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Tory Conference proved Hurd is the only minister listening

There wasn’t much good news for charities at the Conservative Party conference. They weren’t high on the agenda, that’s for sure – even at the fringe they were a fringe, so to speak.

And as far as the sector was concerned, it seemed a pretty policy-free zone. There was certainly no evidence of a new Tory strategy for the sector – new policies to boost charities and grow giving. The big society was noticeable by its utter absence, and just about the only MP at any charity event was the charities minister, Nick Hurd.

Hurd, mind you, was at almost everything, but he didn’t seem happy about it: he made his way around the conference as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Of course, you have to wonder if I’m reading too much into that. Hurd may just have been knackered, or he might have been out late on the sauce.

Hurd is an interesting case. Charities should probably count themselves lucky to have perhaps the most knowledgeable and supportive minister the sector has ever had. He’s eloquent, persuasive, and clearly really cares.

But it’s equally clear he doesn’t have everything his own way. At a meeting of the Social Economy Alliance, he spoke with unusual frankness about his frustration with his own government and his irritation at the policy environment he is forced to work in.

It looked as if Hurd had gone native, and was now as loyal to the sector as to his party. He clearly believes in the social enterprise and charity movement and he seems to have the support of his Prime Minister. But on the recent evidence, it’s clear he’s got an uphill slog to get the message out to his key constituencies.

The party faithful and the right wing seem to have a “Lady Bountiful” attitude to charities. They support them, but as a means for the rich to dispense alms to the deserving poor, and they dislike the realities involved – administration costs, chief executive pay, campaigning rules – which interfere with the simple system they want to exist.

His fellow ministers are pragmatic and hard-headed, and they often start from an ideological standpoint that has little time for the problems of charitable beneficiaries.

Civil servants, meanwhile, like to do things the way they’ve always done, with huge, gold-plated, risk-averse contracts. (Although, as Hurd pointed out, the risk they’re averting is not the risk to the end user that it won’t work, or the Treasury that it will waste money, but the risk to the minister that he will look silly.)

Hurd, with only the rump of a once-considerable budget in the Office of Civil Society, is limited in the levers he can pull and the power he can exert.

From the evidence of the conference, charities had better keep talking to him, because he is the only one really listening.

  • David Floyd

    Interesting stuff. Hurd definitely seems to have been left on his own to occupy the gap between the rhetoric of the Big Society and Localism agendas and what the government is actually doing in practice when taking decisions that really matter.

    When I’ve heard him speak, he’s always come across as being both genuine and well informed. I think he, like many politicians and social enterprise leaders, has got a bit with lost with the idea of a social investment pipeline that will lead to the growth of large numbers of new trading charities and social enterprises who will deliver large public sector contracts.

    Not very many of the organisations entering the pipeline through the Social Incubator Fund look like the kind of organisations – in terms of the sorts of products and services they deliver – that could ever take on £multi-million public service contracts, even if they did manage to progress through the various stages of funding and business support and emerge at the end as profitable businesses.

    If Hurd and colleagues want to create a pipeline of service delivery organisations – and persuade existing successful local ones to scale up – they’re going to need both very different programmes and a clearer message about why it’s in organisations interests to get involved with those programmes.

  • Mary O’Toole

    Charities come in all shapes and sizes; smaller ones don’t even need to register with the Charity Commission; some seem to run on air, others function like corporates, or seem to aspire to, and have massive budgets, often from state sources of one kind or another. The Charity Commission and charity law, expects certain things of charities. Its not unreasonable that they account for their income, spending and efficient use of resources, whether donated directly by individuals or publicly funded. The public and press, maybe has an old fashioned idea of charities, and may not realise that many function like large businesses, albeit with altruistic aims. Government has possibly also added to a confused understanding of the sector, spinning off off various functions into charities in recent decades (housing associations from former local authority housing depts for example). You can identify these by looking up their profile on the Charity Commission website & looking at the pie charts showing proportion of income from voluntary sources; shown in blue. Some have none, or very little, getting all or most of their income from grant sources. More ‘traditional’ charities have much more or the majority of income from voluntary donations. The charity sector is essential for our common good, and in my opinion, very healthy in the UK, but like any other human activity, can sometimes fail to deliver or behave as it should, for different reasons. Its also essential that new small charities are born to meet new needs (in the way that small businesses are continually created) Often these start with few resources,initiated by people who realise the unmet need for personal reasons, and are very effective in making good use of their resources with few overheads and little income to start with. I have belonged to or led several voluntary organisations over the years, some of which made considerable demands on their volunteers, and only some of which were registered charities. I am currently a trustee of two small charities.