Dame Margaret Hodge is a Labour MP, having served as MP for Barking since 1994. Between 1998 and 2010, she served as a minister in Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. She began as Junior Minister for Disabled People between 1998 and 2001. Following Labour’s re-election in 2001, she became Minister for Universities until 2003, when she became Minister for Children for two years. After Labour’s 2005 election victory, she served as Minister for Work for a year, followed by Minister for Industry and the Regions between 2006 and 2007. Between 2007 and 2008, during Gordon Brown’s premiership, she served as Minister for Culture and Tourism, before returning in the same role between 2009 and 2010.

Tim Lamden (TL): Margaret, you spent a decade as a minister in government between 1998 and 2010. Looking back on that time, do you feel civil society, from your experience, was treated as an equal to the state and to business? If not, why was this?

Margaret Hodge (MH)In all the jobs I did, I always talked to all my stakeholders, and if that included civil society stakeholders, I would talk to them. So, you know, in fact, my approach was always to meet all the stakeholders before I started thinking about anything, and if I was developing a policy, to engage with them, or to try and evolve that. So, it wasn't an 'equal' or 'non-equal' [situation]. I mean, they weren't part of the government machinery, so, inevitably, you work within that government machinery, but I like to think that we did - I did quite a lot of sort of social policy-type jobs - engage very actively with the NGO sector in all the jobs I did. Where can I give you examples? I mean, I did a sort of review of creative industries, so I talked to private sector individuals - the great and the good who were in that particular zone - and I would talk to NGOs all the time. And, actually, interestingly enough, we brought in for implementation, when I was doing the children's job - the Children's Minister job, and we were developing Sure Start and a youth offer, I can't remember what the youth offer was called, but we were doing a youth offer - I brought in two people from the voluntary sector to lead those programmes. So, one was Naomi Eisenstadt, she came in as a civil servant, and the other one was a woman, I can't remember her name now. But she came and gave evidence and I was so impressed by her evidence, I then got to know her and brought her in to do the youth offer. And then we got somebody from local government to do another part of it. So, we brought in three outsiders, because they had greater experience of implementation than we did.

But, and this is an interesting thing, under this government when I was doing the Public Accounts Committee job, which is slightly different, they went through this massive outsourcing of public services, you know - over 50% of public services outsourced - they killed a lot of the NGO sector. And I think, in particular, of the welfare-to-work privatisation, when there were a lot of voluntary organisations that were active in that field and had contracts with Jobcentres for delivering welfare-to-work advice. And the government - DWP was particularly awful in that regard - they annihilated all the voluntary sector capacity because they couldn't negotiate contracts with smaller organisations, they didn't have the capability for doing that. When we were in government, money was much more liberally available. So, we gave grants. When I was Children's Minister, we were giving massive grants. When I was Culture Minister, we were giving grants away. I did the disability portfolio at one point, and we sort of rewrote disability legislation, and I did that by engaging with a group of about 24 people, which included all the voluntary organisations that had specific interests around specific disabilities and a lot of the campaign groups around disability rights at the time. If you remember in 97/98, disability was a big issue. So, I think charities were treated as equal, but they weren't in the civil service. In the end, the civil servants wrote the report.

TL: During your time as a minister then, what was your overall experience of engaging with the sector? Do you feel that there was sufficient engagement? And was it constructive?

MH: I now work a lot with the NGO sector as well, in the work I'm doing on illicit wealth/dirty money, and I think my criticism is they are extremely slow. There's too much talking and not enough doing. I mean, that's the sort of very crude way of putting it. But, you know, the stuff I'm doing now, I couldn't do without the NGOs I'm working with, I just couldn't do it. So I really, really, really value their contribution. But, you don't have to talk about everything and all the ins and outs endlessly, you've just got to get on with it sometimes. There's slight frustration at the pace with which they are accustomed to working, it doesn't fit in with my pragmatism, perhaps.

TL: Sure, but as a minister, if you can think back, do you remember having that experience with the sector then as well?

MH: You know, I can't recall feeling that. I cannot recall feeling that. I mean, if you're a campaigning NGO and you come in to see a minister about your particular campaign, the degree to which one has empathy and connection with the campaign will influence you. I remember having a terrible time with Fathers 4 Justice, that's an NGO of sorts, I didn't have a good relationship with them. When I was dealing with them, some of the disability rights organisations were quite tricky to handle, because we were trying to get a more middle-of-the-road solution. But they play a useful role in that their demands force you to find a compromise along the road, to build a consensus. There's this issue that they work more slowly, but I think the good ones are very good, and the others need to up their game so they're completely focused on what they want out of the minister and know what they're coming in to do. They need to realise that there's an immediacy about action. It's a bit like academics, the same sort of thing – sometimes they do the blue sky thinking, they don't get on with the policy implementation.

