Interview: Nick Hurd

The Minister for Civil Society tells Stephen Cook that charities are dealing with unprecedented change, but also have the opportunity to capitalise on public trust

Nick Hurd says part of his role is to advocate on behalf of the sector
Nick Hurd says part of his role is to advocate on behalf of the sector

Nick Hurd has now been attached to the voluntary sector for more than five years. His 46 months as charities minister, combined with 18 as shadow before that, give him far longer experience than his predecessors, including Paul Boateng, who did 33 months in office in the Blair government.

Does service of this duration give a minister such deep engagement that he prefers to continue, rather than turn to something else? Or does it leave him frustrated and eager for change? Hurd is known to have strong convictions about the environment, for example, and perhaps would welcome a job in the Department of Energy & Climate Change.

But he is on record as being devoted to his current role - "what's not to love?" he told Third Sector in 2013. A year on, he still evinces no sign of discontent and perhaps likes the current reshuffle-averse regime in which ministers stay in post for extended periods unless they have trouble with their bicycles or the employment of their cleaners.

But there must be times when he feels condemned to roll the same boulder repeatedly uphill. Time and again the government has come out with policies that alienate the sector - the 'philanthropy tax' of 2012 and the lobbying bill are prime examples - and he finds himself going round persuading colleagues to modify their plans.

On the lobbying bill - now the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 - Hurd says the Liberal Democrats in the coalition felt most strongly about it, but he has no problem with the principle of requiring greater transparency from any organisation that is actively trying to influence the outcome of elections.

"I was as helpful as possible behind the scenes to get the bill into a better place, and the government moved a long way," he says. "It was a difficult and protracted process and the Office for Civil Society was quite heavily involved with the bill team to try to allay the concerns of the sector.

"The government went out of its way to say the sector was not the primary target, and that is reflected in the scale of the adjustments. What concerned me was that in all the noise, smoke and agitation, it was causing genuine concern in the sector - not least in my constituency."

Hurd sees it as part of his job to play this kind of moderating role and says it is important that civil society has its own office in government that thinks about its needs and interests. "I'm sure everyone would like government to be perfect, but it isn't and, in both cases you mention, the government came out feeling strongly about a principle and had to respond to the noise," he says.

"My job, our job, is to make sure the voice of the sector is heard and understood; if there's a need to compromise, move and adjust, we're part of that. I see it as part of the job of trying to help the sector to be understood and find a voice - advocating on behalf of the sector."

But was the bill part of the mood music accompanying increased criticism of the sector from parts of the media and some Tory MPs, in particular over the issues of charity campaigning and chief executive pay? Hurd rejects that proposition and says that sector should develop a tougher skin and resist giving the impression - as he thinks it sometimes does - that it is above criticism.

The bigger picture, he says, it that big business, politicians and the media have largely lost the trust of the public, and there is a great opportunity for civil society to capitalise on the trust it retains. "You've got to be able to withstand a few bad headlines in the Daily Mail," he says. "I think the sector must be, and is, quite robust in pushing back on issues such as chief executive pay.

"I give money to one of the charities that was in the line of fire. I want it to be led by the best person, which means paying a decent salary. I've got no problem with that, although it is a matter for trustees and donors, not government."

This leads to the question of the transparency of the sector. Hurd says there is room for improvement, especially in an age when demand for information is becoming harder to resist. "Money, be it public or private, is going to be more demanding of evidence of impact," he says. "The sector has to respond to that."

He says the sector is being tested as never before, not only by the pressure for transparency but also by spending cuts, increased contracting with the public sector, the impact of new technology and the need to acquire skills and engage with the private sector as the latter tries to prove it is a 'good citizen' by linking with voluntary organisations.

"There's so much change, which carries both risk and opportunity, and I've felt for some time that this is a pivotal point for the sector," he says. "But again, it means you need fantastic people leading charities and they need to be paid properly."

So what about the sector's independence, described as under threat from the state as never before in the most recent report by the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector? Hurd asserts that the fundamental value of the sector lies in its independence, and that its role in challenging a historically powerful executive is uncomfortable for governments but essential to the health of democracy.

But he says it's inevitable that, as more of the sector's income comes from the state and the two overlap in trying to solve social problems, those who pay will not like being challenged and will make that clear.

"I've heard those voices and I slap them down because of how strongly I feel about the independence point, but I feel it's just a human process that is inevitable in the complicated relationship we've got at the moment," he says.

So is the panel right or wrong? "I think the thesis that the independence of the sector is under threat is terribly exaggerated and I don't think there is enough recognition of the complexity and the intertwining of the relationship," he says. "But I value the central point they make, which is that independence matters and needs to be respected."

Although Hurd is a former banker and a self-declared believer in markets, he says a main strand of the current work of the OCS is sector support - building the resilience of the sector in order to "challenge this dominance of outsourced public service markets by big private sector organisations and create more space for the sector to come in and add the value that we know it can".

One advantage of his long tenure, he says, is that he's gone through a whole cycle of policy, from design to implementation to fine-tuning. His party now has a good system of hoovering up ideas, he says, but he wants to hear fresh thinking on its main priorities for the sector, such as social action, making the giving of time and money easier, social investment and getting young people involved in civil society.

"The sector can play a great role in helping us with the massive challenge of meeting the demand for better public services when there is less public money," he says. "That's never been more important, and the past few years have taught me just how difficult it is to engineer the kind of culture change that's needed.

"But I think some quite good foundations have been laid - for example, the process of the Ministry of Justice engaging with the sector on the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, where clearly there's a huge amount to be learnt from the Work Programme.

"I can see the needle moving. What is unclear to me is the degree to which the Labour Party supports the principle of open public services and shares the enthusiasm to maintain that momentum, which is certainly needed because the cultural difficulties and the obstacles are so big."

A word from Hurd

"What I like about my Labour shadow Lisa Nandy is that she's got fire in her belly - real energy and commitment"

"I want the Charity Commission to succeed and I don't think it's broken. It has outstanding people doing a difficult job, and it has my support"

"We'd have been muppets not to make the most of the volunteering opportunities generated by the Olympics"

"Progress on fundraising regulation is slow and tortuous, and was always going to be, given the organisations concerned. Our line is: work it out, then come back to us"

"With our new £40m resilience fund, I wasn't thinking 'manifesto' - I was thinking about sector need"

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