Kevin Brennan: 'being in government is about walking the walk'

The new Minister for the Third Sector reveals an open mind on policy, a deep suspicion of the Conservatives, and says support for the sector will not be cut back in this spending round.

Kevin Brennan
Kevin Brennan

"I'm a fairly mellow individual," declares new charities minister Kevin Brennan, as he reclines on the sofa in his spacious office. "If a charming young person wants to come and have a conversation with me, I don't mind too much."

He was talking about chuggers rather than journalists, but it is fair to say that Brennan's general demeanour seems as affable as that of his predecessor and fellow former teacher Phil Hope.

Many in the sector were surprised and disappointed when Hope moved on during October's reshuffle, particularly given that Brennan's only professional experience of the sector was working for social enterprise Cwmbran Community Press in the early 1980s and handing out grants to community organisations as a Cardiff city councillor in the 1990s. This relative lack of experience might explain the open-mindedness he professes on many policy questions.

The perception that he was installed only to keep the Office of the Third Sector hot seat warm for his Tory shadow, Nick Hurd, has been undermined by Labour's revival in the opinion polls after the recent economic meltdown.

But won't the downturn affect funding for the sector? Not according to Brennan. He says money already committed to the sector for the current three-year spending period is safe. He also insists there could be an opportunity for organisations "concerned with public good" to profit from the "era of new economic responsibility".

As for the Conservatives, he admits Hurd is a "very nice guy", but dismisses the Tory Party's overtures to the sector as a superficial rebranding exercise. "Opposition is about talking the talk: government is about walking the walk," he says. "It is tough in government, but if you look back on our record there has been huge progress.

"My genuine fear is that if the Tories got into power they would make real cuts in public spending. They might well look to the sector to deliver things, but not necessarily with the funding attached. For Labour, it's not a one-night stand. Beware of being hugged by a Tory."

He says an indicator of the Conservatives' real feelings towards the sector is their "reluctance" to allow the sector to campaign. Former shadow charities minister Greg Clark criticised the new Charity Commission guidelines that allow charities to campaign as long as it is not their "sole or continuing activity" for opening the door to political pressure groups becoming charities.

Brennan is equivocal on whether charities should be allowed to devote themselves to political campaigning, claiming it is up to the commission to decide whether Amnesty International, for example, should be allowed to register as a charity. "We have no plans to change the law," he adds.

Nor does he think politicians should have been more precise about what constitutes public benefit when drawing up the Charities Act 2006 - although there is a glint of antagonism in his eye when the subject of Eton's charitable status comes up. "I went to a very different kind of school," he says. "The original purpose of Eton was to educate poor children, rather than provide most members of the shadow cabinet."

He talks up the role of a "rejuvenated" Compact but won't be drawn on whether it should be made statutory after the recent consultation. "It will be interesting to see what (Commissioner for the Compact) Sir Bert Massie recommends," he says.

As for Brennan's own charitable activities, he cites his championing of muscular dystrophy charity Parent Project UK, set up by one of his Cardiff West constituents. He also says he supports the Catholic Church, but is unwilling to divulge any other charities he donates to. "I don't want to get into trouble," he explains.

On the basis of the straight bat he wields in his first major interview, his mellowness seems unlikely to be shaken by any sharp calls from Number 10.

Rapid turnover

Labour's voluntary sector ministers have lasted an average of 17 months

  • Kevin Brennan: Appointed October 2008
  • Phil Hope: 15 months, July 2007-October 2008. Announced £130m Grassroots Grants scheme
  • Ed Miliband: 14 months, May 2006-July 2007. Headed new Office of the Third Sector in the Cabinet Office
  • Paul Goggins: 12 months, May 2005-May 2006. Oversaw progress to Charities Bill
  • Fiona MacTaggart: 23 months, June 2003-May 2005. Launched Futurebuilders and ChangeUp
  • Lord Filkin: 12 months, June 2002-June 2003. Relaunched Active Community Unit
  • Angela Eagle: 11 months, July 2001-June 2002. Launched review of law that led to 2006 Charities Act
  • Paul Boateng: 33 months, October 1998-July 2001. Oversaw creation of the Active Community Unit
  • Alun Michael: 17 months, May 1997-October 1998. Launched the Compact

 

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