Analysis: Nick Hurd's two years in office - 'steady progress in difficult winds'

The Minister for Civil Society tells Stephen Cook the government is making strides despite recent problems, while Labour's shadow minister for civil society Gareth Thomas argues that the coalition does not champion the sector effectively

Civil society minister Nick Hurd
Civil society minister Nick Hurd

Nick Hurd is clearly uncomfortable. "I won't be the first or the last minister not to be consulted by the Treasury before a Budget," he says of the proposal to cap tax relief on charitable donations. "And I don't think Gordon Brown won any prizes for telling other departments about what he was doing.

"But there's no point pretending that the Budget proposal hasn't created a debate - and anger in some circles. We have to manage that and work towards a resolution. I've spoken to the Chancellor, George Osborne, personally and had meetings with the exchequer secretary, David Gauke, and we're very plugged in to the process of engagement that the Treasury announced in the Budget.

"It's a serious process with the right people involved, and we'll have a full role to play in making sure the Treasury understands the issues in relation to the sector. And they have made it clear that, whatever they do, they don't want to have a major impact on charities."

Hurd also admits that anger about the cap lies behind the decision to scale back today's Giving Summit in Whitehall, refocusing the event on policies designed to boost other forms of giving, "which are so much broader than the tax affairs of a very small group of people".

Apart from the furore caused by the Budget, Hurd claims "good, steady progress in difficult winds" in the two years he's been minister, ruefully citing a remark by Bill Gates that you always overestimate what you can do in two years and underestimate what you can do in 10.

On social action, he sees the National Citizen Service for 16-year-olds as one of the most exciting and rewarding ventures he ever worked on; he's also proud of the Giving White Paper and looking forward to updating the sector about progress.

Then there's Big Society Capital - "our single biggest achievement over the two years" - which he sees as an important step forward in developing a socially motivated investment market that will give the sector a third source of funding alongside philanthropy and the state.

Hurd also thinks it's a no small achievement to have secured £30m in these straitened times for the Transforming Local Infrastructure programme and is delighted that the Big Lottery Fund - "while remaining additional and distinct" - has also set aside £20m for a similar purpose. He says he's "reasonably encouraged but not totally overwhelmed" by the sector's response.

On the Work Programme, widely regarded as a major let-down for the voluntary sector, he thinks it's too early to make fundamental judgements. "There's a large pool of civil society organisations in the supply chain and I'm not going to pretend they all think it's marvellous," he says. "But I don't get the impression they think it's broke.

"They've got issues but they're being reasonably constructive in wanting this very big and valuable programme to work. It was never set up as a funding mechanism for the charity sector, but as a means of getting people back to work."

The framework on which all the policies hang is still, Hurd says, what it was at the time of the general election: making it easier to run a charity, getting more resources into the sector and making it easier for the sector to work with the state.

More generally, Hurd says he can't think of a time when the profile of the sector has been higher in the public policy debate. "I've just come from a City round table on philanthropy - it was packed and the incoming Lord Mayor of London pointed out that, like it or loathe it, the big society has really generated debate."

If Labour is complaining about lack of leadership, he says, leadership on the big society continues to come from the Prime Minister. "Every time the idea is challenged, he steps up to defend it," Hurd says. "The commentariat and the sector have underestimated how much has been achieved in two years."

Hurd cites devolution of power, especially through the Localism Bill, progress in public service reform and more opportunities for the sector to win contracts, especially in health. And he says he's heard nothing about Labour's vision for the sector beyond complaints about the cuts. He says he will be delighted if the opposition replaces the vacuum with some strategy.

"It's desirable to have consensus on core issues," he says. "But the default vision of Labour is big government; the big society is a different vision where there is genuine diversity in public services. There are more opportunities for charities and social enterprises under the coalition government."

Read also the interview with Labour's shadow minister Gareth Thomas

THE AGENDA - HOW HAVE THE GOVERNMENT'S POLICIES ON THE SECTOR FARED OVER TWO YEARS?

1. ENCOURAGING SOCIAL ACTION

- The flagship programme has become the National Citizen Service for 16-year-olds: 8,000 took part last year and targets are 30,000 this year and 90,000 by 2014, at a projected cost of £110m.

- In the Community Organisers programme (£17.7m between 2011 and 2015), 87 senior recruits are being trained out of a projected 5,000.

- The £80m Community First programme - the £30m Neighbourhood Match Fund and £50m Endowment Match Challenge - have so far given out or committed £12.92m. 560 Community First Panels are established.

- The Social Action Fund - allocated £21m over two years to projects that encourage people to give time or resources - has so far given out £8.35m.

£21m - The amount allocated to the Social Action Fund over two years

2. GETTING MORE RESOURCES INTO THE SECTOR

- Big Society Capital was launched last month with up to £400m from dormant accounts and £200m from high-street banks. It will finance sector organisations to provide loans to charities and social enterprises.

- Payment-by-results contracts, financed by Social Impact Bonds, are being developed in four local authority areas to fund sector organisations to tackle acute social problems.

- The Advice Services Fund, which helps sector advice bodies adapt to funding changes, gave out £17.8m to 301 organisations last year and has been given an extra £40m between next year and 2015.

- Innovation In Giving has distributed £4m of its allocated £10m to organisations developing technology to increase giving. The £107m Transition Fund went to more than 1,000 organisations and is now closed.

3. MAKING IT EASIER TO RUN A CHARITY

- The £30m Transforming Local Infrastructure fund has been allocated to 74 organisations in England, with £15.5m distributed so far, to rationalise support services in top-tier local authority areas.

- The government has accepted many recommendations of Lord Hodgson's report on red tape, Unshackling Good Neighbours, and will announce action this month; changes to the vetting and barring regime have been proposed that would require fewer checks on volunteers and some staff.

- The Mutuals Support Programme has a £10m budget to 2015 to help public sector workers form mutuals.

£30m - The amount allocated to Transforming Local Infrastructure. Half has been distributed so far

4. MAKING IT EASIER TO WORK WITH THE STATE

- The Open Public Services White Paper, launched by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in July last year, is intended to open public service contracts to a wider range of providers, including the voluntary sector.

- The Communities and Local Government department is to provide a fund to help local organisations take advantage of the Community Right to Challenge provision in the Localism Act, under which they can bid to run public services.

- The government runs the Contracts Finder website to help charities find public sector contracts.

- Ministers have pledged to work with the sector to understand the problems experienced in the Work Programme, its flagship welfare-to-work scheme, and improve the commissioning process.

- A £10m, three-year Investment and Contract Readiness Fund was launched in July last year to help about 130 social ventures to gear up for contracts.

- The much-reduced Strategic Partners Programme has £8.5m over four years to help partner organisations represent the sector to government and become independent of government funding.

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