NEWS: Liberal Democrat Conference - Political Profile. Annette Brooke, voluntary sector spokeswoman, Liberal Democrats

Emma Maier

Annette Brooke has only been involved with voluntary sector issues for a relatively short time, but as one of the key protagonists in the fight against the Criminal Records Bureau fee increases announced earlier this year, she has already demonstrated her commitment.

The quietly spoken 57 year-old was elected to represent Mid-Dorset and North Poole in 2001 with a 394 majority, just four years after the seat was created. She had strong local roots, having lived in the area for 25 years and worked there as a teacher, city councillor and town mayor.

In the November 2001 reshuffle that followed the summer recess, she was appointed junior home affairs spokeswoman, which includes responsibility for voluntary sector issues.

In June 2003, when the Bureau gave just one month's notice of its intention to more than double the cost of completing criminal checks for staff working with vulnerable people (Third Sector, 11 June), the Government was prepared to pass the law necessary to allow the increase, without any discussion in parliament, or with affected parties.

But Brooke was one of a group of 12 MPs, including Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who wasn't prepared to let the proposal proceed so easily, and sought to get the legislation annulled. Unfortunately, the attempt failed and the fee increase went ahead, but it did add credence to campaigns by NCVO and affected charities, and also focused media attention on the burden that the sector would be forced to bear.

The Bureau is still clearly a sore point for Brooke, perhaps because she is resigned to the fact that there is little chance of ever redressing the balance. "It was outrageous to put the fees up by 130 per cent," she says. "But I don't think it will be possible to put the clock back financially because the money has to come from somewhere."

Despite her outwardly gentle demeanour, Brooke is a determined character.

Before standing for election in 2001 she underwent an image makeover, which involved dying her greying hair and overhauling her wardrobe as part of a bid to win over the fickle voting public. She was later voted in as the only female MP in the eight Dorset constituencies.

What's more, while the high-pressure environment of Westminster is enough to fatigue many, it seems to have done Brooke nothing but good.

"She thrives on the hard work, and after two years in parliament she looks and sounds even younger and more confident," says Brooke's research assistant, Peta Cubberley.

Brooke is now monitoring the progress of the plans for charity law reform, and is also keeping an eye on the development of the new lottery distributor.

"I very much hope that the law reform will feature in the Queen's Speech in November," she says. "But if it doesn't, I will use any opportunity that I have to keep it on the political agenda."

LIB DEM AGENDA

- Lottery Monitor merger of New Opportunities Fund and Community Fund to ensure that no charities lose out.

- Charity law reform Support moves to get reform into Queen's Speech in November. Keep up pressure to keep it on the political agenda.

- Partnership with Government Voluntary sector is not a substitute, but adds expertise over and above that of public sector. There should be more debate about the how best to deliver services using public, private and voluntary sectors.

- Cabinet minister No proposal for a separate Cabinet minister for charities, as some have suggested.

- Tax Currently reviewing tax policies, including whether or not VAT should be abolished for charities, and the idea of using tax breaks to encourage corporate giving. Voluntary sector input welcome, please write to the Liberal Democrat policy team.

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