TL: So, what was your assessment of the quality of evidence provided by the sector, when you were a minister, when it came to measuring their impact and making their case for support? You said there was more money available in those days. Did you feel charities and civil society organisations came with good evidence of their impact?

MH: Yes. But again, it's variable. I'm thinking of an organisation called Family Rights Group, who came in to talk a lot when we were reviewing the policy document 'Every child matters' - it was looking at how you respond to kids at risk and kids you bring into care - and they were very influential in how we developed that policy. And various adoption charities were very influential. I'm a pretty data-driven person, so it was important that they brought data that was credible. So, they vary, some have got it and others are more polemic than rational.

"Most public services are now delivered by third parties and there's an unequal distribution as to who does it. It's mainly done by private sector players, at the expense of the voluntary sector."

TL: We ran a two-year research project, which concluded earlier this year, called the Law Family Commission on Civil Society. We called strongly in that commission for more collaboration between the public, private and voluntary sectors in tackling the problems facing the country. I wanted to ask you what your experience was, as a minister, of successful collaborations between the three sectors? And how do you think we can foster more of them?

MH: I can see where that is coming from. Most public services are now delivered by third parties and there's an unequal distribution as to who does it. It's mainly done by private sector players, at the expense of the voluntary sector. If you look at the development world, I remember looking at that. Suddenly, PwC emerges as a player there, they know sweet FA about development, but they squeeze out a lot of the development NGOs that have experience on it, because they know how to bid and secure contracts. I've done quite a lot of thinking about how do you operate in a world where most of your services are delivered by a third party? And how do you give the NGOs a voice in that? And I think you've got to do it through decentralisation.

TL: You've said that decentralisation would help to foster more collaborations, what about your experience of collaborations? Can you think of any time business came together with government and a charity, or a third sector organisation, to find a solution to a problem?

MH: No. I can think of when businesses exploited charities. So, they'd subcontract to a charity and take off 10% or something, whatever their profit margin. And, actually, that meant the charity had less money to employ people on the frontline. I've got this experience that I told you about of businesses being much better at contracting. And also, contracting from government is so complex, you know, you've got to be big to be able to go through the complexity of the procurement system, when they don't fiddle it as they did with the PPE. You need to be large. So, if you're an SME, you can't do it, and if you're a charity, or you're a small organisation, on the whole, you can't do it. I mean, the big charities - again, thinking in the children's services areas; NSPCC, the big ones - the big players know how to do it. So, they're increasingly service providers and play in that space. But they're big and the real valuable contributors to quality of life and delivery of services tend to be at the local level.

I ought to be able to think of one example where I think they've all worked together well and it's really hard. Really hard. What I think you need is absolutely to design your contracting so that you bring in more organisations, and government hasn't done that. You need massive transparency, you need the contracts to be openly accessible. And I would say the NAO ought to be able to see that they provide value for money and you need proper accountability. When you're talking about private sector stuff, they all talk about commercial confidentiality, but this is taxpayers' money. So if they want contracts for public services, they should be willing to be FOI'd and they should be willing to be evaluated by the NAO as to both probity and value for money.

"...contracting from government is so complex, you know, you've got to be big to be able to go through the complexity of the procurement system...and if you're a charity, or you're a small organisation, on the whole, you can't do it...and the real valuable contributors to quality of life and delivery of services tend to be at the local level."

TL: Moving on to the next question, if you were advising a charity on how best to engage with and influence a government minister, what key advice would you give?

MH: Have something relevant to say. Make sure that you have got solid data to back up your asks, or your aspirations. I think APPGs have been abused, so I'm a bit reluctant to say overuse that, but that is a route in. They've become lobby, rather than a vehicle for developing shared interests and shared debate and concern. But you can use an APPG, or go via the PPS, if you need access. Just be determined and don't take no for an answer. Keep banging on until you get in there. But you've got to have something to say, and you've got to have good stuff to back it up. I suppose there are other vehicles, you know, ask them to speak at your fringe meetings at conference, get into them that way.

TL: Can you give one example then from your time in government that you feel best illustrates what can be achieved when policymakers and civil society work well together?

MH: I think all our early years/Sure Start, all that policy development. The early years, the Sure Start, the National Childcare Strategy was all developed in collaboration. And I still think it was a brilliant policy. But, actually, the other thing was disability, it was really interesting. That was my first ministerial portfolio and the disability lobby were absolutely furious with the Major government, there must have been benefit cuts or something like that. So we inherited a very angry and vocal and demanding disability lobby. We said we would review the disability discrimination legislation. So I ran a collaborative set-up, which I chaired, and we got all the stakeholders in. We must have had CBI and small business representatives there. I'm not sure we had any actual businesses. We had to move everybody from this sort of radical disability rights to something more collaborative. So I persuaded them, for example, about introducing a work programme for people with disabilities, so they weren't locked into benefits for all their life. That was quite difficult stuff at the time because everybody felt, if you had a disability, you had the right to an income. Whereas I said, "Actually, you've got the right to work." But that worked really rather well, that worked well. So, starting in a place where everybody was very angry, we built a complete consensus around what then was translated into the second disability rights bill. Tony Blair moved us every year, so by that time, I'd gone on to something else.

