Interview: Nick Hurd

The Minister for Civil Society says his office is succeeding in getting the sector's message across

Nick Hurd
Nick Hurd

In recent weeks, Nick Hurd has listened to some sector leaders saying his department has been marginalised by more powerful people in the government who want to restrict the ability of charities to speak out. But he says this is nonsense.

"To wrap up recent events into a conspiracy theory that government is out to get the sector is - well, frankly, it's crap," he says. "I hear people talking about an anti-charity agenda in government, but I don't recognise the underlying truth there at all. We aren't trying to muzzle people."

Sector leaders have been critical of the fact that the Office for Civil Society has not been consulted on several high-profile policies with the potential to damage charities, including the lobbying bill, currently in the Lords. Other instances are the cap on tax relief for major donors, introduced in the 2012 Budget and quickly withdrawn, and proposals, consulted on last month, to reduce access to judicial review, which justice minister Chris Grayling has admitted are intended to rein in charity campaigners. The sector has also come under attack from Conservative backbenchers who say that charity chief executives are overpaid.

But Hurd says the sector is "wrapping things together into a conspiracy theory". He points out that substantial changes are being made to the lobbying bill, that Grayling is "bending over backwards" to involve charities in his department's new Transforming Rehabilitation programme and that government has expressed no view on the controversial subject of charity chief executive pay.

"A few MPs think pay is too high," he says. "They may just reflect public opinion. Charities feel people are having a go at them, but that's something they're going to have to deal with. The sector shouldn't suggest it is beyond criticism and challenge."

Hurd also dismisses the idea that cuts to his department's budget mean the government views the sector as less important. "We don't really judge the success of the department by how much money we can get out of the Treasury," he says. "And I don't think the importance of the sector should be measured by the OCS budget."

He says the previous administration might have spent more money on the sector, but it did so through a small number of big funds "which independent assessors have questioned the value of". Hurd says his department has the funds, the structure and the calibre of staff to deliver what is needed."Civil society needs an advocate inside government; it helps the system that we're here," he says. "We understand civil society and what it can add. We believe that civil society can deliver better solutions and we want to help them do it.

"To deliver that change requires what we have - a department that's part advocacy, part programme delivery and part capacitybuilding."

He says the staff have the quality to deliver those services. "The OCS staff are the best group I've ever worked with," he says. "They're fantastically committed - they are really into what they do, and really care about the results."

His department's influence, he says, can be measured by how successful it has been in helping the Ministry of Justice create a sector-friendly commissioning process for the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. The OCS has been heavily involved in the design of this programme and has won some significant changes to make the programme more sector-friendly.

Hurd says his civil servants have worked productively with the Treasury on a social investment tax relief and engaged with local enterprise partnerships, which could deliver large-scale funding to the sector.

By contrast, he says, his civil servants were not really involved in the Work Programme, which has been a disappointment to the sector and attracted widespread criticism.

"There are hits and misses," Hurd says. "Government is messy and clumpy and rarely perfect. But I think we're succeeding. I think more people are listening to us than before, and I think they understand the sector better."

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