Interview: Gareth Thomas - The view from Labour

The shadow civil society minister tells Stephen Cook that the damage the government has done to the voluntary sector through spending cuts far outweighs some modest achievements

Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas

During the three years the coalition has been in power, Nick Hurd has been the Minister for Civil Society in the Cabinet Office, trying to foster the interests of the sector amid unprecedented cuts. So with less than two years until the next general election, what does Gareth Thomas, Hurd's Labour shadow since October 2011, give him for his efforts, out of 10?

"I wouldn't personalise it, but I would give the government three out of 10 for its performance on charities," says Thomas, a former teacher. "They haven't been imaginative. The score is a reflection of the damage done to the sector by the scale of the cuts and things such as their incompetence over the Work Programme.

"There's been little joined-up policy between the Cabinet Office and other departments - Communities and Local Government over local authority cuts, the Department for Work & Pensions over the Work Programme and the Treasury over last year's Budget shambles and the damaging row about capping tax incentives for giving."

Compensation

Thomas is prepared to give the government credit for some of its initiatives, but does not think they compensate for the damage. Chief among these is the establishment of Big Society Capital a year ago, but he points out that the "hard yards" were done by Labour, which passed the legislation that gave the new social lender access to dormant bank accounts.

The Olympics were handled well, he says - adding, again, that much of the groundwork was done by the previous administration - but he argues that the government has failed to capitalise on it. "Local sports clubs report a lack of help to make the most of people's interest," he says. "We're missing out on the new appetite for volunteering because the infrastructure is no longer there as a result of local authority cuts."

What about the National Citizen Service, a favourite scheme of the Prime Minister, which is in its third year and offers structured volunteering programmes to 16-year-olds? "We're not opposed to it, because we want to encourage young people to volunteer," says Thomas. "We would have a look at it, but other important volunteering initiatives have lost money because of it."

There have been other "odd pots of money" that have been useful, he says, such as that put into the Community Organisers programme and Transforming Local Infrastructure, which he says has made a bit of difference but has not lived up to its name.

Opportunities for the sector

He says there are opportunities for the sector in the plan by the Ministry of Justice to contract out most probation services and facilitate extensive provision by the voluntary sector, but foresees problems if ministers get the design wrong, as he says they did in the case of the Work Programme.

"Lots of charities will be treading carefully," says Thomas. "I don't get the impression that the Cabinet Office has been very involved in the detail, and there is a risk that charities will be bystanders and the design of the contracts will favour big corporate outsourcing organisations - which would be a tragedy for the third sector."

He declares himself a constructive sceptic on payment by results, which will be used for probation contracts and is already the basis of about 10 social impact bonds promoted by the government. "One reason we set up the first social impact bond in Peterborough was that it had the potential to make a difference," says Thomas. "But it's clearly not suitable for small organisations that don't have the reserves and the flows of finance that allow them to deliver the services and then wait for payment."

Access to finance

He argues that the sector would get more access to the required extra finance as a result of the Community Reinvestment Act that Labour is committed to passing if it comes to power. It would follow the model of similar legislation that was introduced in the US with support from both main parties and is credited with some success.

A CRA would require the banks to publish geographical details of their lending and to spread it to all communities. "The Conservative MP Nick Boles supported it when he was on Acevo's Big Society Commission, Big Society Capital supports it, the Community Development Finance Association supports it, and so does the National Council for Voluntary Organisations," says Thomas. "But the government is opposing it. The Treasury holds the line and Nick Hurd follows it.

"Even the British Bankers' Association is less hostile than it was, and British banks that operate in the US are familiar with it, so it would not be a great leap for them. The banks recognise the need to get communities back onside, and the transparency a CRA offers seems to me a key opportunity for them to win back public support."

Apart from using a CRA to get more finance into the sector at community level, what else is emerging for charities from the review of Labour policy being led by Jon Cruddas MP? Thomas says the two other main headings are increasing the role of the sector in the delivery of public services, especially at local level, and reviewing the regulation of charities.

The former would involve working at both national and local government level. Thomas says there is a lot of work to be done on procurement processes locally and emphasises the need to avoid the mistakes of the Work Programme at national level. "There's no reason why Whitehall can't do better and help to ensure that local charities can get contracts," he says.

On regulation, he wants to see the Charity Commission and HM Revenue & Customs working more effectively together, sharing more information to tackle abuses such as the Cup Trust tax-avoidance scheme. "There are rumours of substantial further cuts to the commission, and one wonders how it can continue to provide the necessary level of service and do the investigations it needs to.

"There is a question mark in my mind over the intentions of the new commission board. It faces a substantial job to maintain the confidence of the sector, and it needs to demonstrate that it is a champion for charities in Whitehall.

"I don't think we're getting the necessary leadership on this from the Cabinet Office, so one would expect the commission to communicate what the sector needs to the rest of Whitehall.

I don't see it doing that - I think the board should recognise that that's part of its job and step up a gear."


THOMAS AND HURD: POLITICIANS WITH A LITTLE IN COMMON

Nick HurdThe charities minister, Nick Hurd (right), and his Labour shadow, Gareth Thomas, are both MPs for constituencies in north-west London, and both list environment and health among their other political interests. But the similarities end there.

Hurd is the fourth generation of his family to have held a seat in parliament for the Conservatives, was educated at Eton and Oxford and is the son of Lord Hurd, who served as Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary in the Thatcher government.

He spent the first half of his career in banking and business, and was eventually selected in 2005 for the safe Tory seat of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, where he enjoys a majority of about 19,000.

A member of the Bullingdon Club while at Oxford, Hurd is a Eurosceptic, one-nation Tory who believes in markets and describes himself as "not the most tribal of politicians".

Thomas, Welsh by descent, is 45, a little more than five years younger than Hurd, who is 51. He grew up in Harrow, went to the local state school and took a politics degree at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth. At the age of 29, after seven years as a local councillor, he overturned a Tory majority of 17,000 to win Harrow West, adjacent to Hurd's seat, in 1997.

His skills as a campaigner are reflected in his recent appointment by the Labour Party to help with the London borough and European elections next year and the general election in 2015.

Between 1997 and 2010, Thomas gained experience as a junior minister for international development, trade and business, and took over the shadow charities brief in 2011. He is chair of the Co-operative Party and is currently training for his next triathlon.

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