'Contracting is a draining and miserable experience for charities'

Nick Hurd, new shadow charities minister, says the Conservatives want the sector to stand strong

Nick Hurd
Nick Hurd

"As the chief staffer of Barack Obama said, we mustn't let a good crisis go to waste," declares Nick Hurd, the new Conservative spokesman for the voluntary sector.

"During a recession, people are open to new ideas. We need a bottom-up approach to what we can do as a society to get towards new definitions of success that include 'what do I give to other people?'"

Hurd is the son of one of the most liberal Thatcher-era cabinet ministers, and his political ideas are very much in the touchy-feely Cameronite mould.

The former whip describes the week he spent with a community group in Carlisle - at the behest of Iain Duncan Smith, founder of the Centre for Social Justice - as "one of the formative influences in my political career", and says he was delighted to get the call when Greg Clark moved on during October's reshuffle.

"It was a fantastic opportunity to do a job that was pretty central to David's message about changing the party and to what we see as our mission to tackle our broken society," he says.

He admits much of the intellectual work in forming Tory policy has already been done by Duncan Smith and Clark; his job is to "harvest" the resulting green paper in the light of feedback. "I have a genuine sense that the sector is enjoying the experience of seeing the party engaged with it and wants to help us get it right," he says.

He also insists the recession won't prevent the paper being implemented if the Tories win the next election. The leadership has indicated that it is central to their plans, he says.

The aim of Tory policy, Hurd says, is to help organisations grow "without killing what we love about them": their ability to find innovative solutions to difficult problems. The key is to make organisations "stronger on their own feet" and make it easier for them to do business with government.

He laments the effect of declining grants on the small organisations that are "the seedbeds of genuine innovation". He also criticises the stifling effects of government "micromanagement" of contracts, citing one charity that was told how many people it needed to employ. "It is crazy. They'll be telling it what teabags to buy next," he bristles.

He says too many charities feel excluded from a contracting process that is excessively bureaucratic - "and those who aren't excluded find it a draining and miserable experience".

His time as a trustee of Greenhouse, which uses public schools' sports facilities for projects with underprivileged children, has also convinced him that contracts should be long term. "Ninety per cent of every meeting is taken up talking about where the next funding is coming from," he complains.

He says Labour and the Conservatives both want to make the sector stronger and that charities are "not in a bad place". But he says the "blizzard of initiatives" with which the Government responds to problems often doesn't deliver tangible benefit.

He also criticises the "creeping dependence" of the sector on the state, and says a "robust, independent third sector" would be better promoted by "nudging" the country towards a culture of philanthropy with tweaks to the regulatory and tax systems.

The Government should set an example in dealing with the sector, says Hurd, and he criticises the Office of the Third Sector's record in championing good practice across Whitehall and local government. He also says politicians' words can have an important effect, citing David Cameron's promotion of green issues and Gordon Brown's focus on poverty in Africa.

"There is clearly a role for government," he says, "but it's not necessarily the Government doing anything."

Such a statement will no doubt be grist to the mill of sceptics who insist the Tories' grand statements will not be followed up by action if they form a government. But Hurd's thoughtful engagement with the issues so soon after taking the job seems to augur well.

HOW THE TORIES WOKE UP TO THE SECTOR

- In 2000, party leader William Hague launched a think tank to explore "compassionate conservatism". It concluded that faith groups and other sector organisations should be allowed to run social services.

- David Cameron's first policy announcement after becoming leader at the end of 2005 was to set up a group chaired by former party leader Iain Duncan Smith to examine ways to empower the voluntary sector and achieve social justice.

- The resulting report, Breakthrough Britain, was released in July 2007. It emphasised the role a strong third sector could play in solving social problems.

- A month before its publication, Cameron appointed a capable and ambitious Tory MP, Greg Clark, as shadow charities minister.

- A green paper released this June resembles current Labour policy in many areas, but distinctive ideas include allowing charities to make a profit on public service delivery, making the Big Lottery Fund a charities- only fund and setting up a new civil society select committee.

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