Nick Hurd interview: Tories aim for a sector transformed

The Minister for Civil Society tells Stephen Cook about cuts in spending and the Conservative vision of the voluntary sector's future.

Nick Hurd, minister for civil society
Nick Hurd, minister for civil society

When the Labour government published its third sector review in 2007, Gordon Brown contributed a foreword to it, emphasising that the Office of the Third Sector would be putting £500m into charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises between 2008 and 2011.

What's the corresponding amount that Nick Hurd, the new Minister for Civil Society, will be asking the Treasury to allocate to his office when it publishes in October the 2011-14 comprehensive spending review, which is expected to propose cuts of at least 25 per cent to public spending?

"I can't give you a specific number," says Hurd. "But it will be significantly less than that." The main reason he gives is the obvious one - that the nation's finances are in dire straits and the government is determined to cut the deficit quickly.

But it's not his only reason. "There is a serious point here," he says. "If you look at that £500m, has it made a huge difference to the sector? Has it transformed the fundamentals? Has it moved the sector in a healthy and positive direction, towards being more independent and resilient and efficient?

"The jury's out on that - I'm not sure it has. We're different from Labour. The heart of the big society agenda is about trying to reduce people's sense of dependence on the state, and that goes for the sector as well."

He says the "creeping dependence" of the sector on the state is illustrated by the fact that nearly 40 per cent of its income comes from statutory sources and 70 per cent of that goes to organisations with incomes of more than £1m.

"That's not compatible with our long-term vision of the sector, which is of a robustly independent and resilient pillar of a stronger society where there's a better balance between state, market and civil society," he says.

Does that mean he feels that a lot of what the Office of the Third Sector did was not worth doing? "A lot of it - I mean, not all of it. But I come back to my previous point: did the £500m transform the essentials of the sector? I'm not sure that it did."

In this context, he talks about his recently announced 40 per cent cut from next March to the £12m a year given to the 42 OCS strategic partners, whose number will be reduced to 15, with no organisation getting more than £500,000 or more than a quarter of its income.

The partners are charities and umbrella bodies charged with advising the government and using the money for promotion of the sector and research.

"A lot of the partners would admit that it was a fairly illogical programme," he says. "These are 40-odd organisations chosen to receive really large sums of money, with little rigour about why that money was being given or what was being asked in return.

"When we were in opposition, some of the partners were coming to us and saying they realised that the programme was not sustainable in the longer term. There is some value to such partners, but there'll be less money, fewer of them and we'll be making sure we get value for the taxpayers' money."

So the OCS budget will be squeezed and its programmes pruned. What's new and different, Hurd says, is that his office will also be in charge of some flagship initiatives of the big society agenda, which the Prime Minister has put at centre stage and considers to be the hallmark of his government.

These are, says Hurd, the National Citizen Service volunteering programme for 16-year-olds, the Big Society Bank and the Communities First fund - a local grants programme supported by trained community organisers.

The sector and civil society are fundamental to building the capacity and confidence of people to respond to such big society initiatives, he says, because of their capacity to support and mobilise people. This means what he calls "the old core role" of the OCS will continue - championing the sector inside government and helping it to become more resilient and independent.

"I think this is compatible with our message that the big society agenda contains significant opportunities for the sector to deliver more public services, which we want to open up to new providers, stimulating more community-led solutions," says Hurd.

The wider background, he says, is the government's plans to pass power to communities, using the localism bill expected in the autumn; to release more information on state spending, alerting different service providers to potential contract opportunities; and to increase confidence, capability and capacity at neighbourhood level.

He concludes that, given the complexity and diversity of the sector, he's glad he was the shadow minister for 15 months before the election. So what's it like being in office? "A lot better than being in opposition," he says. "We're now taking decisions instead of talking about decisions."

 

HURD's BEST MOMENT

"Getting out of here every Thursday, doing visits and trying to go to places that are as varied as possible, from Cumbria to Chelmsford. I enjoy them because they connect you with real things. It makes everything we're trying to do have meaning. There have been extraordinary moments, and I have met some extraordinary individuals."

HURD'S WORST MOMENT

"Almost certainly it was the process of deciding where we had to find savings. We had to play our part, and we really tried to make sure we minimised the effect on front-line organisations. We took a lot of time over it. You don't go into politics in order to cut things unless they're not working or are hopeless value for money. But that's the hand we've been dealt."

Progress Report

The Conservatives made a series of pledges on the voluntary sector before the election. Has the government acted on them?

Red tape

Pledge Joint taskforce with Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will cut red tape for charities.

Action A taskforce, named this week and led by Lord Hodgson, is drawing up terms of reference. It aims to save time and money for charities.

Community grants

Pledge A community grants programme, funded by loan repayments from the now-closed Futurebuilders fund, and training for 5,000 community organisers.

Action The Communities First fund has been announced - more details to come in December. It will replace Grassroots Grants, although Hurd wants it to retain the match-funding element of that programme.

Citizen service

Pledge A National Citizen Service - a volunteering programme available to all 16-year-olds.

Action Applications have been invited for pilot projects that would accommodate 10,000 young people next year.

Access to capital

Pledge Set up a Big Society Bank.

Action The bank will be the sole beneficiary of dormant bank accounts; Labour proposals for a similar bank gave first call to youth projects. The Office for Civil Society is planning for the bank to open next April.

Public contracts

Pledge Government commissioning and procurement will be improved to remove barriers to sector bids.

Action Plans are at an early stage and might form part of a white paper.

Big Lottery Fund

Pledge To reduce the Big Lottery Fund's share of lottery good causes income from 50 per cent to 40 per cent, making sure all its grants go to the sector (currently, some public sector organisations benefit).

Action Department for Culture, Media and Sport has confirmed this will go ahead.

Big Society Day

Pledge A Big Society Day to end a week of social action each year.

Action No announcement yet.

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