commissioned this research, everyone was awaiting the results, I insisted that it be published and that somehow we would have to manage the fact that the red-top press, the popular press, would only focus upon the headline reconviction rate and it would be argued that this programme was a complete failure, which it wasn’t but that was what the politicians were worried about. So the end of that saga is that that research, the publication of it, was delayed quite substantially but, you know I can’t go into great detail about this, but I think the message got though that I would regard this as a resignation issue if it was not published. It was important for the legitimacy of the system that it be published and so in the end it was published. But it was quite a sort of troubled period as a result of all these factors about the research programme.

Now I, knowing that our research budget was now relatively small and that we couldn’t commission much research, I tried by various means to engage the academic community, by organising seminars, inviting people to come and encouraging other people to fund research on youth justice which had become a bit of a Cinderella area. A Cinderella area because once the YBJ was set up in 1998 the Home Office Research Unit thereafter did not commission any research on young people and youth and offending at all because they said, ‘Well, now we’ve got the YJB, it’s down to you’. But we didn’t have the budget to commission it for all the reasons that I’ve indicated to you. So I tried by whatever means I was able to encourage the academic community to take an interest in youth justice and to suggest to the ESRC and to the major trusts, Rowntree, Nuffield and so on and so forth, to fund research on youth justice by other routes. And that wasn’t very successful frankly. I mean, not a lot of research was being done on youth justice and I think if you look at the whole programme and area of what was being done on youth justice from the period 1998 through to around 2006, there was not a huge amount that was being done.

The second thing was that I was very keen that the academic community take more interest in what was happening regarding other aspects of the criminal justice system. As soon as I started looking at the data, I was increasingly worried by the growing criminalisation of children and young people which finally led me to resign, and by the numbers in custody, and I was particularly interested in trying to attract much greater attention to the new managerial framework for criminal justice which New Labour introduced at the time we’re talking about: the Office for Criminal Justice Reform, the targets being initiated – the whole business about closing the justice gap –, offences brought to justice and so on and so forth. And it was my belief from the data that there were growing numbers of children and young people being criminalised, that the threshold for criminalising children and young people had been lowered and thus the alleged connection between early intervention work and the number of first-timers coming into the criminal justice system which the YJB had argued with the Treasury, you know, that if we invested more in prevention, so we would reduce the number of kids coming into contact with the criminal justice system. That was the basis on which the YJB got the money. But that connection might turn out to be spurious because the threshold for entry into the criminal justice system was being lowered by the police on account of the managerial target for offences brought to justice. So the argument which I pursued from every platform and in every article I was able to muster was that, you know, if the police wanted to get a gang of adults who, I don’t know, were ringing expensive cars, that the investment that they had to make in order to catch the gang was huge but that at the end if they convicted six or seven people for multi-million pound deals, they still only got six or seven brownie points for those convictions but if they picked up kids on the street for being noisy and disorderly, they got the same six or seven brownie points which was the measuring system and the investment that they needed to make was precious small. So it was pretty obvious that they were going to pick low-hanging fruit, to take the phrase which I repeatedly used.

I have to say that I don’t think the academic community was taking a great deal of interest. I mean, not much was being written about all of this and it seemed to me that people who were teaching in the universities and locally that all of these issues that should be of great interest and might have been the result of scrutiny and investigation at a local level on relatively modest research budgets which might have been achieved from trusts and so forth. But I am slightly in despair that in a sense the arguments which I wanted to see happening in the public domain and in the academic community, broadly speaking, there were conspicuous exceptions, but this wasn’t attracting a huge amount of attention and it seemed to me it was a very important topic.

E.B.: Do you have any idea why that was? It seems to be a huge paradox given the number of criminology courses which are currently on offer and the number of students taking those courses.

