Nick Hurd, the civil society minister, talks to David Ainsworth ahead of the Conservative party conference, and Ian Griggs finds out what his constituents in London think of him and his policies
The third sector is unlikely to feature highly in the Conservative Party conference starting this weekend: there will be no formal debate about it and it's likely to be confined to passing references in the main sessions on communities or health and to fringe meetings.
But that doesn't mean there's nothing happening on the policy front. Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, says there is "a hell of a lot going on", ranging from the National Citizen Service to the training of community organisers and the mutualisation agenda.
He's also in the middle of what he calls "the most comprehensive review of regulation that I've seen" - the government's response to the recent review of the Charities Act 2006 by Lord Hodgson and its continuing attempts to implement recommendations of Unshackling Good Neighbours, the review of red tape also conducted by Hodgson.
Hurd says that detailed recommendations will be published in November, and the government will then begin to introduce changes. "Those recommendations will be classified under a traffic light system into 'absolutely don't do', 'could do' and 'just get on and do"," he says. "The key question about which category each one falls into is whether it makes it easier to run a charity or reinforces public confidence in charities. We have to accept that we won't be able to do everything we want."
Another of Hurd's main concerns at the moment is helping the sector gain the investment and business skills needed to win more public sector contracts. Despite the deep cuts in public spending, he believes there is an opportunity for the sector to win more and bigger contracts and for organisations delivering those contracts to grow larger. "When it comes to making it easier to participate in public service delivery, it's hard to overstate the scale of potential change," he says.
He says the country has a lot of social enterprises but few big ones, and one major way to address their competitive disadvantage against large private sector firms and put them on a level playing field is to increase access to social investment.
"It's a big priority," he says. "We've made a big play with Big Society Capital, the first social investment bank, and now we're looking at backing it up. We're very serious about social investment - it's what Sir Stuart Etherington (chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations) has called a 'third pillar of funding"."
The government will also encourage public sector commissioners to tackle stubborn problems in society by offering more payment-by-results contracts and social impact bonds, designed to attract more social investors. But one problem, says Hurd, is that no one department can make a saving by funding such preventative interventions: "We found that savings from this kind of social action often accrued to several departments, but it was difficult to get buy-in across different parts of government."
So the government is planning to create an 'outcomes fund', to which bodies interested in offering payment-by-results contracts can apply for top-up funding. The fund is likely to be about £20m, he says, but could grow larger if it proves successful.
He says another way to build the social investment market is through tax incentives, but any decision is in the hands of the Treasury, which is carrying out a review. "I can't judge where that will come out," he says. "But I'm happy to see a serious process of engagement."
Hurd emphasises that growth is not for everyone: he says he is a passionate supporter of small local charities that want to stay small and local. "But we need to make sure that small charities are not shut out of the process," he says. "That's about supporting partnerships at the local level, developing consortia and making sure commissioners recognise the value of what they do."
Meanwhile, he's keen to support and expand the sector's business skills. "In particular, I would highlight the need to get the sector more comfortable in embracing technology," he says.
Other methods he thinks can bring new funds in to the sector include payroll giving and legacies. "Payroll giving is always the poor relation," he says. "We think there's an neglected opportunity there. In particular, it reaches out to an underdeveloped demographic - young male professionals - but it's not a good structure to work with."
A new way to encourage giving through wills was introduced in the Budget in 2011, but Hurd accepts that more needs to be done to publicise it. It gives a 10 per cent reduction in inheritance tax when 10 per cent of an estate is left to charity.
OUT AND ABOUT ON THE MINISTER'S HOME TURF
How do Nick Hurd's policies play in his own constituency, a semi-rural part of north-west London with a lot of golf courses? Do they know him? Do they know he's a minister? And what do they think of the big society?
At Ruislip lido it's a sunny morning with a chilly breeze and rain clouds on the horizon. Jeremy Budd, 45, a postal worker from Northwood Hills, is out with his wife and two small children.
He names Nick Hurd as his MP without hesitation: he says he and his wife contacted Hurd because they felt they had been unfairly treated by the NHS over IVF treatment.
"He wrote to them on our behalf and they gave us the funding," says Budd. "I voted for him and I'm happy with my choice because he's done a lot for my area and because he cares about the same issues we care about."
Budd is not aware of Hurd's civil society policies but knows and agrees with his position against the planned High Speed 2 railway and the third runway at Heathrow, which are both major issues in this part of west London.
Budd also knows that Hurd's father, Douglas, was a mainstay of Margaret Thatcher's government: "His dad was one of the best foreign ministers ever, but whether he'll be as good as his dad is difficult to say."
Marina Lefort,44, a home carer from Hillingdon, is out with her three-year-old daughter Emily. She struggles to recall either Hurd's name or his position in government. But she remembers she wrote to him because her family of four are currently squeezed into a tiny one-bedroom flat and need help moving up the housing list.
"There was no useful response to my letter," she says. "We work, we pay our taxes and we could just do with a bit of help with housing - but we haven't had it."
The bowling green
Near Ruislip High Street I find a sleepy pond edged by willows, and a manicured, sun-dappled, bowling green. Anthony Smith (right), a 75-year-old retired maths teacher, is playing a match with friends.
He knows Hurd because he has lobbied him personally about bee health: "I'm a bee keeper and honey bees are still in crisis. The previous government withdrew funding into research, but Nick's been very helpful in getting that started again. We lobbied Nick in London and, as a result, £5m has been forthcoming to fund eight centres of research."
