Interview: Lisa Nandy

Lisa Nandy, who used to work in the third sector, has been shadow charities minister for six months. She tells Stephen Cook about Labour's developing policies for charities

Nandy says Labour will launch a pre-election consultation with the voluntary sector
Nandy says Labour will launch a pre-election consultation with the voluntary sector

In the early years of this parliament, Labour was tentative in its policy proposals for the voluntary sector: beyond its commitment to legislation that would oblige banks to invest more in local communities, it didn't go much further than general aspiration and supportive rhetoric.

But with the election only a year away, there are signs that this is changing: another big commitment, for example, was this month's pledge to repeal the lobbying act, which has been welcomed by many charities that campaign for their causes.

Lisa Nandy, who has been shadow charities minister for six months, also sees potential advantages for the sector in the recent commitments by her leader Ed Miliband to appoint ministers for the regions and by Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, to establish "trusted partnerships" with NHS providers.

Regional ministers, she says, would meet regularly in the Cabinet Office to coordinate policies that would include ensuring voluntary sector participation in the joint work of local enterprise partnerships and local authorities.

"The sector would be at the heart of the process," she says. "It used to be guaranteed a seat in what used to be regional development agencies, but now that doesn't always happen and there a feeling the sector is sidelined."

Similarly, she thinks Burnham's proposal for longer-term "trusted partnerships" in the NHS could help to solve some of the problems the sector has experienced with government contracts across the board, most notably with the Work Programme.

Currently, she says, many public services are in effect closed to the charities best placed to provide them because of the size of the contracts, the cumbersome bidding processes and the payment-by-results regime. Some charities have had to hire consultants to prepare their bids, she says, which is "expensive and unnecessary".

Labour wants a less onerous system, she says - one that moves away from block contracts where big private sector companies subcontract work to the sector, and instead deals directly with smaller sector organisations. An end to gagging clauses in contracts is also on the agenda, according to Nandy.

Now the party is also about to launch a consultation with the sector to find out what else people would expect from a future Labour government. It will ask for views on subjects including innovative funding, impact measurement, the state of sector infrastructure and whether the Compact should have more teeth.

Compact sidelined

Nandy thinks the Compact has been sidelined by the government and sees that as a factor in the difficulty of getting all Whitehall departments to take account of the sector. "As charities minister, Nick Hurd is committed to the sector, understands it and sees his job as championing it across government," she says. "But he sits in the Office for Civil Society in the Cabinet Office and decisions are being taken in other departments that don't seem to talk to each other. Look at the philanthropy tax - I'm not sure anyone asked the OCS about that. There was no mention of the sector in this year's Budget. Look at the problems of contracting.

"The lesson is that if the government doesn't get it at the highest level, the sector doesn't stand a chance. Nick Hurd will say that David Cameron is committed to the voluntary sector, but you've got to actually make sure the tools are there if you're going to bring the sector into the mainstream."

But what of all the OCS policies designed to make it easier to run a charity, get more resources into the sector and make it easier for charities to work with government? These include Innovation in Giving, Community First, Community Organisers, social impact bonds and a new £40m resilience fund to help struggling charities from April 2015. "The new fund might help, but it's not clear why it's going to start in a year's time when charities are struggling now," says Nandy. "Most of the other schemes are not bad ideas, but they're too small to have much of an effect. And rolling out initiatives from Whitehall doesn't work.

"The energy is in communities when they take ownership. The trick is to find out what happens well locally and build on that. Community Organisers is not a bad idea, but we don't need shiny people from London to tell my constituents in Wigan how it should work.

"The danger is creating a deficit model of what people lack rather than what people have. You need to start with individuals, and some of the most economically deprived places are asset-rich because they have communities that work."

Strong role for the state

Nandy's objection to David Cameron's concept of the big society is that it is based on a Darwinian approach in which the state gets out of the way in the hope of prompting people to do things themselves. She argues that if the state withdraws, the voluntary sector flounders and the parts of it that survive are not necessarily those that are most needed.

"We see a strong role for the state not as a doer but as an enabler, doing things not to the people but with the people," she says.

As she gets around and meets more charities, what's the general picture she sees? "People in the sector are used to dealing with adversity and difficult problems," she says. "They're used to spinning gold out of straw. So it would be wrong to say the sector is on its knees, because it's rising to the challenge, which is what it's good at.

"But it would also be wrong to say things are rosy. Many organisations in cause areas dominated by small charities, such as domestic violence and youth work, are one grant cut away from closure. Medium-sized charities are being hit by a loss of contracts; big charities are finding it hard to compete."

Political football

She also thinks the sector has recently become a political football. "There have been some quite astonishing attacks on charities from some backbench MPs, regarding their character and their integrity," she says. "The effect of this on the public has been overstated - most people relate to the sector through the charities they have contact with and are committed to."

But Nandy, who worked for Centrepoint and the Children's Society before being elected in Wigan in 2010, thinks there has been an effect on sector staff. "There's always pressure on front-line workers, and their pay and working conditions have become really problematic," she says.

"If you add to that the feeling they're under attack from government and parliament, who should support them, a lot of them feel demoralised - and politicians of all parties should take note of that."

She thinks that the question of chief executive pay has also been distorted because most charities do not pay salaries anything like as high as in other sectors, where she says top pay can be huge while some staff are paid the minimum wage and don't have enough to live on.

Charities already have more compressed pay ratios than other sectors, but Nandy thinks they could do more on this front. "Organisations that champion equity should ask if their ratios are acceptable," she says. "There are bigger issues for them at the bottom than at the top of the pay scale."

Lisa Nandy: out of hours

Current reading: My Name is Red, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006. The main characters are miniaturist painters during the Ottoman empire, one of whom is murdered.

Influential author: Franz Kafka, who depicted alienation, mysterious transformation and labyrinthine bureaucracy. "Very good training for this place," says Nandy.

Single piece of music for a desert island: Toxic, by Britney Spears: "She's such a great singer." (Key lyric: "I love what you do, but you know that you're toxic.")

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