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.