Dame Caroline Spelman was Conservative MP for Meriden in the West Midlands from 1997 to 2019. Between 2010 and 2012, she was the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in David Cameron’s coalition cabinet. She also served as Second Church Estates Commissioner from 2015 to 2019.

Tim Lamden (TL): Prior to being in government, you helped to set up and, for many years, run a drug and alcohol treatment charity in Solihull. I wondered how this kind of hands-on experience - helping to run a charity and set one up - helped shape your approach to the sector as a minister? 

Caroline Spelman (CS): So, actually, there were two charities. The other one was a charity to help the victims of domestic violence. And the reason I mention that is because both of those subjects - drug and alcohol addiction and domestic violence - are difficult subjects to raise money for. I promise you, it's really difficult. Partly because the society from which you are trying to raise the money doesn't want to admit it has a problem in both those areas. You know, communities don't like to admit there's a drug problem in their community and they don't like to admit that domestic violence is going on, even though there's hard evidence of both from the police. When you are working for charities, trying to raise funds, and engaging with government - in this case, local government - it can be very difficult. But the things that I found both charities had in common were that there was often an expectation that the charity had a lot of people to service the agreements that we secured with government, and sometimes the timescales for complying with the administration associated with our service level agreements were totally unrealistic. The form-filling that was required to service the agreements we had was pretty daunting, actually. You would have needed somebody in the charity pretty much full-time just to keep completing those forms. And I perfectly understand why they are generated, it's because local authorities, and the civil servants within them, are trying to protect the taxpayer, because it's public money that is being dished out, and you have to be absolutely sure that it is being spent correctly, every penny of it. But the administration was heavily bureaucratic, and it meant that for money that we had so carefully tried to raise from the public, as well as alongside taxpayers' money, a significant chunk of it then had to go on administering those service level agreements. So that's one observation I have for you.

And then, annoyingly, when you had put your bid in, after hours and hours of form-filling, the decision was sometimes very, very slow. I mean, so slow sometimes, it almost endangered the project. So if I could illustrate for you: if you had a service level agreement lasting three years with local government, it, of course, had to be renewed at the end of three years. So you would need to start, at the end of year two, this process of rebidding for the next tranche of money, otherwise, obviously, you were going to have to let the people go who were doing the project. But maddeningly, that decision on whether or not we would be in receipt of another three years of funding, under the service level agreement, came right on the eve of the end of that time, and that was a very stressful experience. My experience was also that we would quite often lose our funding to a lower bidder that was not in a position to provide the quality of service that we were. They were, quite often, a national charity that had all the administrative back-up to put in a better bid in some ways, but lacked that sort of local fine feeling for what the challenges were in the locality. And sometimes after that three years had elapsed, the local authority would then come back to us and say, "We think you should bid again for this project." To which we would say, "Well, we didn't get it last time, you gave it to the lowest bidder." And they would admit that the quality of provision hadn't been as good. So, that can be very, very difficult for a charity, so much so that you just, as a charity, cannot rely on government funding, because it can be removed suddenly, like that. So, in the case of the drug and alcohol charity, we had really significant funding through the National Lottery. So that was a way of diversifying funding, so that we weren't as dependent on government funding and, actually, it was almost unheard of that the National Lottery agreed repeat funding, and they formally agreed to repeat that funding in good enough time for us to be able to keep the project secure. So it's quite an interesting contrast for you. 

TL: How did those experiences influence your interactions with charities when you were in Defra?

CS: It definitely did because with the civil servants that were overseeing our engagement with the third sector and charities that were going to be actually delivering our project, I would impress upon them that you must make timely decisions, and don't make the process of applying so bureaucratic that we deter good local organisations from applying to us to deliver the outcomes we want. And I would often say, "Well, how long have we had that bid in?" In order to get a feel for what the turnaround was like.

"...with the civil servants that were overseeing our engagement with the third sector and charities that were going to be actually delivering our project, I would impress upon them that you must make timely decisions, and don't make the process of applying so bureaucratic that we deter good local organisations..."

TL: Since being in government, you have said that you feel civil servants would benefit from secondments to the voluntary sector. What do you think the voluntary sector has to teach them?

