Peter Stanford: I'm not sure a part-time minister is a step forward

The government is hardly practising what it preaches, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

There is a certain irony in the new charities minister being a part-time appointment. Tracey Crouch will combine responsibilities for the third sector with the sports brief. Given how long and loud the government has hammered on to charities about the importance of proper governance, this appointment hardly counts as practising what it preaches, especially at a time when, arguably, plenty of ministerial guidance is needed, with changes at the very top of the Charity Commission.

You might, of course, make a case that sport and charity have plenty of overlaps and that there are just too many ministers already, especially when it is a minority government. And, let's be frank, recent incumbents as "our" portal into Whitehall have hardly distinguished themselves. Rob Wilson, in post for three years before his unseating at the general election, didn't leave much of a mark.

I chaired a day-long European volunteering conference he attended at City Hall in London last year. While I appreciate that ministers have heavy workloads, to arrive zero seconds before he read a limp, prepared speech, and then depart zero seconds after stepping off the platform, did not suggest someone keen to engage or have his horizons broadened.

He was, I suppose, an improvement on his predecessor, Brooks Newmark, who might have had a direct line to his pal David Cameron, but managed only to distinguish himself by sending unsuitable messages on his phone.

So perhaps this downgrading is nothing to get too concerned about: a return to a previous age when we were much more left to our own devices by government, rather than dragooned behind empty manifesto slogans such as the "big society", which attempted to claim everything we were already doing as a government-inspired success story.

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Well, yes and no. Although there is undoubtedly a taste right now in our nation for returning to past glories and golden ages, it is not so easily achieved as it might sound. And the consequences are not so straightforward to predict. What has certainly changed during my three decades in the sector is that interaction between the state and charities has become much more routine. It is part of greater professionalism, greater reach and greater impact in our ranks, and in overall terms is hugely to be welcomed.

However, with that growth has come a blurring of the lines between the work of government and the work of charities, with all the attendant risks that brings for public trust in the third sector. So the relationship needs to be handled with great care through the sort of day-to-day management that depends on there being a minister who, at the very least, is on top of the civil society brief and knows where the sensitive areas are. Can that be achieved by someone in a part-time role? I'm not convinced it can.

The Prime Minister might be short of a majority in the House of Commons, but with 317 MPs she is not short of would-be ministers, even if her medium-term future isn't looking good. And, indeed, as I write this, there are plenty who are predicting her government will not last.

But there is a bigger point here. One of the things that did for Theresa May in her ill-judged election campaign was the Tories' recent history of similarly ill-judged cutbacks, which have done real damage to the fabric of our society. Downgrading the charities minister to a part-time post fits that pattern. Whoever is in charge of our country when you read this, they need to learn that cutting back is never without consequences.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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