General Election 2010: Nick Hurd and the 'big society'

In the second of our election interviews, the third sector spokesman for the Conservatives tells Paul Jump why the sector is a major part of the party's plans for government.

Nick Hurd
Nick Hurd

Although he is the fourth generation of his family to enter Parliament, Nick Hurd says he never saw politics as his destiny. "As a teenager I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I was pretty sure I didn't want to do politics, because that was what everyone expected of me," he says.

Instead, he launched into an 18-year career in the commercial sector, which included running publishing and telecoms companies and an "absolutely brilliant" four years in Brazil setting up an investment bank.

But he admits there was always a bit of him that thought politics would get him in the end, and in 2005 he was elected MP for the north-west London seat of Ruislip-Northwood.

While in Brazil, he was inspired by a charity that redistributed unwanted computers to people in the slums, and he is struck by how, in his role as the Conservatives' third sector spokesman, he has "come full circle".

He says his 18 months in the role have been fascinating, but also very demanding. "I didn't have a sense of just how diverse the sector is before I took on the brief," he says. "That makes it a very complex sector for which to pull together a coherent policy programme."

He had to work hard to get his head around what he calls the jumble of the Government's existing charities programme, and has travelled around the country consulting on the Tories' green paper, Voluntary Action in the 21st Century, which he inherited from his predecessor, Greg Clark.

He says he would love to assume the charities brief in a Conservative government, particularly because the leader, David Cameron, sees the sector as a key ally in implementing his flagship 'big society' agenda. Hurd rejects the suggestion that the agenda is just a sticking plaster for the social effect of large forthcoming cuts in public spending.

"Having been involved in thinking it through, I have never heard it framed that way," he says. "It is about our desire to give people a greater sense of possibility and control over their lives because that is the way to get the best out of them and make the nation stronger. If you continue with the attitude that things are the Government's or the council's job, you shrink into a rather selfish world."

Hurd says his top priority will be the social investment bank that the Tories would call the 'big society bank'. He sees it as key to allowing the sector to tap in to the huge amounts of money he says is sitting around in pension funds and mainstream capital markets. He says he is unable to put a figure on how much the Tories would invest in the bank until he sees how much is available from unclaimed assets. But he will be batting for it to be more than the £75m pledged by the Government.

"We detect a trend of minds opening towards the possibility of investing for good," he says. The big society bank would help develop the right financial products, such as the social impact bond, which is already being piloted, and back them with investment, encouraging other investors to follow suit. It would also work with intermediaries to make social enterprises "investment-ready".

But isn't that what Futurebuilders, which the Tories have pledged not to reopen, was doing? Not according to Hurd. "Futurebuilders did a useful job in testing the creditworthiness of the sector," he says. "But when we talk to Barclays or RBS, they say they are ready to provide debt funds." What is holding them back, he says, is aversion to debt among charity trustees.

The sector, Hurd says, would also be a big beneficiary of the community grants that the repayments from the Futurebuilders loan book would be used to fund, and that would plug the gap when the Grassroots Grants programme ends next year.

Other 'big society' ideas include a big society day, which Hurd says would encourage more people to take part in regular social action by focusing their minds on what their communities need and putting them in touch with other people. But it would not, he says, be the extra bank holiday for which some sector organisations have been campaigning. "Given the state of the economy, an extra bank holiday didn't feel right at this time," he says. "But we are going to work hard to prove the concept and we will see where it takes us."

The Tories see the Office of the Third Sector as key to implementing the 'big society' agenda. But they have resisted the temptation to rename it the Office for Big Society, preferring the name Office for Civil Society instead. Either way, the status quo is evidently not an option. "The boss isn't too keen on the phrase third sector," Hurd says.

* See The Week, page 10, for a summary of the main parties' manifestos

Tell us about yourself...

- What charities do you donate to?

WWF, Save the Children and eating disorder charity Beat. The Conservatives want to encourage people to give away 1 per cent of their income and I thought I would set an example. I will give away 1 per cent this year, but my children will choose the beneficiaries. I think you can teach philanthropy at home.

- Who are your political idols?

Obvious people such as Mandela and Thatcher, but my father Douglas is also a good role model. I still get people saying he is the kind of politician we miss. If I could recapture any of his reputation for integrity and competence I would be happy.

- What are your favourite television programmes?

Current obsessions are Grey's Anatomy and West Wing. The quality of writing on West Wing is fantastic.

I also look in awe when the BBC does things like Life.

- What is your favourite book?

There is nothing that stands out over time, but I generally prefer non-fiction. Recently I really enjoyed Three Cups of Tea. It is a really inspiring story about a person who climbed K2, came back and, as a consequence of where he ended up, dedicated himself to building schools in remote parts of Pakistan.

- Where was your last foreign holiday?

I took the kids skiing in Switzerland.


- Almost certainly. He won nearly 48 per cent of the Ruislip-Northwood vote in 2005, when the Lib Dems won 25 per cent and Labour 21 per cent. Now the north-west London constituency has morphed into Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner. Electoral Calculus, a website that makes predictions based on opinion polls, gives Hurd a 99 per cent chance of winning it, with a predicted 58 per cent share of the vote.

His only previous connection with his constituency is that his former father-in-law grew up and got married there. Hurd spent his early life in Oxfordshire, where his father was MP for Witney, before going to Eton and Oxford, to read classics.

He lives 12 miles away in the constituency of Kensington and Chelsea, where he was on the shortlist to become the Conservative candidate in 2004 but was beaten by Sir Malcolm Rifkind. He was on the shortlist for two other seats before winning Ruislip-Northwood.

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