Profile: Angela Smith - 'I've been in the sector longer than in politics'

The recently appointed Minister for the Third Sector - the ninth charities minister since 2001 - tells Paul Jump about the challenges she faces as another general election looms

Angela Smith
Angela Smith

Angela Smith does not come across as the kind of watchful schemer you sometimes find in high political circles. But then the Government's latest third sector minister insists she never had any burning ambition to enter the corridors of power.

"I joined the Labour Party when I was 18, but I never saw myself taking an elected role," she says. "I was busy doing other things and campaigning more on issues."

According to Smith, it was spending her formative years under the Thatcher government that made her realise there was more to changing the world than political activity. "I always wanted to be involved in the community," she says. "But there are things you can do through campaigning and being involved in organisations. I met lots of groups that weren't going to achieve their goals in the Thatcher era but still believed in society and worked to improve their communities. You find that with a lot of the 1997 intake of MPs: we are campaigners."

Smith's own community was Pitsea, part of Basildon new town in Essex, where she lived after moving out of east London in 1969 as a 10-year-old. "It was bliss," she enthuses. "Suddenly we had a house with a garden and an indoor toilet - and I had my own bedroom. In Hackney we lived above a shop with a toilet out in the yard. I had never had a bath in my own house until then."

The daughter of a Ford factory worker and a mother who worked for a local Catholic primary school's pre-school playgroup, Smith was involved in community and charity work from an early age. "My involvement with the sector predates my involvement with politics," she says. "At school I was on various committees for fundraising and volunteering. I have volunteered in charity shops, stood on streets with collecting tins and sat on committees for local organisations. It has given me huge respect for the sector and people working in it."

She also worked for eight years at the League Against Cruel Sports after finishing her degree in public administration at Leicester Polytechnic and bringing to a premature end a period of accountancy training because it "didn't fire me up".

The league, she says, was one of any number of sector organisations she would have been happy to work for, with international development also near the top of her agenda. In her 12 years at the league, she held various fundraising and campaigning positions, but it was the latter she enjoyed the most. She says that her campaigning work also helped her to overcome her fear of public speaking.

But for all her belief in the power of non-political action, her political career also began early. She stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in Southend West in 1987, at the age of 28. Two years later she was elected to represent Pitsea on Essex County Council, where she spent eight years before winning the Basildon & East Thurrock seat at the 1997 general election.

Four years into her parliamentary life, she became an assistant government whip. This was followed by stints as a junior minister in the Northern Ireland Office and the Communities and Local Government department. Then, in the summer of 2007, she received a call from the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, asking her to become his parliamentary private secretary.

"I wasn't expecting it in the slightest," she says. "I wasn't especially close to him, but I was very flattered. He asked me if I wanted to think about it and I thought for about 10 seconds and said I'd like to do it."

Smith says she was unconcerned about whether the move might be seen as a step back down the ministerial career ladder. "I've never worried about things like that," she says. "You have to enjoy and have a passion for what you are doing. This was an opportunity to be at the heart of government and to talk directly and candidly to the Prime Minister. It was fascinating. The more I worked with Gordon, the more impressed I became by him. The recession is a huge challenge, but there is no one I'd rather have as PM at this time than him."

She admits that the rule preventing PPSs from speaking in parliamentary debates could be a frustrating one for "somebody who can be as gobby as me", but she took full advantage of the opportunity to raise issues directly with ministers behind the scenes.

After two years at Number 10, Brown and Smith agreed that the perfect next move for her would be the job of third sector minister. She denies asking Brown to make the role more senior - minister of state rather than parliamentary under secretary; but she admits the extra clout helps her to whip other departments into line on voluntary sector issues. "The promotion of the position shows how Gordon sees the role at the heart of government," she says. "And it is helpful to know I have the Prime Minister's backing for what I am doing."

She acknowledges the weary sighs from some elements of the sector when they heard, in the early June reshuffle, that there was to be yet another charities minister - the ninth since the start of 2001. But she says the sector should be proud that there is now an array of former third sector ministers in strategic jobs across government. "These people haven't lost their passion for the sector," she says.

Smith says she is still in the process of picking up the problems she needs to deal with as minister, but two recurring themes of her discussions so far have been the recession and the need to improve relations between the sector and local government.

"Some councils work very well with the sector," she says. "But I recently had a couple of emails from friends in the sector around the country screaming 'Help! What can I do?'" Particular problems, according to Smith, are the commissioning process and the issue of when grants or contracts are appropriate. "It is a question of recognising best practice and rolling it out," she says. "Working together, the sector and local government are stronger than the sum of the parts."

As a veteran of local government herself, Smith is clearly motivated and well qualified to deal with its failings on sector issues. But whether she will have time to put her ideas into practice remains to be seen as the next general election looms large. Although she survived the MPs' expenses row relatively unscathed, boundary changes to her constituency mean she would have struggled to hold her seat even when Labour's popularity was at its height.

As a good politician, however, she refuses to be drawn on what she might do if she loses it. "If I was thinking 'what do I do after the next election?', I wouldn't really be giving enough attention to the job I am doing now," she says. "But maybe after the next election I'll think I should have given it more thought."

CV Angela Smith
2009: Minister for the Third Sector
2007: Parliamentary private secretary to Prime Minister Gordon Brown
2006: Junior minister in the Communities and Local Government department
2002: Junior minister in the Northern Ireland Office
2001: Assistant government whip
1999: Parliamentary private secretary to Paul Boateng MP during his time
with responsibility for voluntary sector policy at the Home Office
1997: Elected MP for Basildon & East Thurrock
1995: Research officer to Alun Michael MP, shadow minister for home
affairs and the voluntary sector
1987: Defeated as Labour candidate for Southend West in general election
1983: Joined the League Against Cruel Sports, rising to head of
political and public relations

Five things you didn't know about Angela Smith ...

1. She married her former history teacher, Nigel, at the age of 20. "It was a surprise to both of us when we met up later, went out a couple of times and realised it was a serious relationship," she says. A veteran of Southend and Basildon councils, he also stood for Parliament in 1997, but lost.

2. She first became involved with Cuban solidarity after discovering that her date of birth - 7 January 1959 - was also the day Fidel Castro marched into Havana. "I thought: 'Oh, something did happen on my birthday: I should find out more about it.' It was as simple as that."

3. At the League Against Cruel Sports, Smith worked with West Dunbartonshire MP John McFall on an unsuccessful private member's bill to ban hunting with dogs. The bill's second reading was on Valentine's Day, so Smith came up with the slogan 'Have a heart for wildlife'. "It was very straightforward, but I was very proud of it at the time," she says.

4. Her only recent rebellion in Parliament was to vote for the abolition of the House of Lords, although she says she is not necessarily against it as long as its role is defined before discussions begin about who should sit in it.

5. Smith says she has adopted Essex as her home county "very willingly" - that's Southend Pier pictured above - and is angered by the stereotypes. "Essex is a very diverse county," she says. "I see myself as a typical Essex girl."

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