Profile: The minister from the grass-roots

With a strong track record in charities, especially those at the local level, Phil Hope may well be the right man to push through the Government's third sector initiatives, says Nick Cater.

Phil Hope
Phil Hope

Phil Hope's earlier career in teaching, charities, youth work and non-profit consultancy was consistently concerned with delivering results for others, and in his political life he has been a consummate constituency MP, always busy with the concerns of his electorate in the former steel-making area of Corby and East Northamptonshire.

These could be good reasons for the charity world to welcome him as its latest minister, now that the third sector review has set out the Government's £515m programme for the coming years, the Charities Act is passed and being implemented, and a range of other third sector initiatives are under way.

He may be less of a visionary than his predecessor, Ed Miliband, but he could be the painstaking technician needed to see through the business that is already in hand; he has spent a long time under the bonnet of the sector, knows and appreciates its grass-roots, and champions its contribution to society.

Neat, tidy and beaming, he arrives for the interview in his Whitehall office, just yards from Downing Street, and apologises for having to cut things short so he can meet his daughter during another 12 or 14-hour working day.

He declares there is "a huge amount to do" and starts running through the plans, starting with this month's launch of the National Youth Volunteering Programme and continuing with next month's summit of ministers and officials about the Compact and January's start of the £1m-a-year third sector training programme for public sector commissioners.

Hope is a strong talker and sticks to the lines set out by senior government colleagues, rather than giving away much of himself. In his 10 years in Parliament, four of them as a junior minister, he has always been a loyal Labour Party man, backing everything from ID cards to the Iraq war.

Asked about his top priorities, he starts with those recently emphasised by Gordon Brown, such as the need to allow charities to "give a voice to the most disadvantaged and overlooked" and to harness the huge potential of youth volunteering. And Hope is keen to see flourishing social enterprises, with their "double bottom line", feeling that "attitudes to social enterprises match the mood of society - their time is now".

He sees no contradictions in the Government's third sector agenda, such as the £177m being poured into youth volunteering initiative v for 16 to 24-year-olds without a similar level of investment for those turning 25. He is confident that, after getting jobs and having families, any lost volunteers will return to the fold later on.

On the trend from grants to contracts, he welcomes a balanced approach - "it's not an either/or" - and says he is sure that charities can retain their independence. And asked how he feels about the fortunes being made in the City by tax avoiders while Britain's wealth gap widens, Hope declares his belief that, in time, plenty of it will come back as philanthropy.

Invited to talk about the charity world's own inequalities, Hope emphasises how he wants to help front-line groups through the £80m small grants programme, the £50m endowment funding for community foundations and the £30m for acquiring underperforming public assets.

Much of his talk about the sector relates to his local experience. As an example of what can be achieved with a poorly performing public asset, he offers a case study of a charitable takeover that re-energised a failing Corby theatre. He admits being left in tears by a former drug user's tribute to the grass-roots charity that saved him from addiction.

Of the decision to invest in third sector research, he says it is about understanding impact. He adds: "What is it about lots of small groups that create the glue that holds communities together?" And asked where he turns to for third sector advice and inspiration, he says alphabet soup - Acevo, CAF, DSC or NCVO - is not on the menu: he prefers to talk to the small Corby charities he knows so well.

Those involved in charities in his constituency say he takes a close interest. "He has always been very supportive, and he knows the issues," says one. "Only the other week, he got all the local voluntary groups together to discuss common problems and infrastructure needs.

"Helping with grant applications, he has seen up close how frustrating fundraising can be. He gets upset if he thinks people are taking the sector for granted, believing we are cheap or not professional. He has been hot under the collar about the Compact; he doesn't think it's being used as it should be."

Hope was a south London kid who in an earlier era might have been denied the chance to climb the greasy pole of politics. Educated at a comprehensive school, he did not allow a little student pot smoking to prevent him achieving a first-class BEd at Exeter in the late 70s.

Then he moved on from teaching science at Kettering School for Boys to become NCVO youth policy adviser and run the young volunteer resources unit at what is now the National Youth Bureau.

In the early 80s, he demonstrated his political ambitions by winning a seat on the local council and went to work for himself as an adviser to non-profit-making organisations. He helped to found a social enterprise, Framework, a self-professed ethical network of independent consultants, which undertook anything from small-scale training to major reorganisations of large charities.

A colleague from that time says: "We were professionalising the third sector at a time when groups often thought 'management' was a dirty word." Hope impressed others as "clear-sighted, energetic, challenging and very good at getting things done". His career progressed in local politics, and he stayed with Framework until his election to Parliament in Tony Blair's 1997 landslide.

It's still not long since Hope emerged from months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy for lymphatic cancer - a time when he did not risk attending meetings for fear of infection. Now the cancer is in full remission, he says, and has not affected his priorities, his perspective or, by now, his pace of work.

Friends and former colleagues emphasise how genial, hard-working and committed he is. The third sector is fortunate to have him, says a long-standing friend: "He's not an Ed Miliband - he doesn't have that charisma - and he's not a future PM. But someone who recognises his limitations is a far better person to work with and have in place in the Office of the Third Sector than someone who is constantly focused on the next post and the next promotion. I suspect we aren't going to have such a useful and sector-knowledgeable minister again in the foreseeable future."

And when that understanding includes a strong appreciation for the under-funded grass-roots, the third sector may have found in Phil Hope not only the minister it deserves, but also the minister that most of it needs.

Hope CV

2007: Minister for the Third Sector
2005: Junior minister, Department for Education and Skills
2003: Junior minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
1997: Elected to Parliament, Corby and East Northamptonshire
1993-97: Northants County Council
1985: Founder member of Framework ethical and non-profit focused management consultancy
1983-87: Kettering Borough Council
1982: Head of National Youth Bureau young volunteer resources unit
1980: Married Allison Butt (one son, one daughter)
1979: NCVO youth policy adviser
1978-79: Science teacher, Kettering School for Boys
1978: BEd (Hons) first class, St Luke's College, Exeter University

<h2>Five things you never knew about Phil Hope</h2>

1. He holds one of the most marginal constituencies in the country, with a majority of 1,517. His Conservative opponent is popular novelist Louise Bagshawe.

2. For relaxation and enjoyment, he juggles every day, keeping a set of balls at home and in his Whitehall office; he can even juggle with flaming clubs.

3. He smoked cannabis at university and admitted it in July this year, along with other Labour politicians. Today, as a member of the Wine Society Co-operative, Hope's favourite intoxicant is Chateauneuf du Pape from the Rhone region of France.

4. For months he avoided meetings and kept his environment scrupulously clean to avoid infections after being diagnosed last year with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a rare but curable cancer of the lymphatic system. He said he was in full remission in May this year after courses of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

5. He gardens whenever he can - "pretty much every weekend" - and says this was a big way of coping when he had cancer. He is especially proud of his leeks and carrots. But his illness restricted his favourite sport of tennis, and he has not been able to play since September last year.

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