General Election 2010: What Jenny Willott would do

In the first of Third Sector's interviews with the main parties' representatives for the voluntary sector, the Liberal Democrat Cabinet Office spokeswoman talks to Paul Jump.

Jenny Willott
Jenny Willott

When Jenny Willott took over the charities brief for the Lib Dems 15 months ago, she already knew a fair amount about the subject from her time working at Oxfam, Unicef and Barnardo's before she become an MP in 2005.

"The campaigning voice of charities is really important - partly because that's what I used to do, so I'm massively biased," she smiles.

She credits the sector's self-advocacy and professionalisation with creating the consensus that now exists among the three main parties about its importance. "The sector has even more clout than it realises," she says.

Willott, 35, concedes that this consensus will not protect the sector from the sting of coming public sector cuts, and she puts building fundraising capacity at the top of her pledge list. This includes a commitment to introducing a composite rate for Gift Aid within a year of coming into office. She won't go into more detail until she has seen all the research she believes the Treasury has carried out, but says the rate will probably be set at 23 per cent so that the change does not make an extra dent in the public coffers. "All Treasury teams are refusing to release the purse strings in any way, shape or form at the moment," she notes.

She also concedes that some tinkering might be necessary to prevent the change from harming charities that rely heavily on donations from higher-rate taxpayers. "But all the evidence suggests higher-rate taxpayers won't mind, and the relief is much better spent by the sector," she says.

Reclaiming Gift Aid could also be made easier by the Lib Dems' promise of "easy-giving" accounts that people could run alongside their normal accounts. Other examples of red tape-cutting include relaxing the rules on Criminal Records Bureau checks, making it easier to claim back VAT and working with the Local Government Association to streamline the procurement process for sector organisations.

"Rather than every local authority having their own processes, requirements and forms, we would encourage them to copy best practice so organisations don't have to complete a totally different form and comply with completely different requirements each time they apply," she says.

Willott is also keen to see the size of public sector contracts reduced so that sector organisations can compete for them. She reserves particular criticism for the Department for Work and Pensions' 'prime contractor' model for delivering its Flexible New Deal, claiming that some of the private prime contractors have failed to pay their third sector subcontractors properly.

When the sector is best placed to deliver a service, she would like to see a direct contract between the Government and the organisation concerned.

The key, she says, is for procurement officers to focus less on economies of scale and take more account of the broader social impact of service delivery by sector organisations on the Government's broader policy priorities, such as community cohesion. She admits they will not attain such enlightenment overnight, "but you have to be optimistic in politics and have something you are working towards".

The sector's cause has been greatly helped by the establishment of the Office of the Third Sector, Willott says, but there is still a long way to go and she would like to see a thorough review of how the department spends its budget. "It has an awful lot of partner organisations that it funds in various ways, and the set-up can be rather impenetrable," she says. "I am not sure that as much money as possible is going to front-line organisations."

She says the Government needs to look into giving the sector support that is not directly financial, such as encouraging civil servants to take up their entitlement to eight days' leave each year to volunteer.

And she wants the sector to capitalise on the huge number of young unemployed people who want to volunteer as a way of boosting their job prospects. They are potential future donors and trustees, she points out.

Introducing volunteering into schools could also help to make it a more normal part of people's lives, she says, and ensure a steady supply of volunteers over the next 20 years.

No doubt the Liberal Democrats' education team will be happy to adopt such a proposal - once they have thrashed out with her whether academy schools should be exempt charities. "They are concerned about whether being registered with the Charity Commission means there's an extra layer of bureaucracy," she concedes. "But the Lib Dems have a long-standing policy of not creating new categories of exempt charities."

So is the Lib Dems' current position that academies should be exempted? Willott is silent, before breaking into a laugh. "I don't think so," she says. "We have a slight difference of opinion..."

TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF ...

- What charities do you donate to?

I don't want to list them all, but there are about a dozen, including all those I have worked for - Victim Support, Unicef UK, Barnardo's.

- Who are your political idols?

I hate that question. People always say Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but it doesn't mean anything. There are lots of people who achieve great things or do politics in a way that I like, but I don't have any particular idol. My other pet hate is when people say "my idol is my mother". I love my mum, but...

- What is your favourite television programme?

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. When you work incredibly long hours and are absolutely knackered, it is quite nice to watch something that doesn't require much brain power. You can spot who dunnit within about 10 minutes.

- What is your favourite book?

I haven't really got one, but I read a huge amount. For a two-week holiday I take eight or nine books. Most of them are trashy, mindless ones.

- What was your last foreign holiday?

My honeymoon in Borneo. It was an amazing experience. We did a wildlife tour and saw orang-utans. We stayed in the jungle and up mountains. I didn't read as many books that time.

- Will she get back in?

Probably: Willott has a majority of 5,593 in Cardiff Central, where she won just under 50 per cent of the votes in 2005, compared with 34 per cent for Labour. Electoral Calculus, a website that makes predictions based on previous opinion polls, gives Willott an 89 per cent chance of retaining her seat.

People don't raise charity issues on the doorstep, says Willott, who has been door-knocking for the past two years. Most raise local issues such as anti-social behaviour and broken paving stones, she says, and when people do raise national issues, they tend to be health, education and tax.

Wales is not her native country. Willott grew up in Wimbledon in south-west London and went to private schools and Durham University. She moved to Wales in 2000 to be a researcher for the Lib Dems in the Welsh Assembly. She contested her current seat in 2001, increasing her party's share of the vote by 12 per cent and losing by only 659 votes.

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