Interview: Tessa Jowell

The shadow Cabinet Office minister says none of the coalition government's policies have made the voluntary sector better off

Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell

Tessa Jowell, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, is unequivocal in her verdict on the coalition government's policies on the third sector after its first year in office.

"None of its announcements, including improvements to Gift Aid, the Transition Fund and inheritance tax breaks for charity donors, have made the voluntary sector better off," she says. "Measured against the overall impact of spending cuts, they are small change.

"This government has essentially spent its first year doing amputations, without a clear set of guiding principles or a clear policy destination, except for reducing the statutory contribution to the third sector to a nugatory level."

Jowell is leading Labour's review of its sector policies and singles out for criticism two of the policies cited by ministers as examples of their commitment to funding the sector: the £107m Transition Fund and the 10 per cent reduction in inheritance tax, announced in this year's Budget, for those who leave at least 10 per cent of their estates to charity.

"The inheritance tax break applies to only a tiny proportion of estates, and it is small-scale," she says. "The Transition Fund is inadequate because the money is being allocated too late and it is hugely oversubscribed. It is the policy of this government to shrink the sector and its level of financial investment."

Asked about the government's claim that it wants to grow the sector by helping voluntary groups diversify their income and win more service delivery contracts, Jowell laughs. "I don't know how you can say that with a straight face," she says. "Try telling a homework club to charge for its services and see whether the kids still come."

She is also sceptical about the big society. "It may be a talking point periodically in the Dog and Duck, but it's mostly a Westminster phenomenon," she says. "The people on estates in my constituency aren't talking about it; they're wondering why their language class has disappeared or why local library services are being reduced."

Few alternative Labour policies have materialised as yet, but Jowell says she has made up her mind on two areas: she would invest in more training for local authority commissioners, to make councils confident about awarding contracts to the sector; and she would support the transfer of more personal care services to charities and voluntary groups.

The party's policy review group is due to publish its first proposals in time for Labour's party conference in September, and Jowell says she is happy with the long timescale.

"This is a journey," she says. "I think we make better policy by watching what is happening for a few months and drawing conclusions on the basis of the emerging trends, rather than pre-empting them."

But doesn't this longer-term approach leave Labour open to the charge that it doesn't have an alternative? "That is absolute, cast-iron nonsense," she says.

"Our alternative would be to reshape the voluntary sector in line with the levels of reduction in public expenditure on which we fought the last election - but not simply to allow serendipity to determine the outcome."


Party's MPs engaged in developing its voluntary sector policies

Tessa Jowell: Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office. Has overall responsibility for shadowing the department and developing Labour's response to the government's big society agenda. Jowell chairs the policy review being carried out by the shadow Cabinet Office team, which covers the party's voluntary sector policies.

Roberta Blackman-WoodsRoberta Blackman-Woods: Shadow Minister for Civil Society. Responsible for developing policies on the voluntary and community sector, the big society agenda and social finance, which will form part of the shadow Cabinet Office policy review.

Jon TrickettJon Trickett: Another member of the shadow Cabinet Office team. His work focuses on reforming the machinery of government, but he is also responsible for developing Labour's policies on public service reform.

Hazel BlearsHazel Blears: Chair of the Social Action Forum, a backbench committee that is developing ideas for policies and will feed them directly to Jowell and Blackman-Woods as part of Labour's party-wide policy review.

Jon CruddasJon Cruddas: The MP for Dagenham & Rainham is the vice-chair of Labour's Social Action Forum. He will work with Blears to develop the set of policy proposals that the forum will submit to the shadow Cabinet Office.

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