NEWSMAKER: The free speaker - Adam Sampson, Chief executive, Shelter

John Plummer

After perhaps the most difficult year in its history, Shelter is presenting a new face in 2003. The head office is undergoing major renovations and so too is the leadership.

Adam Sampson, 42, who took over in January, is a bold choice for troubled times. Tie-less, he breezes into his office sipping tea, jokes that no-one warned him that his desk had to stand a foot away from the wall because the window leaks and flashes a disarmingly warm, face-splitting smile.

How many staff does he lead? "I dunno, shitloads," he replies, grinning again. Sampson swears, quite frequently. "That's just the way I am," he shrugs. "If we ape the behaviour of our peers in the statutory and private sector we are in danger of forgetting our role and purpose." However, eloquence replaces jocular vulgarity when he warms to a theme.

Sampson's style may differ from Chris Holmes, his predecessor who resigned amid allegations of alcohol abuse, but in terms of substance the two men remain closer than appearances may suggest. The radical agenda one might expect from a man whom the Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard attempted to sack in 1994 isn't there. Instead, Sampson fans the embers of the past by suggesting that the proposed merger with Crisis, which was abandoned 13 months ago, might be resurrected.

"There were some powerful arguments for merging. The fact that merger didn't happen doesn't change the power of those arguments," says Sampson. "Certainly if the notion was put to me again I would take it seriously."

He draws a parallel with his time at the Prison Reform Trust, when funders questioned why it was necessary for it and the Howard League for Penal Reform to exist separately.

"I really haven't got an agenda to get the merger back on track or not," he says. "We're in the process of reviewing our purpose, status and style. Once we have done that then, yes, we will look at whether merger is the right thing, but I'm not going to come straight into the job and rush back into Crisis' arms."

Sampson first became headline news almost a decade ago when he was named assistant prisons ombudsman. He recalls: "From what I understand, when Michael Howard heard I had been appointed, he raised questions about my suitability and asked officials whether I could be got rid of.

"I had spent the past five years getting up the noses of ministers and he didn't like this supposedly lunatic lefty being appointed.

"Had they fired me they would have had to pay up my three-year contract, which was for more than £100,000. I was certainly willing to be a martyr for £100,000. As it turned out I had to endure three years in the Home Office."

During his time in Whitehall, Sampson, who insists he has no party political leanings, came into regular contact with front bench and shadow ministers, including an ambitious shadow home secretary called Tony Blair. Sampson's bulging contact book has been commented upon. Is he mates with the Prime Minister? "Nah," he laughs. "I'd be surprised if he remembered who the hell I am."

Sampson is shaped more by prison service experience than political dogma.

When he insists Shelter won't toady to the Government, his sense of deja vu is kicking in. "The more target-driven, bureaucratic culture has begun to squeeze the sense of vocation out of the statutory sector," he says.

"One of my fears for the voluntary sector is that it now faces many of the same pressures to deliver tight targets in a very prescribed and controlled manner."

Government relations have been strained by proposals to criminalise begging, something Sampson describes as "wholly pernicious and unacceptable".

Increasingly, however, Shelter's lobbying will focus on local rather than national government as power is devolved to the regions. Campaigns will be more in the style of its leader. "We will probably be a bit louder, reconnecting with our campaigning roots," says Sampson.

More than ever, campaigns will focus on the wider implications of homelessness as the fall in rough sleepers hides other homelessness issues, such as the number of people trapped in short-term accommodation. "We are concerned the Government may believe it has cracked homelessness," says Sampson.

"There are an increasing number of people without anything that can be called a proper home. What Shelter has to do is make it clear that homelessness has not gone away just because there are fewer people sleeping in shop doorways."

But he adds: "Fewer people are sleeping rough and that's something we should celebrate. Yes, there are real fears about whether the figures are accurate. However, if the worst manifestations of visible homelessness are disappearing we should celebrate and give ourselves credit. It's exactly what groups such as Shelter have been demanding for years."

Sampson admits the Holmes saga rocked the organisation, but adds: "It would be easy for the outside world to overestimate the difficulties.

The damage is in our relationship with Chris and that's sad for us and sad for Chris. The blows don't seem to have rocked our self-confidence."

Shelter's annus horribilis will be put to rest on 13 April when it reaps the financial benefits of being the London Marathon's official charity. Sampson won't be running because his second child is due that day but, typically, he prefers the wisecrack.

"I'm not sure the staff seeing me sweating and failing to break four hours would be a good example."

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