Interview: Campbell Robb, Nacro chief executive

Derren Hayes speaks to the Nacro chief executive about reducing youth crime.

Campbell Robb: "I believe that fewer young people should be in prison"
Campbell Robb: "I believe that fewer young people should be in prison"

There can be few more experienced chief executives in the voluntary sector than Campbell Robb, who took on the top job at crime reduction charity Nacro last July. Robb has been in charge at Shelter, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Office of the Third Sector over the past 15 years, as well as fitting in a stint as a government adviser. Robb will need to draw on his vast experience to help reinvigorate Nacro – which by its own admission has seen its policy influence “diminish” – at a time when the youth justice system is going through great change.

Your first major report as chief executive of Nacro was January’s Lives Not Knives. Why that topic?

It is centred on the voices of a group of young people from our education centres who may have attended multiple schools and pupil referral units. They are the kids flirting with the justice system or currently in it. It talks about [how] knife orders and longer sentences will not deter young people carrying knives – they do that because they are scared. We have this dichotomy of tougher sentencing policy against a smaller number of young people who when you talk to them say that isn’t going to stop us.

We have a lot of contact with young people who are not in school or college and who operate outside the mainstream as we are trying to get their voices into the discussion. If the system is going to keep putting the pressure on sentencing, how can we improve the practice on the ground and work better together to get their voices heard?

Your education centres support those aged 16 plus who have struggled in school and are on the edge of the justice system, but should we be working with them earlier?

Absolutely. The earlier you get to young people then the better chance you’ve got of diverting them. Once you’re in the justice system, it changes your pathway. It’s then very hard to get off of that. When we work in our education centres, that’s pupils at the last stop.

We are seeing children off-rolled. They come to us and to other charities. Children are at the end of their tether – the system is almost expecting them to start causing trouble.

We were proud to get an Ofsted “good” for our service at Medway young offender institution – to create an educational environment as close as possible to a school where young people learn properly – that is a model that should and could be replicated.

Will the new secure school do that when it opens?

I don’t know. It’s unproven. They are at least 18 months off that coming into place. We felt we did a good job in Medway in difficult circumstances.

I believe that fewer young people should be in prison; short sentences don’t work…but we have a system that incarcerates more people than we’ve done before in the adult estate. We should be doing the best we can for young people while they are in there and give them the best chance when they come out.

What happens when they’re in there is really important but so is what happens when they come out – are they getting a key worker, housing, access to education etc. It’s about tracking them and sustaining the support.

You led the Social Exclusion Taskforce under Gordon Brown’s government. Do we need a similar approach to address youth knife crime?

There’s a saying that goes “you spend your whole life trying to get your hands on the levers of power only to discover they are not attached to anything”. There’s a little bit about central government that is like that. Yet my lessons from running the taskforce is that sustained government intervention in social policy works when it is funded properly and is based on evidence. Governments can fix stuff.

Some of the best practice comes from councils working in partnership with local charities, groups, schools to build up a model of good practice. Do you need a central unit in government to do that? Probably not. But you need someone to help them share good practice, find ideas and put them out nationally.

So we need a what works centre for youth justice?

It’s almost applying the culture that exists across a lot of tech and business now – identify good practice, give it seed funding to see if it works and then back it and take it national. That was something that governments used to do, for example Sure Start. That seems to me where we can get government to find good practice and help it spread.

What attracted you to the role at Nacro?

The thing I feel passionately about is the belief in rehabilitation and that people should get a second, third or fourth chance. I also like working in organisations that make a tangible difference to people’s lives and use that knowledge to change the wider system. Nacro has been doing this for 50 years.

Nacro is well known for having a big policy influence but for a number of reasons that has been diminished over recent years. What I’d like to do is increase our capacity to bring that knowledge to people at the front line and turn that into evidence and recommendations and start working with politicians to make a difference.

Bringing the voices of young people forward is something I did at Shelter. We all know if people listen to us then things happen. We are working with people that have never been listened to. What we can do is really listen to their problems, take them seriously and try and fix them.

Campbell Robb CV

  • July 2019 – Chief executive, Nacro
  • January 2017 – Chief executive, JRF
  • 2010 – Chief executive, Shelter
  • 2009 – Director, Social Exclusion Taskforce
  • 2007-10 – Director general, Office of the Third Sector
  • 2006 – Adviser HM Treasury
  • 1998-2005 – Director of public policy, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations

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