Interview: Gareth Thomas

The new shadow civil society minister tells John Plummer why he thinks the sector needs more protection from cuts

Gareth Thomas
Gareth Thomas

Three weeks ago Labour had two women – Tessa Jowell and Roberta Blackman-Woods – leading its civil society policy review.

Now it has two men: Jon Trickett, who has replaced Jowell as shadow Cabinet Office minister, and Gareth Thomas, who has succeeded Blackman-Woods as shadow civil society minister.

Trickett was involved in the review; Thomas wasn’t. Given that Thomas has never been employed in the voluntary sector, and isn’t a charity trustee, he was a surprising choice. But in other ways he wasn’t. He has chaired the Co-operative Party, which promotes cooperatives and mutual organisations, since 2000 and he introduced the Industrial and Provident Societies Bill, enacted in 2002, as a private member’s bill.

"Ed Miliband knew I had a keen interest in the third sector with my strong affiliation to the cooperative movement and that I was interested in broadening that out into the social enterprise world," he says.

Thomas, 44, was an early supporter of social enterprises. He gave the first speech on them in the Commons in the late 1990s. He is also familiar with aid organisations from his time as a minister at the Department for International Development under the previous government.

He has three priority areas as shadow civil society minister: procurement opportunities for the third sector, examining the "substance behind the rhetoric" on public sector mutuals and developing ideas to strengthen communities.

This latest quick change by Labour, which had 10 voluntary sector ministers during its 13 years in power, continues what Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, has called its "revolving door" policy. Thomas acknowledges his need to fill in some gaps and has already tabled more than 100 parliamentary questions on civil society to get up to speed. "There are some detailed issues I need to do more work on," he says.

With Labour’s civil society policy review already under way, Thomas says it would be madness to begin the process again just because new people are in charge. "Jon Trickett will lead the process," he says. "I will pick up a lot of the hard yards."

He won’t say when policies will be announced. "You can run at these things too quickly," he says. "The key thing is to take a little more time."

He is critical of the Cabinet Office’s record on protecting the voluntary sector against the spending cuts. "I don’t get a sense that either Nick Hurd or Francis Maude has the political strength across government to support the third sector in conversations with other government departments in a way that might have minimised the impact of the cuts," he says.

Thomas says a number of government departments are cutting funding to voluntary organisations. He cites DfID reducing its funding to the international volunteering organisation VSO as an example of this, and says that Hurd and Maude should be fighting their corner harder. "A stronger ministerial team would have had a bit more reach across government," he says.

He also thinks they should have done more to improve the design of the Department for Work and Pensions’ Work Programme to help charities delivering it at subcontractor level. "It is a classic example of where more thinking, more planning and more discussions between ministerial teams and the Cabinet Office might have meant a better designed programme," he says.

Thomas, whose father was Welsh, was only 29 when he became an MP but says he "staggered" into politics after working as a teacher. "I was a child of the 1980s who saw what damage Margaret Thatcher did to the country," he says.

He was a Harrow councillor before a last-minute opportunity arose to stand for Labour in 1997 in Harrow West, which had been a safe Conservative seat. "I didn’t expect to win," he says. He has held the seat ever since and increased his majority at the last election.

During Labour’s years in office, he held ministerial posts at DfID and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which was merged into the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2009.

After the last election he became shadow minister for higher education and science until this month’s reshuffle. Thomas will be a close shadow to Hurd: his Harrow West constituency is next door to the minister’s Ruislip, Norwood and Pinner seat. "I live in my constituency," he says. "If he lives in his, then we live quite close by."

Thomas seems more outgoing than Blackman-Woods. He enjoys running and has recently been surfing off the Welsh coast. "I hope people find me hard working and open," he says. "I hope they feel they can send ideas through and that I’m receptive."

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