Garry Jones's Blog
Fri 9 Aug 2019
We live in uncertain times and for once such a statement actually means something, as since I last wrote we have a new government and a renewed promise to leave the EU. I’d like to focus on the former if I may and flag up a minor detail of the new government – the charities brief.
In fact this is interesting in itself, as the role used to be known as the Minister for Civil Society and in hindsight we had a pretty good one from 2010 to 2014 in Nick Hurd MP. By all accounts he protected the sector from what could have been much worse during the austerity years. He was followed in quick succession by the disgraced Brooks Newmark and then Rob Wilson who subsequently lost his seat at the 2017 general election. And that’s where the role ended. It seems as Theresa May never bothered to appoint a new one.
I mislead slightly as it was in fact merged with the Minister for Sport role when the whole team - the Office for Civil Society was shunted over to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (we still assume this makes us ‘culture’) – and whilst there was much hand wringing, the general assumption was that this was primarily to make room for Brexit at the Cabinet Office. And in fact the first such joint Minister, Tracy Crouch did after some years in the complete wilderness, bring the sector back to the fore in her much anticipated ‘Civil Society Strategy’ of 2018 – unfortunately she resigned just after this on principle and much to her credit, over the government U-turn on fixed-odd betting terminals (part of her brief) – and it worked as they have indeed since been banned. Mims Davies took up the role, not that anyone really noticed, until she fell as part of Boris’ cull a few weeks back. It was strongly rumoured that he offered Tracy Crouch her job back, but she perhaps wisely decided to put family first and declined.
So, we then got around a week of absolute silence as the charity brief seemed to fall lower and lower down Boris’ list of appointments, until assuming it had actually fallen off his list altogether (having appointed a Sports only Minister), it eventually emerged that he (or perhaps an underling) had demoted the role yet again to Parliamentary Under Secretary for Civil Society and assigned the role to Baroness Barran – a member of the House of Lords. So what does that mean?
The Lady seems to have some qualifications in our sector, having served as the CEO of Safe Lives, a national Domestic Violence charity from 2004-2017, but before you get too excited, that seems to be her only real connection with the sector in terms of delivery, having previous worked as an investment banker for most of her working life. She has also been a trustee of Comic Relief and three other grant giving foundations. She has only been in the House of lords for just over a year, so isn’t an experienced parliamentarian either. I wish her every luck in the role and hope she makes a success of it, but for me critically, this now means that ‘our’ minister can’t even ask a question, in fact cannot actually step foot inside the House of Commons – the elected chamber of our parliament. Equally she can’t be asked a question by any of our MPs, at least not publicly.
And as such, I think this represents a true low point for our sector’s place in public life, as viewed by the government of the day. This is the most junior and side-lined role we have had to represent our interests in government in the last decade, since it was elevated to a ministerial post in the latter part of the new labour administration. And as for the Civil Society Strategy; there has been no updated content on the .gov website since it was published over a year ago.
Some will say this is immaterial, and not what really matters and they are right, its action that counts… but there is none of that either.
For me it is very much indicative of where central government sees the sector’s role in public discourse and service at present.
Voluntary sector, what voluntary sector?