Since being named shadow charities minister a month ago, Lisa Nandy says she has spent most of her time talking to ordinary charity workers to make sure she understands what the sector needs.
Nandy already knows a lot about the sector. Overall, she spent seven years working in research and policy for Centrepoint and the Children’s Society before becoming MP for Wigan in 2010. But she does not want to rely on that experience alone.
"I have some background in charities, which helps a lot" she says. "But I would hesitate to over-hype that. Too often what you see in government is politicians relying on their personal experience and viewing everything through that lens."
She says the conversations so far have made a deep impression on her and suggest morale is low. She has heard about an increase in short-term commissioning, more zero-hour contracts and rising levels of debt.
"I’ve met front-line workers facing high demand, reduced funding and uncertainty about whether they are still going to be in jobs," she says. "Those same workers also know that people depend on their services and don’t have a safety net. They know that the government is critical of their sector. It’s time to have a debate about how the ordinary people who work for charities are treated."
Nandy is concerned about the recent criticism of the sector by some ministers and MPs, and says she wants it to maintain its voice. She says ministers should accept they will not always have a comfortable relationship with the sector.
"I’m concerned about the climate for charities, particularly with the lobbying bill," she says. Politicians are less willing to have a proper debate with charities, she feels.
She supports increased service delivery by charities, but she is also worried about the impact this
has on independence. "It’s been a good thing because in some areas
the sector is much better placed to deliver," she says. "But as a result you have organisations largely funded by government, which restricts their ability to speak out.
"Delivering government contracts with integrity is a difficult thing to do, and although many charities do
it brilliantly, getting the balance right is a constant source of anxiety."
Yet she is cautious about promising a raft of new rules to solve the sector’s problems. "It’s always a temptation to pull the levers you have in front of you, not the ones that need pulling," she says. "Too often we create new laws that nobody needs. Cultural change is harder to produce."
When asked what policies Labour would introduce if it were to win the next election, Nandy is cautious and says she wants to map what her areas of priority should be. "If you don’t have a vision and get into government, you can’t deliver when circumstances change," she says. "That’s what happened with the big society. It was conceived in a time of plenty and it wasn’t the right policy for a period of austerity."
Nandy does have some priorities, however, including infrastructure to support charities. "The sector can find itself in an almost Darwinian environment, where only the fittest organisations survive," she says. "But I’m not sure survival of the fittest is survival of the most needed. Labour recognises the need for infrastructure to support those who need help but are doing vital work."
The previous shadow charities minister, Gareth Thomas, had indicated a focus on volunteering, including possibly giving trustees reasonable time off work. Nandy
says she wants to create a better framework to volunteer, including incentives for companies to encourage volunteering.
Nandy says the focus should be on people who want to do more. "We should look at how we can get them involved," she says. "We don’t need to persuade people to volunteer. We need to unlock their existing ambition."
Here, too, she says, more infrastructure is needed. "We understand that volunteering isn’t cost-free," she says. "We understand that volunteers can’t just step in and run a library. They need support."
Furthermore, she wants to focus on building sector capacity in deprived areas. Thomas promised to create a Community Reinvestment Act to increase bank lending, and Nandy is also interested in other ways to support deprived areas.
Nandy says she backs much of what Nick Hurd, the charities minister, says. But she says the advice of the Office for Civil Society is not being listened to elsewhere in government. "On some of the most difficult issues, we’re in agreement," she says. "I don’t want the sector to become a political football. I’d rather work with him to make the case for the sector.
"But all governments have their own priorities and some departments will be more powerful than others as a result. It doesn’t strike me that this is a government that’s given a huge amount of priority to the third sector. If Nick Hurd is listening but Chris Grayling or Iain Duncan Smith isn’t, it doesn’t make a lot of difference."