R.M: I mean a lot of things were changing in the universities. I mean, first of all the pressures on academics I think have hugely increased during the period, I mean with the whole of the emphasis on the RAE etc., teaching loads are becoming more intensive. A lot of the capable researchers, I mean capable of doing both quantitative and qualitative work were increasingly going for big budget pieces of research if they could get them. The work was more and more sort of technical and now quite a lot of them have set up their own in effect companies who are working in cahoots with the management information, the management consultant firms, so, you know, that was a big shift because what research was being commissioned by the research unit in the Home Office, that had been broken up, so that the research units within the Home Office were now tied to particular policy decisions and what they were commissioning was more and more narrow technical stuff to evaluate particular programmes rather than more fundamental research. So the number of people who had the time and the space and the ability to do the more baseline stuff was I think possibly diminishing as a result of these pressures. There was a good deal of self-censorship, that you didn’t want to upset the government if you wanted to get commissions from them and the government was taking a much more restrictive view as a result of the political failure of the programme and was taking a much more restrictive view as to what they were prepared to commission. So I think the climate overall was making it much tougher to get people to engage in the sort of discussion well-evidenced of the sort that I was hoping to engender.

E.B.: That’s not likely to change much in the future, is it? It is a pretty gloomy outlook?

I’m not that optimistic about the future, no. I mean I think the sort of factors that we’re talking about, those haven’t gone away. I mean I think our politicians are very suspicious of research. They want to keep much tighter reins on what is commissioned. The timescales for doing it are quite short and the questions being asked are rather narrow. They are very tightly policy-related rather than asking the sort of fundamental questions. And the amount of research that is being commissioned in relation to youth justice is very small. Likewise, you know there are people, I have been taking part in this debate now for three years, the number of people who are clamouring for a more thoroughgoing investigation of youth justice issues is very great. You know, calls left, right and centre for a Royal Commission or something the equivalent of a Royal Commission that one of the major trusts might fund. Big efforts are being made in this direction. And there are bits of work going on, the Howard League, the Penal Reform Trust, the Children’s Society have all got their investigations that are being mounted. How it will turn out, I don’t know but most of those investigations are quite narrow. In my judgement, what is required is a major scrutiny of the whole youth justice and youth offending sphere. There are bits of work emerging but they’re not the in-depth, thorough-going well-evidenced scrutinies that I think are needed and you probably saw the King’s College Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report published yesterday of ten years of New Labour’s youth justice, Richard Garside and someone – they published a 70-80 page report, basically arguing that not much had been achieved as a result of the 45 per cent increase in spending on youth justice over the last ten years. I was on Radio 4 Today programme after Richard Garside, not yesterday, the day before, speaking about this report. I don’t think that there’s the level of investigation, the behind the scenes level of investigation that the topic merits. And there are other bits, I mean there is the ERSC’s gangs research that the University of Manchester are undertaking and that’s coming through to fruition. So I’m not saying there is a total absence of research. There is stuff coming through but I don’t think it’s commensurate with the scale of the problem and the issues that need to be scrutinised.

E.B.: Do you think that the business community has played a role in the policy-making process? For example, being invited to discuss the negative effects that anti-social behaviour by youths may have on local business.

R.M.: I mean, obviously that plays a part but I don’t think that’s the major problem. The major problem, the whole of the anti-social behaviour saga is being rather patchily written up but I think the patterns are being discussed in those books and papers and articles and I think that the preoccupation with anti-social behaviour would have happened under a Labour or a Conservative administration and I think it will continue under a Labour or a Conservative administration. There’s a very simple reason which is that the public at large do not believe that there has been the reduction in volume crime that the British Crime Survey and the crime statistics indicate; They don’t believe it because they see aspects of the quality of life on the streets as having deteriorated so I think whichever administration is in power would have carried forward the rather aggressive anti-social behaviour policies which New Labour have pursued.