CS: I do and I did. And, in fact, as a secretary of state, I actively encouraged the civil servants to consider being seconded out into both the private and the third sector. And we had some very successful secondments - we were good at seconding them out, it was very hard to get them back! Because when they went out, both into the third sector and into the private sector, they very much enjoyed that experience. And, in fact, I got some of the director generals that we seconded out, who didn't return, back in after a year. And I said to them, "Right, okay, I'd be very interested to know what it is that has detained you from returning to Defra? And what was different in your experience of working in the private and the third sector, compared to working in government?" And it was really interesting, there were two very strong observations that came out of that. One was that decision-making was much quicker and, of course, that's intellectually satisfying, isn't it? It's frustrating to be part of a decision-making process that's incredibly slow, because it acts as a bit of a disincentive on your desire to make change happen. They liked the fact that decision-making was much quicker in both cases, and, secondly, that the organisations were not afraid to make a U-turn, if it was necessary. So, you see one of the difficulties in government, and in politics generally, is that if you need to make a U-turn - and you sometimes need to, because the circumstances have changed, or, quite honestly, the policy is not working - you are absolutely castigated for that. I mean, a U-turn in politics is seen as something very negative. In the private sector, it is not, because if something's not working, it's costing money and you don't want to be doing that a second longer than you have to. In the third sector, where money is tight, not-for-profit, you do not want to be battling down a route that's not working, because those are precious funds that you can't then direct towards the charitable purposes of the organisation.

TL: As someone who has obviously been inspired by civil society, did the 'Big Society' idea from Cameron's government, and the central role of charities and community in that vision, excite you going into government?

CS: Yes. So, the first thing I need to tell you is that I grew up in a family that was strongly committed to civil society, both to Oxfam and to conservation charities. So, it was in my DNA. I grew up in a rural context and I think that's also relevant. In small rural communities, they function well, in part, because in a small community everybody has to get stuck in with the volunteering, because otherwise things don't happen and services are not provided. So, I grew up with that and very much with the ethos that if we don't do it, then nobody else will or can. And I think that's a very strong feature of the Conservative Party, because it traditionally has a rural base. Most of the people who are activists in the party will also be volunteering for local and national charities. It's sort of deep, deep in the ethos, and I think in urban settings, which I've subsequently lived in for almost more time than I did in a rural context, city living is more anonymous, and it's sometimes harder to get that kind of engagement at a community level. It's not impossible because we see really good examples in the cities around us of local initiatives where people have realised that to improve their environment they need to get stuck in to changing it for the better. And I think that's what David Cameron was trying to tap into there.

I must be honest with you and say that down at the grassroots in my own constituency, the term 'Big Society' got mocked. And probably others will have said that to you. That was in part because there was a lot of sneering nationally about Conservatives and how much heart they really had for these sorts of things. I remember when Iain Duncan Smith was leader, he coined the phrase 'compassionate conservatism' and it was openly laughed at. I'm not making that up, it was a thing. You have to understand the sort of trajectory, there had been 18 years of Conservative government, during which time it had gradually become increasingly unpopular. And then there was almost 10 years, or 11 years, of Labour government - I can't quite remember the length of their tenure - during which time, it was still pretty common to be contemptuous of a claim by the Conservative Party to be compassionate. I know that because I was on the receiving end of it. I was Shadow International Development Secretary and I remember saying to Gordon Brown, "No one party has a monopoly of compassion." Because that was the way we were confronted. So, in coining the phrase 'Big Society', I think that David Cameron and his policy advisor Steve Hilton were attempting to put a marker down to say that actually we do deeply care about our society. And I suppose, there was also an attempt to sort of turn the page on the often misquoted comment by Mrs. Thatcher that "there's no such thing as society". Actually, you have to read her whole speech to understand what she was really trying to say. But it was often taken out of context. So coining the phrase 'Big Society' was designed to be a bit of an antidote to that. And what it attempted to do was to really unleash the full potential of civil society in the context of a post-financial crash of 2008. Because, quite frankly, there was no easy way for the country to recover from that crash without the engagement of society more widely.

"I must be honest with you and say that down at the grassroots in my own constituency, the term 'Big Society' got mocked. And probably others will have said that to you. That was in part because there was a lot of sneering nationally about Conservatives and how much heart they really had for these sorts of things."

TL: It is notable that in his first year as PM, Rishi Sunak is yet to sit down and talk to charity sector leaders. Within six months of being elected, David Cameron hosted a roundtable at Number 10 with NCVO and sector leaders. During your time as a minister, what was your overall experience of engaging with the voluntary sector?

