Martin’s long journey to becoming a knight

editorial image
Share this article

Reacting to the news that he had been bestowed a knighthood by the Queen in the New Year Honours list, Martin Narey said he felt very fortunate to have had an interesting and stimulating career.

While he may have been fortunate, he forged his career helping people who were most definitely not.

He grew up in Middlesbrough and after realising that playing for Middlesbrough wasn’t going to be an option, Martin opted to study politics at Sheffield Polytechnic instead. It proved to be a good choice. He met his wife-to-be Jan, who will now be getting used to being known as Lady Narey and it set him on his way to starting his career in the NHS as a hospital manager at Doncaster Royal Infirmary.

It was during this role that he saw a documentary about Strangeways Prison and got an opportunity to look around a prison. That visit was on Christmas Eve of 1981 and shaped the rest of his working life.

He told the Gazette: “I thought it was appalling, shocking but fascinating. It was a brutal, terrible place and I hoped I might be able to change it a little bit.

“The Home Office was advertising for people interested in changing it and I got a real opportunity to do that.”

The following year Martin began training as a prison governor, eventually becoming director general of the Prison Service of England and Wales. It is a common saying that prisons these days are ‘like holiday camps’ but Martin vehemently opposes this.

He says: “People do say that but no-one who has had a child, husband or wife in prison ever says that. They are not remotely like holiday camps. The deprivation of liberty can be a terrible thing.

“I wanted to make them decent places and prepare prisoners to come out so that they would not commit crime again. That was all I was interested in.”

He set about making education in prisons a priority and teaching prisoners, even adults the basics of reading, writing and numeracy.

Many were illiterate to the point, says Martin, that they wouldn’t even get a job in McDonald’s. As they were unemployable it led them back to re-offending.

It was during his reign and for the first time ever that the prison service delivered reductions in re-offending.

The one thing he regrets that he couldn’t change while he was in charge of the prison service though, was the number of prisoners committing suicide.

Martin said: “The thing that never got easier was the difficult battle to stop people taking their own lives. 590 people killed themselves, quite a few were children and that is something you never get used to.”

He left public service in 2005 after a fall out with the then Home Secretary Charles Clark over sentencing policy and moved on to working with vulnerable children.

Martin revealed: “I had a major disagreement with Charles Clarke. He was entitled to have a different view and I decided to resign. What attracted me to Barnardo’s was that they deal with disadvantaged families in poverty. I was working with very similar people, although these were disadvantaged in a different way.”

Since then Barnado’s has become the UK’s biggest children’s charity employing 8,000 staff, 16, 000 volunteers and making an annual turnover of £250 million.

In 2011, Martin stepped down from the role but is a board member of the Advertising Standards Authority and was commissioned by The Times newspaper to write a major report on adoption.

Education secretary Michael Gove and children’s minister Tim Loughton have also asked him to take on the part-time role of ministerial advisor on adoption and he also carries out consultancy work and speaking roles.

Despite having had such an influential career, Martin will be the first to admit the honour of being bestowed a knighthood was a shock. One of the first messages of congratulations he received were from an ex-prisoner.

“I wanted to be a footballer but the only thing that stopped me was a complete absence of skill. I really did not expect this sort of thing. I was one of nine children, my dad was a labourer in the steel works for 54 years - this is not the sort of thing he would have expected.”

“One of the first people to congratulate me on Facebook was a man who served 21 years in prison for armed robbery.

“You do meet some interesting people and he was a difficult prisoner but since he got out he is a successful businessman and penal reformer.

“That is very encouraging. I have to be honest and say it doesn’t happen as often as it should, but when it does, it is fantastic.”