The long wait for the new charities minister

After Baroness Barran was moved on from her role as Minister for Civil Society in the September Cabinet reshuffle, the post remained vacant for weeks. Stephen Delahunty reports

Nigel Huddleston
Nigel Huddleston

“Reshuffles create enemies,” said one former cabinet minister as the axe came down on several senior ministers during Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s second reshuffle.

The restructures are a way for a Prime Minister to “refresh” the government, often in the face of poor polling numbers, providing them with an opportunity to remove poor performers, reward allies and punish foes.

Johnson said his reshuffle was aimed at “uniting and levelling up the whole country” as he swapped Nadine Dorries for Oliver Dowden at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. He also made Michael Gove the new Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

But it was nearly three weeks after the official reorganisation had concluded before it emerged that the Minister for Civil Society post would be filled by Nigel Huddleston, the MP for Mid Worcestershire.

A delayed announcement

Baroness Barran, the former Minister for Civil Society, was moved to a ministerial post in the Department for Education towards the end of the September reshuffle, after just over two years in post.

Her time at the DCMS was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and brought little in the way of major cross-sector policy announcements, but she did oversee the introduction of a new Charities Bill to parliament, designed to reduce red tape for charities, and spearheaded legislation to expand the dormant assets scheme.

Charity leaders thanked Barran for her time in the role, but in the subsequent weeks there were little more than rumours about who her replacement could be.

Even without reshuffles creating enemies, the current government has form for making them in the sector, with the replacement minister conspicuous by their absence at a time when the relationship between government and charities has been shaky at best and non-existent at worst.

“I confess to being somewhat bemused that, at a time when civil society is never more needed, an announcement has still not been made. With the passage of time it becomes more difficult to avoid concluding that the priority of partnering with the sector to find solutions to the many challenges our country faces is low,” said Caron Bradshaw, chief executive of the Charity Finance Group.

“Not having a minister in post – or positioned at the heart of government, as was once the case – does not paint the government’s prioritisation of the sector in a great light.

“That could be an impediment to real progress, not least because of the fiscal challenges we will continue to face across so many important areas, from education, social care and health through to justice and international development.”

The levelling up question

The sector’s economic contribution is about £17bn a year and the work of volunteers alone could contribute nearer to £200bn in social value each year, explained Bradshaw, who said this should not be overlooked as the government plans to level up.

The levelling up agenda for Gove, the new LUHC minister, is a chance for “double devolution” that would be underscored by “community covenants”, according to a report into the project published by 10 Conservative MPs in October.

For others, such as the campaign group the Good Law Project, it is a “Tory Party parlour game” with funding hinged on whether backbench MPs toe the party line.

Dan Corry, chief executive of the think tank NPC, argued that charities have proved their worth and are now ideally placed to lead on the agenda, but added that the government seems unable to make the most of its position.

“One danger is that the job will be tacked on to something else like sport – something that worked badly in the past, as it takes the focus away from charities, funders and the causes we care about,” he said.

“Given the breadth of areas to which charities contribute – everything from food banks to lifesaving research – the charities minister should be a position of real authority feeding into the work of all departments, not merely an afterthought.”

There is a very strong case for saying that placing the charities minister in the DCMS is not helpful to the sector or to the government, according to Corry.

“The Minister for Civil Society should be in the Cabinet Office, as it was in the past, so they can argue the case for the sector across government,” he said. “The government is in danger of not making best use of the knowledge, experience and skills of charities, and that would be to the detriment of us all.”

An inconsequential minister?

For other sector figures, the absence of an announcement had the opposite effect, with Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, questioning whether it mattered who the minister might be.

“Many of my colleagues have spent an enormous amount of time over the last couple of years communicating with Baroness Barran and working in good faith with civil servants at DCMS, to inform and influence policy for the sector. At times like this, it’s hard not to feel that it has been a huge waste of time,” Allcock Tyler wrote in a blog at the end of September.

She argued that ministers are there to support the sector to serve its causes, adding: “If they don’t want to, then that’s a matter for them to decide if they are happy that their decisions will be less informed and their policies less effective as a result.”

Bradshaw agreed that the sector may need to shift its attention if it hopes to influence the levelling up agenda.

“With the appointment of Danny Kruger and Andy Haldane to new roles at the newly named LUHC, we are encouraged that individuals who also speak passionately about the sector’s true worth and potential are being brought into policy formation,” she said.

“We may need to shift our attention if we are to influence this agenda, but in the meantime the coalition of infrastructure bodies, of which we are a part, will continue to meet regularly with the DCMS team and the regulator – with or without a minister appointed.”

On 8 October the government finally confirmed that Huddleston, the MP who previously served as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Sport, Heritage and Tourism at the DCMS, would have the civil society brief wrapped into his role.

Corry said he looked forward to working with the minister, but was disappointed that the role had once again been combined with sport and tourism. “The risk is that this takes the focus away from charities, funders and the causes people care about,” he said.

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