Interview: Dame Clare Tickell

The departing head of Action for Children talks to Andy Hillier about better campaigning and talking more effectively to government

Dame Clare Tickell
Dame Clare Tickell

On the day she speaks to Third Sector, Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, is being widely quoted in the national media. Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions, has told the BBC Panorama programme that there should be a mandatory requirement for professionals to report suspected cases of child abuse to the police; Tickell disagrees. The fact that she's quoted so widely shows that she has become one of the go-to people to speak about child welfare issues.

Soon that will change. After nine years at Action for Children, which runs projects and services for children and families and campaigns on their behalf, Tickell is leaving at the end of the year to become the chief executive of Hanover, a retirement housing provider.

Hanover will be taking on an experienced hand used to dealing with government. Under Tickell's leadership, Action for Children has successfully lobbied both coalition and Labour governments for changes in policy, and she chaired a coalition government review into early years education in 2011: all of her recommendations were accepted.

Tickell considers one of her main achievements at the charity to be refining the way it campaigns. "We took a decision that our campaigning would be informed by our services," she says. "It is tempting to campaign because people want you to opine - but we speak on the basis of the services that we provide and what people who use our services say."

The charity sector has been criticised by some on the right for over-playing the effects of cuts, and children's charities in particular have been vocal about the impact of the downturn on children and families. Tickell says that politicians "will always have a view about what we say", but that should not deter charities from speaking out. "What's important is to say what has to be heard," she says. "It was never going to be easy for an incoming government with austerity on the table. It has taken some time for the voluntary sector to adjust, but it's become more important for the voluntary sector to say what it sees."

That said, she believes that charities need to think carefully about the way they present their views to government. "Shrill doesn't always work," she says. "There's a balance between saying what you need to say and knowing how to land the points that you need to land. It's important to speak truth to power, but it is also important to say it in a way that power can do something with what you're saying."

Independence is another recurring theme for Tickell. In an age when charities are increasingly reliant on public sector contracts, she says it raises the question whether they are truly able to speak out on behalf of beneficiaries. "When we go for public money, we have to ask whether this fetters our ability to speak. You have to ask yourself whether it will allow you to continue to carry out your mission. A healthy charity will ask itself that question continually."

During her time in charge of Action for Children, Tickell has brought in some significant changes - most notably the dropping of the name NCH in 2008. Tickell says the new name has been a success: "When I came in, I had to start the conversation with 'I'm chief executive of NCH, which stands for National Children's Home - only we don't run any'. You start on a negative."

The past few years have not been easy for children's charities. After years of significant investment under Labour, the funding climate has become much tougher. In 2009, Action for Children's income was just above £200m, but the latest accounts show that it fell to £180m in 2013. Two years ago, the charity cut more than 100 jobs, mainly in management, to reduce costs. Tickell says the charity was too top-heavy, so it was "a difficult decision but the right thing to do".

She says the drop in income can be attributed largely to cuts in local government funding, but things are looking up. "We took some money out of the charity and we're doing fine," says Tickell. "What we're seeing now is a smoother contracting environment."

The cuts have put pressure on councils to concentrate on children and families with the most acute needs, but Tickell says it's important to invest in early intervention services that help to prevent problems from escalating. She says it has also been a battle to retain a focus on early intervention in the corridors of Whitehall.

"Before the banks went down, we had no problem getting people to sign up to that idea, alongside the cross-party consensus that we needed to end child poverty by 2020," she says. "Then the banks went down and the austerity agenda came in. Now we don't have that commitment on child poverty and there are fewer people talking explicitly about early intervention."


2004: Chief executive, Action for Children
1997: Chief executive, Stonham Housing Association
1992: Chief executive, Phoenix House Housing Association
1989: Director, Riverpoint Single Homeless
1986: Deputy director, Centrepoint Soho
1982: Assistant warden, Avon Probation Service

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