General Election 2010: judge us on what we have done for the sector, says Angela Smith

In our third election interview, Paul Jump talks to the incumbent charities minister about her relationship with the sector - and Des O'Connor

Angela Smith, Minister for the Third Sector
Angela Smith, Minister for the Third Sector

A few years ago, Angela Smith wanted to raise money for St Luke’s Hospice in her Basildon constituency. Her husband suggested she do it by listening to Des O’Connor records for 24 hours. The result was several hundred pounds raised and a reprimand from The Sun.

They asked whether there wasn’t anything better I could be doing for 24 hours, she says with a laugh. But I got all my constituency work finished because I was up all night listening to those bloody records!

With such commitment to charitable causes, it is perhaps no wonder that Smith, who also worked for the League Against Cruel Sports before being elected to Parliament in 1997, said it was her dream job when she became third sector minister last June. And she has not been disappointed.

Her many visits to charities have reinforced her faith in the sector, which has surprised her with just how innovative it has become since she left it in the early 1990s. She gives the organisations concerned the credit before adding that the Labour Government created the necessary climate of support. She says that climate is not merely about the phenomenal increase in state funding for the sector, rising from £5bn to £12bn since 1997; it is also about the honest and open relationship the sector now enjoys with the Government.
 
The continuation of that relationship would be Labour’s priority if it was returned to office, Smith says. This would include improving commissioning, which a Cabinet committee has already been established to oversee. Another priority would be mutualism and the creation of a social investment bank to increase the capacity of social enterprise to be involved in the private as well as the public sector.
 
Speaking to Third Sector  before the launch of her party’s manifesto, Smith, whose previous job was parliamentary private secretary to Gordon Brown, declines to unveil any new commitments. But she argues that the absence of specific commitments is not necessarily a problem. There is nothing wrong with being aspirational and saying ‘judge us on what we have done for the sector for the past 12 years and take it as an indication of what we will do in the future’’, she insists.
 
Voters should also judge the Conservative Party by what its councils have done over recent years, she argues. She is wary of Tory pronouncements that the sector should stand on its own two feet, insisting that capacity-building programmes will remain necessary if charities are to be able to gain access to the public service contracts that could guarantee their income during an uncertain fundraising period.
 
Introducing more sustainable funding streams, such as the endowment-building element of her beloved Grassroots Grants programme, could also help to protect sector income, she says. Gift Aid reform is another potential gold mine, and Smith says the Treasury is receptive when she presses the case for reform, but is struggling to settle on the best way of doing it. I don’t think I’m wasting my breath, she adds.
 
Smith has ridden to the sector’s rescue in several other recent controversies, such as the threat from Ed Balls to turn academy schools into exempt charities and the one emanating from the Department of Health to require NHS trusts to consolidate the accounts of charities they control. They all came round in the end in every case, Smith says. I had discussions with ministers. Each time any issue comes up, it increases awareness of the sector across government. I don’t want the voluntary sector to be something that only happens in the Office of the Third Sector.

The Compact-breaching cancellation of the Campaigning Research Programme is, of course, the most controversial aspect of Smith’s tenure at the OTS. But she continues to insist that the £750,000 was put to better use as part of the Hardship Fund. She does regret not being aware of the fund when she first came into office, when she could have cancelled it without breaching the Compact, but she dismisses the suggestion that she flak she took was not worth it for a mere £750,000. I never take the view that because a sum is small in government terms it is not much money, she says.
Some of the fallout of the controversy has been really useful, she adds, citing work done with Compact Voice on how to monitor the Compact-compliance of departments without using it as a stick to beat people. She is also very clear on the need for more local Compacts to be established. Some of the biggest issues I hear about are at local government level, she says.

Perhaps this might be an area Smith could work in if, as seems likely, she loses her seat on 6 May. She claims not to have thought about what she would do, but she is pretty sure the private sector is not an option.
 
I have never worked in the private sector, she says, except for a Saturday job at Sainsbury’s and a shift at my local pub at Christmas.

Tell us about yourself...

What charities do you donate to?

A number of them. I have a direct debit arrangement with two, one of which is St Luke’s Hospice in Basildon.
 
Who is your political idol?
 
I admire a number of people with whom I have worked, but my idol would have to be Sylvia Pankhurst. She didn’t want the vote for wealthy women only, but also for working class women. What she achieved was quite remarkable.
 
What is your favourite television programme?

Coronation Street. It is a minor obsession and I haven’t missed an episode for several years. I love its humour, wit and drama. It is like a pantomime. When you do a busy job, you need to chill out and relax. I tried to get the theme as a ringtone, but my phone is ancient and won’t accept it.

What is your favourite book?

The one that made the most impression on me was Anne Frank’s diary, which I read when I was the age she was when she was keeping it. I read lots of crime novels and I’m also an Oscar Wilde fan.
 
Where was your last foreign holiday?

To our small flat north of Calais. It is less than four hours door-to-door and you don’t have to fly. After some years going back and forth to Belfast as a junior Northern Ireland minister, I don’t seek out flights

Will she get back in?

Probably not Even in 2005 she beat the Conservatives in the weathervane constituency of Basildon by only 463 votes. Since then the constituency has been redrawn and is now called Basildon South and East Thurrock, but that has done nothing for Smith’s prospects. According to Electoral Calculus, a website that makes predictions based on opinion polls, Smith has a 24 per cent chance of winning the seat.

Smith was born in east London but grew up in Basildon and still lives there. Her husband is a veteran of Basildon and Southend councils. She says she has gone into no election with confidence.  Confidence can be mistaken for arrogance, she says.

When door-knocking, she presents herself as both the local MP and the charities minister. I have been surprised how much my constituents know about my ministerial jobs, she says, adding that she received more letters congratulating her on becoming charities minister than she did chiding her over the expenses scandal at Parliament.

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