Interview: Claire Tyler Chief executive, Relate

Trading places: Claire Tyler moved from civil service to voluntary sector to be closer to service delivery.

Claire Tyler (credit: David Devins)
Claire Tyler (credit: David Devins)

It's 12 months since Claire Tyler traded an office in Whitehall for the comparatively bracing air of the voluntary sector. But she confesses that she still finds the atmosphere invigorating.

"In the voluntary sector you feel freer to do things," says Tyler, who spent two decades as a civil servant. "It feels liberating to be in a sector where you are at the forefront of innovation."

In Whitehall, she wrote green and white papers, headed the Government's Social Exclusion Unit for four years and served as deputy chief executive of teenage advice service Connexions. But the more she came into contact with charity chief executives, the more she found herself hankering for a new kind of role. "I wanted to feel closer to where a service is being delivered, closer to the client you are trying to help," she says.

The charity she joined, Relate, is well known by the public. But that very familiarity may be a hindrance. The charity has hugely broadened its range of activities since its days as the Marriage Guidance Council, but public awareness has lagged behind.

Tyler hopes this year's 70th birthday celebrations will be an opportunity to set the record straight. She reels off a list of services the charity now provides, from sex therapy to mediation, counselling for children, counselling in GP surgeries and life-skills training for young parents.

With Tyler at the helm, that list is liable to grow. The charity is piloting a national phoneline for people seeking relationship counselling. It has been commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families to run an online chat and SMS texting service for young fathers. And some Relate centres now provide webcam counselling for children and young people and peer listening schemes for teenagers.

The charity might be at the forefront of new technologies, but Tyler is having to confront the fact that relationship counselling is neglected politically. Relate, which is a membership body for 78 local centres, has seen its government grant cut by half in the past three years. Many of the centres have been rocked by the withdrawal of local authority bursaries.

The centres ask for contributions from clients according to income. But they have a policy of not turning anyone away, so invariably they subsidise counselling sessions with poorer clients. Many centres support themselves by taking on contracts with corporations, schools or primary health trusts, but their mission - to provide couples counselling to all who need it - is increasingly difficult.

"The money has dried up and it has caused us real problems," says Tyler. "Some centres are getting ever closer to the breadline in terms of financial viability." Accustomed to being lobbied in her previous roles in government, Tyler has become the persuader.

Given her insights into government, it is interesting that she emphasises the preventive role relationship counselling can play in halting the slide into deeper social problems. "There is a close link between what we do at Relate and social policy objectives," she says. "Lots of the stuff we do is about building self-esteem. When things go wrong, they cope rather than spiralling downwards."

Her message to politicians - and this may be why David Cameron chose to give the Relate annual lecture in June - is that relationship counselling is worth funding because it can help to achieve policy outcomes such as cutting the number of days people have off work or ensuring children go to school more regularly. "There is a case for the state investing more money in this - the benefits are strong," she says.

TYLER CV

2007: Chief executive, Relate

2006: Director, Vulnerable Children's Group, Department for Education and Skills

2002: Head, Social Exclusion Unit

2000: Deputy chief executive, Connexions Service National Unit, DfES

1998: Head, Connexions Unit, DfES

1997: Divisional manager, 16-19 year Policy Division, DfES

1994: Divisional manager, Senior Staff Division, HR Directorate, DfES

1992: Assistant regional director, Government Office for London

1988-92: Various positions at the Department of Employment.

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