CS: In the British political system, I genuinely do not think as a member of parliament, you can do your job properly without engaging civil society within your constituency. You need to reach out to them because they are an essential part of the fabric for the people you serve. But they will also reach out to you, daily, weekly, to visit the things that are being done in your constituency, and so on. So I honestly don't think you can get to the level of prime minister without really significant engagement with civil society, and that's a good thing. What can happen is that the leadership of big influential charities at a national level, they can become partisan. And, if you would pardon me for saying so, they tend to lean to the left, or maybe my friends in the Labour Party would say, "Oh, that's not true, Caroline, we think that the leadership of civil society tends to lean to the right." But I don't think that's actually true. Therefore, it can be difficult for a Conservative prime minister to befriend the leaders of national charities, particularly if, in recent times, they have been publicly very critical of the Conservative Party and administration. And that, of course, was the case under the run of recent events running up to the selection of the current Prime Minister. So, I can understand why there's a bit of hesitancy sometimes, because if the leaders of organisations have been publicly critical of the government you lead, it is quite hard to sit down around the table and ignore that fact.

"...it can be difficult for a Conservative prime minister to befriend the leaders of national charities, particularly if, in recent times, they have been publicly very critical of the Conservative Party and administration."

TL: I'm interested to know about your time at Defra. Was engagement with the sector a regular thing?

CS: Yes, very much so. The important thing to say is that Defra has a very large number of stakeholders who actually deliver the programme of the government of the day, essentially using taxpayers' money. So you only have to think about the really big green groups that are delivery organisations for Defra to see why stakeholder management is a very key part of the Defra Secretary of State's role. So, when I came into the job, just as the coalition government was starting, one of the first things we had to do was try and rebalance the economy, which had been overspent by a third for about a decade. There was a very, very significant hole in the finances and that meant all government departments had to make really significant spending cuts and that's always very painful. But it's essential, if you're going to try and bring those through, to bring the stakeholders with you. So I sat down with our stakeholders and was very transparent about what we needed to do. And together, we worked out how we could achieve that without compromising some of the important objectives that our stakeholders had to deliver. And it worked, I think, and that's something I've taught, I've taught the Institute for Government about it. The phrase you would use about that approach in management would be 'co-creation'. And I think transparency was the key to building the trust to get the buy-in for what we needed to do.

You asked for examples of some successful collaborations [in your pre-interview questions]. Well, I was going to point to the creation of the Canal & River Trust, for example. So that was previously British Waterways, which was entirely publicly-funded, and not very popular with the users of the canals and rivers. So, transitioning that over to become a charitable trust was a very delicate operation for which I cannot take complete credit, because the work on that had been ongoing for some time. But achieving that successful transition, I think, was an example of good alignment.

Another example for you: during my tenure as Secretary of State, there were two United Nations initiatives. Firstly, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan. The UK, in United Nations terms, has high standing in terms of its environmental credentials, but I needed to bring the ambition of the green groups in our civil society alongside me to try and achieve a satisfactory outcome for them, as well as negotiating with 190 other countries an agreement in Nagoya, and that worked. And I think partly because that worked well, and we got agreement, I did the same thing when it came to Rio+20. The second Rio conference. And in the run up to that conference, there was a lot of criticism from civil society about the lack of ambition that government had for tackling some of the big challenges that we faced. And I spent a lot of time working with the United Nations Environment Programme to try and find, if you like, the next big idea around which we could coalesce. And it was actually at a conference in Nairobi, where the Colombians first presented the concept of sustainable development programmes. And I remember at the time thinking, "That's it: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)." And then I worked really hard with civil society to get fully behind that. And it was quite interesting, you know, that - this is history now - there was some resistance to Sustainable Development Goals, particularly from the sector that I had worked in previously, which was international development, because they were very anxious that if you diluted funds, which were designed for the world's poorest people under Millennium Development Goals, into wider goals concerning the environment, that poorer people would suffer as a consequence, and we had to work really hard together - civil society and government - to help get the buy-in for Sustainable Development Goals. I mean, when I say that now, you'd be astonished. I mean, it's received wisdom that SDGs are good for the planet, good for the people, especially good for the poorest people. But back then, that was difficult to achieve. But I thought it'd be a very good illustration for you of the importance of government working with civil society to achieve these things.

TL: Are you able to tell me one of the most inspiring charity or civil society initiatives you encountered in government?

CS: Oh, well, you know, there's so many, but I think the RSPB's work helping us with the creation essentially of the blue Marine Conservation Zones - where some of the most endangered bird species are - was a remarkable achievement.