Last week, the charity sector got its third shadow minister since the last general election: Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan and former shadow minister for children, who entered parliament in 2010.
Before becoming an MP she was a researcher at the charity Centrepoint, working on housing for children, and then a policy adviser at the Children’s Society. Unlike the two previous incumbents of her new post, she has a long-standing interest in sector issues and personal experience of many of them.
But she says she does not want to rely on her own experience, and will instead consult sector organisations before talking about her policy priorities. "My priority right now is to get out of parliament and shadow charity workers on the front line to understand what the problems really are," she says. "It’s one thing to have your own knowledge, another to understand other people’s experience."
Nandy replaces Gareth Thomas, MP for Harrow West, who has become shadow minister for Europe. She forms part of a new team setting Labour’s voluntary sector policy, working alongside Michael Dugher, who replaces Jon Trickett as shadow minister for the Cabinet Office.
"Gareth will be a hard act to follow," she says. "But there is some continuity. Michael was Jon’s number two, and Chi Onwurah is still shadow minister for social enterprise."
Thomas indicated at the Labour Party conference that a process of establishing policy was beginning to take place, and promised to consult shortly on a voluntary sector agenda. Possible ideas include a Community Reinvestment Act, which would encourage bank investment through third sector finance providers in deprived communities, and a right to reasonable time off work for volunteers and trustees to carry out their charitable duties. But Nandy says she does not want to commit to any policies until she gets to grips with her brief.
In the past, the sector issues she has spoken about most strongly relate to the need for charities to retain their independence. She believes the sector must remain distinct from the state and must be free to speak out on social policy questions.
"It’s not just the impact of the cuts on the sector that is worrying," she says. "Charities are also being asked to provide things the state ought to provide itself. You can see that with the Red Cross launching emergency food services in the UK.
"It’s a real challenge to make sure the sector doesn’t become an alternative to the state. Another vital role of the sector is to give a voice to the voiceless, so I’m deeply concerned about the lobbying bill."
At the 2011 Labour conference, Nandy said that the previous Labour government "treated the third sector like a third arm of the state", and the sector’s biggest asset was the legitimacy of charities in the eyes of the public. It was hard, she said, for charities that deliver services to maintain the necessary independence of voice.
Nandy’s former boss at the Children’s Society, Bob Reitemeier – now chief executive of the Essex Community Foundation – says she brings a thorough understanding of the charity sector. "In her policy role at the Children’s Society, she gained not just an understanding of the sector but also of how government works from the point of view of charities," he says. She is "highly intelligent and very perceptive", he says, and "when she sees an issue of social justice she won’t let go until progress has been made".