Interview: Jon Trickett

The shadow minister for the Cabinet Office talks to Kaye Wiggins about the balance between state and sector

Jon Trickett
Jon Trickett

Jon Trickett, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office and Labour MP for Hemsworth in West Yorkshire, is no stranger to difficult jobs. Between 2008 and the general election in May 2010, he served as parliamentary private secretary to the Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown.

He was appointed to that post just days before Labour started to bail out some of the high-street banks in October 2008. "I remember being in my constituency home in Yorkshire at quarter to seven on a Friday morning, eating my porridge while I was ironing my shirt, and the phone rang," he says. "Thinking it was my wife, I answered with a 'hello darling'. This voice said: 'I'm not your darling.' It was Gordon Brown. He told me to get down to London and start work, so I did."

After the 2010 election, Trickett was given a junior shadow Cabinet Office role, and last October he succeeded Tessa Jowell as shadow minister for the department. His brief includes developing an alternative model for the delivery of public services, and he says that making sure charities are given a fair chance to run services will be a key part of his work.

Marketised relations

"Under the system we have at the moment, there is a set of marketised relations, and the voluntary sector is part of the market," he says. "It matters not to the government whether a charity wins a tender or whether a for-profit company does, as long as they compete equally and equitably. I don't think that's the right way of approaching all this."

He believes that a thorough debate is needed on the role charities should play in running government-funded services. "The voluntary sector has unique characteristics of its own," he says. "We need to think about which aspects of society we don't want to be controlled purely by the state or the market, and about how we let the voluntary sector play a role here."

When asked whether this means that certain services should be delivered only by charitable providers, he declines to go into detail. "I'm thinking about the meta-narrative," says Trickett. "The voluntary sector is not simply a receptacle into which you can put state services, so I don't start by saying I want to create a state that is based on multiple competing providers."

Trickett is reluctant to talk about the detail because Labour, with three years until the next election, has not adopted any formal voluntary sector policies yet. But he is willing to share some of his vision for the sector. "It's self-evident that the way in which you commission services to some extent predetermines the outcomes," he says. "With the Work Programme, the scale of the tenders precluded most charities from being prime providers, so you need smaller tenders.

"You also need to think about increasing the number of grants, as opposed to contracts, as long as you can be sure grants provide value for money."

Sector independence

Trickett says that if you start from the view that the independence of the voluntary sector is important, you have to think about how you can fund it so it remains independent and avoids becoming subservient.

"If tenders are structured in such a way that charities become carried away with bidding, with accountants and ticking boxes to make sure they deliver targets, then the voices of the people using their services are not necessarily going to be heard," he says.

Trickett was the leader of Leeds City Council for seven years, and says he is aware of the political risks of increasing grants and of encouraging charities to speak out. When he led the council, he says, staff would tell him to stop giving certain grants to charities because there was a perception that they were "frittering away" taxpayers' money.

He says he appreciates that encouraging charities to speak independently can also create political difficulties. "They can say things that are very uncomfortable for politicians," he says. "But the alternative is to entrench bad practice by not changing the way services are run. There has to be a proper, mature debate about these things."

Trickett, who says he is on the centre-left of the Labour Party, was a backbench MP for most of the New Labour years, during which time he voiced concerns about what he called the marketisation of public services.

"What New Labour did brilliantly was to refinance underfunded services," he says. "But everybody knows I wasn't convinced by some of the public sector reforms. Having a mix of providers in the state didn't work very well in some respects.

"In a huge city like London it might be possible for people to choose between different hospitals, dentists and schools, but in the Yorkshire ex-mining villages I represent, many people don't have a car and there aren't many buses. People have a limited capacity to choose between providers. They just want the local service to be of the highest quality."

CV

2011: Shadow Cabinet Office minister
2010: Shadow minister of state for Cabinet Office
2008: Parliamentary private secretary to Gordon Brown
1997-98: Parliamentary private secretary to Peter Mandelson
1996: Elected as Labour MP for Hemsworth in by-election
1989: Leader, Leeds City Council
1984: Councillor, Leeds City Council

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