Tania Mason: Let's hope the next minister for civil society has some experience of civil society

04 Nov 2022 In-depth

By the time you read this in November's Governance & Leadership, we will have yet another new minister for civil society. Whoever takes on the role will be the sixth charities minister since Rob Wilson lost his seat at the 2017 election, the ninth in 12 years, and the second since the last edition of this magazine.

Lord Kamall was given the job by then-prime minister Liz Truss in September but lasted only five weeks before he was moved off again in new PM Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle. Kamall – formerly a research director at the Institute for Economic Affairs think tank – replaced Nigel Huddleston who replaced Baroness Barran who replaced Mims Davies who replaced Tracey Crouch. Crouch (pictured) will probably be the most memorable of the bunch because she honourably resigned over a point of principle – the Treasury’s capitulation to industry pressure to delay reducing the maximum stake at fixed-odds betting terminals from £100 to £2 by several months, a decision that Crouch, also sports minister, said would destroy lives. The Treasury minister who confirmed the new timetable that led Crouch to quit? One Liz Truss.

Yet, while six charities ministers in five years is certainly some record, it’s knocked into a cocked hat by the eight secretaries of state for education and seven secretaries of state in DCMS in the same period. We’ve also had six health and social care secretaries, six home secretaries (though two of them are the same person), five foreign secretaries and five international development secretaries (until the role was scrapped, along with the department, in 2020).

I’m always bemused by the speed with which new prime ministers announce their Cabinet appointments, and their apparent failure to consider whether those individuals have relevant skills and experience – lived or professional – in the area of work they will be leading.

Tracey Crouch was notable for another reason, too – she actually had personal experience of civil society, having volunteered for years as a football coach and been a patron and supporter of several charities. Baroness Barran also laid claim to credible expertise and familiarity with the sector, having set up and run the SafeLives charity for many years before becoming minister. Yet so often ministers seem to be appointed to portfolios that they have absolutely no knowledge of. This wouldn’t happen anywhere else in the labour market. Imagine, for example, giving your charity’s fundraising director job to someone who had never raised a penny. You just wouldn’t do it, so it is baffling that it happens regularly in what are arguably the most powerful jobs in the country.

The cover theme of this issue is lived experience on boards. The charity sector seems, by and large, to accept that diversity of thought and experience brings benefits to governance, and that stuffing boards with yes-men and women who will accede to the leader’s every wish without challenge or scrutiny, is doomed to failure – as our last two PMs realised only too late. We might have assumed that Rishi Sunak has learned from their mistakes and seen fit to fill important posts with people who have knowledge and experience of their brief – and making Andrew Mitchell minister for development offered some hope. However, looking at his choices for home secretary, environment secretary, and minister for women and equalities, it is anybody’s guess as to who our next charities minister might be.

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