I’m relatively hopeful that that is going to change slightly in the future because I think the government, and this is where I came unstuck with the government, because I was critical of their programme or at least the manner in which it was being implemented. I think the government is now aware that some of the more aggressive policies that were pursued in some greater authority areas were counter-productive, so the enormous number of anti-social behaviour orders that were being imposed in one or two local authorities like Manchester, Leeds and so on, that we needed a much more graduated approach, so I’m much more hopeful given the fact that the department for Children, Schools and Families can see that, that we’ll see a diminution of those more aggressive policies and we’ll see a more supportive set of policies woven into a more coherent form of neighbourhood policing in the future. That’s one of the key issues over which I resigned after all but I do see signs of hope on that front, that it’s recognised that there are more and less constructive ways of dealing with what is a political problem for any politician.

Because the pressure from the public at large, it’s not just business although they of course probably contribute at a local level, exercising influence within local authorities, but it’s the public at large that’s clamouring for action and it’s a question of what action, what form that takes. I mean there are, in my judgement, and this is not based on research so much as personal experience, there are thousands of families struggling with the behaviour of their own adolescent children who want assistance from social services and from Youth Offending Teams as to how to handle their kids who haven’t been getting it. Social services is incredibly hard-pressed, the Youth Offending Teams were tending to concentrate on the adolescents rather than on their parents or their wider families and that policy is changing, and the police were not engaging in the problem-solving approach because they weren’t being rewarded for doing that. I think that is now changing. I mean, I think the government is now taking neighbourhood policing much more seriously and they’re changing the management targets so that the police aren’t or won’t be rewarded for rather punitive interventions which don’t solve the problems.

E.B.: So there’s some optimism there then?

R.M.: I’m not totally pessimistic. I do see good things happening. I think the fact that the Department for Children is starting to get much more involved, because if anyone who knows anything about this sphere of policy knows that if you’re serious about youth offending or anti-social behaviour, it has more to do with education policy and housing and other mainstream social policy areas than anything we do in the youth court. I mean the youth court if not that important, I mean just criminalising, you know shifting the centre of gravity of the budget away from social services and youth services and education towards the criminal justice system which is what in effect we’ve done is not the best way of handling these problems. And the Youth Justice Board cannot really be blamed for that shift in the centre of gravity. I mean, it has no choice. It’s got to pay for the number of kids that are being locked up.

I mean, in fact the number of kids being locked up, that’s another optimistic sign. You’re probably aware that the number of kids in custody at the moment is well below the record highs which were achieved, that’s the wrong word, in 2002-3. So the youth justice system is bucking the adult trend. The number of adults in custody continues to be a record high but juveniles in custody is actually around 2900 which is well below the record of 3100 in 2002/3. So that’s an interesting fact that the numbers, despite some dreadful events, you know, the punitive turn can be taken all the way back to James Bulger and some other events, we’ve had events in the last two years as awful as the Bulger sequence and yet the number of kids being locked up is not rising either proportionately or absolutely. And that is a hopeful sign. In my judgement, it should be much lower, but it’s not catastrophic. You know, it’s holding steady, so that’s a sign of hope. Statistics from the Youth Justice Board suggest that the last the number of kids being criminalised is not flattening out and is possibly falling. So, you know, I’m not without optimism but it would have been nice to have had a much greater level of engagement with these issues when the figures were going in the wrong direction from the academic community.

E.B.: Within government, were there some ministers who did listen to your concerns?

R.M.: Yes, those concerns are now shared by some ministers. That’s why I regard as a sign of hope the fact that the Department for Children is trying to wrest some control over the shape of youth justice policy form the Ministry of Justice. Ed Balls and the Department for Children, I think, is realising that they’ve got to make a play and take a part in this. When I was at the Youth Justice Board, I couldn’t really get them to engage much. They were focused on educational standards and academic achievements and later autonomy for schools. Well, you know Youth Offending Teams can do the best quality work that they’re capable of and some of them are doing good things but if we’re excluding more and more kids from school or kids aren’t going to school, you can forget it. Things are not going to happen. We’ve got 15% of kids leaving school without any educational qualifications at all, effectively functionally illiterate, well that’s a recipe for disaster. So, I’m not without hope, I think you just need to keep making the arguments.