Not many government ministers would willingly expose themselves to potentially embarrassing situations, such as clumsily sawing down a tree in full view of the press and public. But third sector minister Ed Miliband doesn't mind such things - right from the start, he has proved he's a 'muck-in' minister.
Just after his appointment in May last year, for example, Miliband removed his usual uniform of red tie and cufflinks and served breakfast to homeless people at the Whitechapel Mission in London. Hours later he was handing out copies of social entrepreneur Sam Conniff's Live magazine on the streets of south London, along with the young people who produce it. "Most people were walking across the road to avoid me," he admits.
He finished off the day, which was organised to mark the start of Volunteering Week 2006, by sawing up trees "not very effectively" in Croydon with volunteers from environmental charity BTCV, and then visiting an inter-generational volunteering project in Kensington, west London.
Days such as these may mean Miliband has had a few brushes with humiliation, but he counts them among his best in the 12 months he has been at the helm of the Office of the Third Sector. He says they "testify to the fact that being out of Whitehall is the best part of the job".
His days out of the office have also earned him the good opinion of most charity employees. Indeed, he is now fondly referred to as 'Milly' in many circles. But he has not reached his first anniversary as third sector minister completely unscarred. As well as the mucking in, some feel there have been some muck-ups, and arts and heritage charities in particular are unlikely to be taking part in any Miliband love-ins just yet.
His performance over the second Olympics raid on lottery money is the biggest bone of contention. The Government says Big Lottery Fund resources for the voluntary and community sector will be protected, but the latest estimates say arts and heritage charities could lose as much as £100m as other distributors relinquish some of the extra millions needed to finance the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Another controversy is his inability to protect charities from the estimated loss of more than £70m in Gift Aid when the Chancellor cut the basic rate of income tax in this year's Budget.
Miliband admits his hasn't always got things right. "I wouldn't be human if I hadn't made mistakes," he says. But he also refuses to be vilified over issues that he feels were out of his hands.
On the Olympics cut for arts and heritage charities, he says: "I'll be honest - I knew about it. But I also knew the sector had made its voice very clear on this, and it was about the Big Lottery Fund. I'm not blaming the sector, I'm just saying the clear message I got from the sector was that protecting the Big Lottery Fund is what matters." The voluntary sector component of the fund's grants was ring-fenced.
He is equally unrepentant over the Gift Aid question. He refers to the 1947 Budget, when the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, was forced to resign after he revealed details of a tax decision to a journalist just hours before the official announcement. "A change in the basic rate of income tax is the most sensitive decision in a Budget," he says. "I obviously understand why people are concerned about it, but in these circumstances it's hard to see how you could have had a consultation or pre-warning."
Miliband's greatest critic is, unsurprisingly, shadow charities minister Greg Clark. On more than one occasion Clark has lambasted the Office of the Third Sector for "the most feeble performance of any office in government" - an accusation Miliband doesn't take lying down.
"I reject the charge of ineffectiveness," he says, and bounces an insult back Clark's way. "What has happened in the past year is that we have delivered substance in a whole range of areas, but the Tories don't seem to have moved on at all," he says.
No doubt the sector will witness a lot more political ping-pong between the two parties' third sector representatives as the next General Election draws near. What isn't clear, however, is if Clark's immediate adversary will remain the same person.
Political analysts predict big things for Miliband when the uncontested candidate for the Labour leadership, Gordon Brown, moves into Number 10 next month. He's a Brown confidant, so some say he's a dead cert for the Cabinet.
This would bring tears from many in the sector. The Directory of Social Change and chief executives body Acevo have both expressed a desire for him to stay in the Cabinet Office if he does move on. Miliband hints that if he does leave his present role it'll be more au revoir than farewell forever. "I don't know what the future holds, but I would love to stay involved in this area," he says.
They said it...
- 'The new Office of the Third Sector will be no backwater. Its first minister is not only one of the brightest and best, but also one of the most politically astute'
- Polly Toynbee, writing in Third Sector
- 'A dedicated minister with energy and focus is a major step forward'
- Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director, CSV
- 'The more I see of Ed, the more impressed I am. The combination of charm, integrity, passion and brain is brilliant'
- Stephen Bubb, chief executive, Acevo
- 'He perplexes me. He lauds the sector's campaigning role, saying we are partners with the Government. I am not so sure'
- John Knight, head of external policy, Leonard Cheshire
- 'The Office of the Third Sector is there to fight for charities, not roll over and aquiesce in their being robbed by the Chancellor'
- Greg Clark, shadow charities minister, on the effect on Gift Aid of this year's Budget
Name: Ed Miliband
Department: Cabinet Office
Job: Minister for the third sector
Slow start, but got there in the end. Boasted he had been months in office without producing a
single policy, then published Social Enterprise Action Plan, the Public Services Action Plan and
the interim results of the Third Sector Review, all within a month. Also got a popular micro-grants programme for small voluntary organisations into the Budget. 9/10
Charities Act 2006
Ed inherited a four-year-old bill and piloted it through the Commons onto the statute book.
Disappointed the NCVO, the Charity Commission and backbench rebels by toeing the party line and
refusing to firm up provisions on public benefit. Gained useful experience of realpolitik. Ed is clearly a safe pair of hands. 6/10
Championing the voluntary sector
Promising start: persuaded Department for Work and Pensions to allow volunteers on benefits to claim
lunch expenses. Work slipped later on - his office took nearly two months to sort out the fiasco
involving volunteering charity CSV, the Department of Health and a £3.7m government grant that
was 10 months late. Admitted himself it was a "bad case". 6/10
Good progress. Pushed through long-promised appointment of Compact Commissioner John Stoker
and chief executive Angela Sibson last autumn. Announced £2m in March for training local
authority staff involved in commissioning services from the voluntary sector. Some of his friends are
frustrated that, after nine years of slow progress, Ed won't get tough on the Compact. 7/10
Hasn't paid as much attention to volunteering as to his other subjects. Coughed up £3.6m for
volunteering, including £1m to encourage volunteering among groups at risk of social
exclusion. Did a lot of it himself, from dishing out bacon and eggs to amateur bricklaying. 7/10
Campaigning and independence
One of Ed's strongest subjects. Has consistently stood up for the sector's right to campaign.
His speeches on the subject spurred the sector to set up a campaigning advisory group chaired by
Labour peer Baroness Kennedy. We are looking forward to seeing more work in this area. 8/10
Ed has a top-notch general attitude - an open door and an open mind. Big on social justice. Lives and breathes politics. Puts in the hours and has got to know the sector fast - 60 speeches in 115 days last year.
Excellent candidate for Senior Prefect, perhaps in the same department. Will he beat his brother to Head Boy?