Ask tricky questions, went the instructions at an event hosted by St John Ambulance on Wednesday, where I had my first opportunity to met Brooks Newmark, the new Minister for Civil Society. “But please be polite when you do.”
That instruction wasn’t for me, but the dozen young people present – St John Ambulance volunteers and Volunteer Police Cadets – two of the 14 youth groups benefitting from a new £10m pot of Libor fines, which Newmark was there to publicise.
The hastily organised event – the SJA got a call a few days earlier saying “find us young people!” – was a chance for Newmark to shake hands, smile for the cameras, and learn some first aid. He took part in a session from the SJA’s Stick-it programme on first aid for gun and stab victims, at one point bandaging up one of his new friends, and a debate on gang culture.
For my five minute audience, I had been pre-warned by a PR that Newmark would not be taking any tricky questions – he would only talk Libor. So, he told me that the new fund and the organisations benefitting were jolly good, marvellous, and excellent. Fair enough.
I did dare to ask his first impressions of the new job. He emphasised his links to the sector as a volunteer, marathon-running fundraiser and member of his local community. “Now I’m looking at it from the top down, which allows me a different perspective and what I’ve got to say is I’m amazed how many people in this country are doing an amazing job in the charity and voluntary sector,” he said.
“Being the minister gives me a great opportunity to get out there, see what’s going on, thank people and then to try and figure out how government can help them a little bit to do the good job that they’re doing.”
What of the man himself? Compared to his debonair, Tory dynast predecessor Nick Hurd, Newmark seems that bit more down-to-earth, slightly softer spoken and has a relaxed cheerfulness. There’s also an intriguing hybrid accent, alluding to his US upbringing, and no repeat of Hurd’s bone-crushing handshake, which is a relief to me, dainty thing that I am.
In the end, my brief encounter left me wishing that the youngsters had actually been given the free rein to ask questions (they weren’t), and that one had had the pluck to ask: “Do you think it is the time for the government to revisit public benefit requirements in light of the Preston Down Trust, the Human Dignity Trust and other recent cases?” Asked politely, Newmark would have had no choice but to answer