Interview: 'The charity world is changing'

One year since the government came to power, the Minister for Civil Society, Nick Hurd, tells Kaye Wiggins he is sympathetic about cuts but determined to press on with the big society agenda

Nick Hurd
Nick Hurd

Since Nick Hurd was appointed Minister for Civil Society a year ago, the landscape of the voluntary sector has changed significantly. Many charities have closed, ended programmes or made staff redundant after losing statutory funding.

Others, however, are gearing up for the policies Hurd's department has announced so far, which include a bigger role for the sector in public service delivery and the devolution of power to community organisations.

Hurd is sympathetic but unapologetic about the plight of many charities faced with funding cuts.

"I entirely understand the frustration, anxiety and insecurity in the sector," he says. "But charities have got to think beyond the short-term horizon of public money, because we are moving into a world where there is less of it around. They've got to come to terms with this. That grant that perhaps they've come to rely on from the local authority is now vulnerable or gone and they're having to think about what they do and why they exist - and, of course, that is extremely uncomfortable for a lot of organisations in the short term.

"Things are very painful, but we are trying to prepare the ground for changing the fundamentals of the sector. In the new world I am describing, there are going to be major opportunities to deliver public services and to shape local priorities - and, we hope, more people coming forward with time and money to give."

Big society agenda

Hurd says he agrees with the analysis of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, that the big society agenda has been shaped by two themes. "The first is the stuff we have to do, which is to reduce public spending," he says. "The second is the stuff we want to do, which is to create the conditions where civil society can flourish."

Asked if he is concerned that short-term cuts will hinder the sector's ability to play a part in this long-term vision by causing charities to close and scale back their services, Hurd says: "We could not have sent a stronger signal to the people making cuts centrally and locally that, as far as possible, we want to minimise the damage to the voluntary sector."

He says it is not clear how long it will take for the "new world" he describes to become reality. "We want to enable the sector to reshape and position itself to take advantage of the game-changing opportunities. It might take five years or 10 years, but I think the role of civil society will change significantly."

Hurd is clearly playing a long game, but in the short term is standing firm on the decisions he has taken during his first year in office. Asked about the time gap between his decision to abolish Capacitybuilders last year and the announcement of an alternative infrastructure model, expected later this summer, he says: "A lot of taxpayers' money has been spent on capacity building with very little to show for it, and I'm not going to get stampeded into shovelling out more taxpayers' money to prop up a part of the sector that is arguably inefficient.

"We signalled early on that we wanted to improve the effectiveness of infrastructure, and I make no apology for taking time to get that right."

Hurd is similarly unflinching on his decision to abolish the Commission for the Compact, despite a pre-election pledge not to do so. "The commission failed the test of the quango review," he says. "That's no reflection on the quality of the people and the work that they did, but what was in place before wasn't working - and I don't think anyone was telling me that it was."

Flagship volunteering programme

Hurd says one of the programmes he is most proud of so far is the National Citizen Service, the government's flagship youth volunteering programme. Last week Terry Ryall, chief executive of the volunteering charity v, which is taking part in pilots of the service, said the government might not be wise to prioritise it over other youth volunteering schemes.

He responds: "What I've learned in the past year is that there's a huge amount of vested interest inside the sector, and I don't blame people for that. But I'm determined to ensure that it doesn't tarnish or undermine something that's hugely important."

Hurd also cites the red tape taskforce, chaired by Lord Hodgson, and the forthcoming white paper on charitable giving as initiatives he is proud of. He describes the Localism Bill as a "game-changer" for voluntary groups at a local level, and says that, despite some scepticism about the extent of third sector involvement in the Work Programme, he is pleased with the Department for Work and Pensions' estimate that it will channel about £100m into the sector.

He appears most optimistic, however, about the Big Society Bank. "We're making big progress," he says. "It's not going to be appropriate to every organisation in the sector, and it is a complicated thing to set up. But I genuinely think there is a chance to grow a third leg of funding here."

Many in the voluntary sector remain unsure whether Hurd's array of new policies will compensate for the cuts they are having to make after losing public funds. Hurd, though sombre about the sector's current pain, insists he is confident about the future.

"The world is changing for charities," he says. "But I think the sector is beginning to shift. It's going through a process almost akin to bereavement in relation to the spending cuts. But I sense there are now voices in the sector saying that it has got to move on, because there are real opportunities here - and it's those voices that I want to encourage."

- Read analysis of coalition's record

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