Near the bowling green I encounter Graham Pellow, 66, resident artist at a converted cow shed called the Cow Byre Gallery, busily applying paint to a canvas ahead of a class he will teach later.
He recalls his MP's face but has to be prompted for his name. "I agree with Nick on HS2," he says. "I didn't know he was a minister but, to me, that says he's a successful politician and he's been given a key role."
On the other side of the constituency in Pinner High Street, I meet Fredolini Peppi, a make-up artist in her 50s who owns a beauty clinic - a riot of lacquered wood and opulent smells.
She launches into an angry tirade against her MP: "Nick Hurd has been a huge disappointment in Pinner. As an MP, we would expect to see and hear much more of him. I think it's good for MPs to visit businesses in their constituencies and say 'Hi, I'm your MP', but Nick has never done that."
In the Queen's Head pub, Trevor Walker, 69, a retired business mentor, is having lunch with a local shop owner, Kara Lines, 31. She has been having trouble with "unlicensed charity collectors" working outside her shop and decided to approach Hurd about it at the Pinner Village show.
"I harassed him but he didn't seem keen," says Lines. "He told me he was involved in the Hodgson review and that I should read it."
Walker says he does some charity work for the Rotary club, so it helps that Hurd is the minister for charities. "I think he's a pretty good MP but it's difficult to divide your time between the constituency and Westminster as it is - even more so as a minister," says Walker.
I also speak to the Reverend Stuart Natrass, 71, a retired Church of England priest who is active in charity work, about the big society.
"The term needs clarification," says Natrass. "If it means cutting the welfare state and statutory services, we need an honest and open debate about that.
"Otherwise people will be suspicious, recalling Mrs Thatcher's comment that 'there is no such thing as society'.
"On the other hand, if it means supplementing statutory services, it is to be welcomed - but the government must overcome the contradiction inherent in cutting funding to voluntary organisations."
Cynthia Wells is editor of The Villager, a magazine for the Pinner area. "The big society is a good idea but, for it to work, people need to be enthused to take part and I don't know how you do that," she says.
'A MIDDLE-CLASS, SURBURBAN FEEL' - RUISLIP, NORTHWOOD AND PINNER
Nick Hurd was elected Conservative MP for Ruislip-Northwood in 2005. After boundary changes, the seat was renamed Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner. At the 2010 general election, Hurd won a majority of 19,060, with 57 per cent of the vote, beating Labour on 19.5 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 16.6 per cent.
The constituency is the most north-westerly in London. From east to west, it includes the wards of Hill End, Harefield, West Ruislip, Ickenham, Ruislip, Northwood Hills, Eastcote, Pinner and Hatch End. The western part of the seat is semi-rural, taking in the village of Harefield, site of Harefield Hospital, and surrounding farms. The rest of the constituency has a predominantly middle class, suburban feel.
In the 2001 census, the constituency had a population of almost 90,000, of which 21 per was aged under 18 and 23.1 per cent was over 60. The population was 83.5 per cent white and 10.9 per cent Asian, with 5.6 per cent from other ethnic backgrounds. The addition of Pinner to the constituency makes it, potentially, one of the safest Tory seats in the country.
VIEWS FROM THE CONSTITUENCY
I voted for Nick because I thought the Conservatives might have a better chance of dealing with the economy." - Campbell Galbraith, 62, solicitor
I voted for him because the Tory always gets in round here." - Julia Dash 76, housewife
I don't dislike Nick - he's a good-looking man and he dresses nicely - but he's also a fourth-generation Tory." - Bruce Watson, Chairman of the Pinner Association
I voted for him and I would do so again because I've always followed the Conservatives. He could be as big as his dad one day." - David Garside, 54, a chef
I don't vote here because I vote in Italy, darling. I work seven days a week so I'm not really aware of what's going on." - Elenora Pirozzi, 24, catering worker
'SOME MERIT IN WHAT HE SAYS'
Richard Eason (right), acting head of Hillingdon Association of Voluntary Services, sees some merit in Nick Hurd's vision of charities forming consortia to deliver public services.
He accepts that the days of grants are numbered and says the West London Network, which has projects across five boroughs including a business support hub and a social enterprise hub, is an example of a successful consortium.
But he is sceptical that many of the 400 charities in Hillingdon, which includes most of Hurd's constituency, will be able to meet the challenge. "It takes time and resources at a time when charities are struggling with both," he says.
He says most charities tend to get three-year contracts with local authorities whereas some private companies get seven or even 25-year contracts. The majority have no income security beyond nine months.
"Creating consortia takes a lot of work and building trust," says Eason. "But cuts in funding have resulted in staff shortages, so charity leaders have less time to network with their peers and it's hard to build that trust.
"They are spending all their time on funding bids, which means it's a difficult time to do work for the long term if they won't benefit in the short term. The West London Network took several years and money spent on professionals to put it together."
Another factor is what Eason calls super-charities. "We already have situations where national charities cherry-pick local work, using professional bidding techniques, at the expense of smaller organisations."
A further sticking point is that many charities in the area are rooted in the communities they serve and have no wish to expand because they will lose touch with them.
"Some charities are up for winning service contracts, although it's a big step," says Eason. "But smaller charities, which are motivated simply by the desire to do some good, would not want to take this step up to the professional level with all the complexities that brings. There is a lot of work involved in getting these bids up, with no guarantee of revenue at the end of it.
"Charities that are embedded in the local community are aware of local needs and can be very efficient at delivering things such as social care.They certainly have a role to play, but they need the funding to get that up."