I have always been interested both in current affairs and in getting involved in my local community, and politics combines both of these. Although it sounds naff, I want to do a job in which I feel I can actually make a difference, which is why I went into the voluntary sector before entering the House of Commons, and why I am now an MP. I can see very directly the impact of my job in my constituency, and I can see on an individual basis people my staff and I have helped, and I find that very satisfying. I also believe strongly that we need more women in Parliament, and so decided that I should actually do something about it and stand for election myself.
Q. What role do you see for charities in the delivery of public services?
Charities have a fundamentally important role in providing support and help for the hardest to reach in society. These vulnerable groups are often those that slip through state-run services or are overlooked by profit-motivated private sector providers. Charities, in contrast, have developed as a result of individuals who have identified a distinct need in society, often at a local community level, and are prepared to give up their free time to do something about it. This localism and independence is a great asset to the sector, and allows a flexible and innovative approach to helping the most socially excluded and vulnerable groups in society. Charities should be given the same opportunity to bid for and win contracts to provide public services as public and private sector providers and more should be done to ensure that there is a level playing field.
Q. What dangers do you foresee if the conservatives come to power in the plans to roll back the State?
The Conservatives have outlined a ‘small state, big society’ vision where public services are increasingly provided by third sector organisations. While this may sound appealing at first glance, this is really just a piece of political gloss to cover up a classic Tory tax cutting agenda. In particular, the Tories aren’t talking about fully transferring funding to charities along with the transfer of services, effectively leaving charities to underwrite the costs of these services. What’s more, they are planning to cut back substantially on the number and size of grants for the sector, replacing them with loans that will have to be paid back. This could cause serious financial problems for many charities. Finally, Cameron talks about identifying key social entrepreneurs who will be parachuted in to run third sector organisations. This doesn’t sound like rolling back the state. Rather, it sounds like the state meddling in the recruitment of the management of the third sector. This would be a major challenge to the independence of the sector, currently one of its greatest strengths.
Q. What sort of relationship would a Lib Dem government have with the Third Sector?
A Liberal Democrat government would work to strengthen the sector’s ability to ensure its long-term sustainable future. A priority area is to ensure that charities can effectively compete for public service contracts. This could be done in the Work and Pensions field by, for example, allowing individual benefit claimants, with the support of a JobCentre Plus adviser, to decide what support they need and then put together their own package of support from a wide range of different organisations. This would enable smaller providers to offer specialised support, tailored to the individual and make it financially viable for small charities to bid competitively for work on a small and affordable scale.
At a local level, we would devolve political and financial power to local authorities, allowing them to commission community charities to provide certain local services and to work with charities to strengthen the provision of local services. For example, the White Gold Project in Cornwall is one model we would like to see built on. Here, the Local Authority, YOT, Police and local community organisations have pooled their efforts to identify vulnerable young people and steer them away from criminality early. It saw a 56% reduction in crime levels and a £500,000 saving to the Home Office.
In terms of improving the funding environment for charities, we want to see the Social Investment Bank established as a matter of urgency, as well as some streamlining in the way central Government charitable funding is delivered with the savings reinvested in the sector. We want to support the establishment of ‘Easy Giving bank accounts’ integrated alongside normal bank accounts. This would copy the best of the US philanthropic model where such accounts raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for charities. It makes it far easier for donors to give and for them to keep a record of the giving in order to claim tax relief. It would also provide charities with a completely new ICT platform through which to advertise themselves and actively seek out private donations