NEWSMAKER: The prodigal campaigner - Maeve Sherlock, chief executive, Refugee Council

Lucy Maggs

There is a constant stream of people arriving at the Refugee Council's offices in a back street in London's Brixton, coming for advice and to pick up clothes and food. It's in stark contrast to the Treasury's multi-million pound building next to St James's Park where Maeve Sherlock has spent the past three years.

"On my first day, I looked out of the window and there was a dog fight in the street. I thought: 'Dorothy, you're not in Kansas anymore'." But she says she doesn't miss the in-house cappuccino bar and the Japanese-style water feature. "When I walked into my office there were two plants on my desk with a note from the staff saying how much they were looking forward to working with me, and I thought, 'I'm back in the voluntary sector'."

But she insists she loved her time at the Treasury, where she worked on social exclusion, tax-effective giving and the Cross-Cutting Review.

With a career in campaigning organisations she found working inside government a revelation. "I realised I knew nothing about how government worked.

It's something else being on the inside - you really get to understand the process of policy-making."

Sherlock has come away from the experience convinced that voluntary organisations do not have a good enough grasp on how the government machine works and, as a result, often focus their limited resources in the wrong place. "Voluntary organisations know about talking to ministers, but often don't talk to civil servants - you have to work with officials who specialise in your area."

Sherlock was by no means the only secondee from the voluntary sector working in government. Helen Edwards, ex-chief executive of Nacro - to name one - is now director-general of the Home Office Communities Group.

This kind of cross-fertilisation can help the voluntary sector work more effectively with government, but to reap the benefits Sherlock believes there needs to be two-way traffic. "I'd like to see civil servants who have done stints in one or two different sectors," she says.

Sherlock's inroads into government and the Refugee Council's 90 per cent state funding base leave it open to criticism for being too cosy with government.

But Sherlock argues that a close relationship does not have to take the edge off campaigning. The voluntary sector, she feels, can balance the delivery of services with a more antagonistic campaigning role.

"There are tensions between service delivery and campaigning, but they are creative tensions. We have totally and robustly disagreed with government and there has never been the slightest hint that they want us to stop.

If the money stopped us speaking out, we wouldn't take it."

She has already created a strong media presence, criticising government plans to remove access to judicial review for asylum seekers. She says: "This will be the only area of policy where the Government can act with impunity; even aside from the asylum issue, we should be worried."

And she has also been heavily critical of the way the immigration service is run. Currently, more than 20 per cent of asylum application decisions are turned over on appeal. "You don't need this kind of appeal rate if you're doing your job properly," she says. Decisions on asylum are made by low-level immigration officials without enough understanding of the situation that many applicants are in, she argues. "There is a culture of disbelief among immigration officials - they don't have the information about different international situations and the information they do have is not put into effect."

Sherlock feels the problems caused by an ineffectual system have turned the public against asylum seekers. The perception of the numbers involved is hugely out of proportion - people believe that up to a quarter of the world's refugees come to the UK, but the actual number of applicants for 2002 was only 84,130, and the forecast for 2003 is significantly less.

Sherlock feels that if the public understood the reality of the situation, there would be a great deal more sympathy for asylum seekers. She plans to try to bolster the council's work on the integration of refugees and asylum seekers through lobbying and the media. "I have huge confidence in the decency of British people. If they understood the reality of cases, attitudes would change."

In order to fund the council's work on integration, Sherlock wants to boost the organisation's income from public donations. This may seem like an impossible task, considering the public's apparently negative attitude to the cause, but Sherlock feels the organisation actually has a surprising amount of support. "The most depressing part of my job is reading press cuttings, but we do have a steady stream of small donations, which is fantastically encouraging, and I think we can build on that."

Sherlock has certainly taken on a political hot potato for her return to the voluntary sector, but her unrelenting enthusiasm seems to draw her to controversial causes. Before joining the Treasury she spent six years campaigning for single parents.

"There always seem to be groups that are targeted and blamed for all evils - it used to be single mothers, now it's asylum seekers." She is adamant that her experience of government has not curbed her campaigning spirit, but has enabled her to refine her strategies. "If there are to be concessions they should be tactical, and for your own benefit, you have to tactically pick your fights."

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