TL: But it was the insights of the particular disability groups that you benefited from, you think, during that process?

MH: Yeah, insights I benefited from it. Also, I needed them to consent to what we were doing. It was more than that. I wanted to bring them into what we were doing. The insights we probably got more in the developing of the Sure Start and children's centres programme.

TL: Can you remember what kind of organisations you were working with at that point?

MH: We worked with private nursery providers. Actually, that's a good example. So, there were private nursery providers in that mix. We worked with a whole bunch of voluntary organisations and we worked with academics. We worked with a bunch of people who were doing a thing called Early Excellence Centres. There were various really exemplar sort of precursors to Sure Start; a place called Pen Green, they were involved in it; we worked with the woman who became the Children's Commissioner, Anne Longfield. She ran a voluntary organisation at that point. The preschool play groups were in there. So, we had everybody, we had the social workers' representatives. We brought the whole lot together. It's a very powerful way of working, I've done it a lot in the work I do. I did it around creative industries, very similar. You just bring together the whole diverse bunch, and then try and build on everybody's strengths to build consensus, very important.

TL: You must be pretty upset to have seen the decline in Sure Start centres and children's centres in the last 10 years?

MH: One of the lessons I've learned is how ephemeral politics is. I used to go around the country saying, "This is a new frontier of the welfare state." But we didn't get it entirely right because if it was, they wouldn't have destroyed it.

TL: Can you think of an example, from your ministerial career, which exemplifies the challenges and obstacles that could get in the way of effective working between government and civil society?

MH: I'll tell you, a really interesting one was when I was doing the Arts Minister job, we were trying to write a green/white paper on the creative industries. You know, the creative industries were suddenly really important. So I did my usual going round all the stakeholders, picking up ideas, and that's the way I work. And then the ones that I thought were good, nicking their ideas in effect, and then putting them together into a paper. And I did that, and one of the people whom I talked to, we used his idea. And then he was absolutely livid when the paper was published, because he thought we had stolen his IP, it was quite interesting. He threatened to sue DCMS because we hadn't acknowledged that it was his idea, which I hadn't done because that's not how you write green or white papers. But I thought, "This is ridiculous." This was an NGO that thought we'd nicked their IP. We had, but I didn't think it was a bad thing, I thought that was a good thing.

TL: What do you think is the biggest strength that the voluntary sector brings to policymaking?

MH: Expertise, experience on the ground, embedded in their communities. It's a bottom-up voice, that's the sort of stuff.

"Expertise, experience on the ground, embedded in their communities. It's a bottom-up voice, that's the sort of stuff."

TL: Looking back then, how would you summarise the approach and attitude of Tony Blair's government towards civil society? Do you feel that the approach differed at all under Gordon Brown? And then the third part of that question is: how do you think governments that have followed the Labour governments have compared in their approach?

MH: I'm not conscious of it differing. But it may have done. I mean, I think Blair was very responsive to it. Gordon had to deal with a different set of issues, he was so dominated by the 2008 crash. That meant that the agenda was very different, whereas we were developing new ideas, like the early years policy or HE policy - not the most popular, or best bit of policymaking in the world, but we did it. And I think by the time you got to Gordon, we were beginning to cut and the financial crisis was dominating everything. I'm not conscious of a difference.

TL: How do you feel the governments since have compared in their approach?

MH: I think they're a complete disaster because I think they've completely destroyed it. Cuts in local government and all your non-statutory stuff goes, so the voluntary organisations have gone there. They prefer private sector. My most shocking example was PwC getting the money over, you know, Global Witness, or Save the Children, or whatever it is - complete bollocks, really. What do PwC know about delivering development programmes? These big, big contracts, even in the probation service, all that stuff, you know, you get new oligopolies that have emerged of players in the private sector that have destroyed the voluntary sector, where they've used the voluntary sector for funding. I had a terrible row in my own patch with the Tories, when they bought in a company called A4e - they got a whole slice of contracts for welfare-to-work. And I had two really good organisations [in my constituency], one a church-based organisation, another a disability rights organisation that was delivering welfare-to-work. A4e took the 10% off and when I said to them, "Well, what are you giving for that?" They said, "Oh, introductions to the local Tesco." You know, which is completely pathetic, it destroyed both those organisations - they moved out of the welfare-to-work space because they couldn't fund it anymore. I think it's been a nightmare.

And the other thing is that on the early years they have given a whole load of money to an organisation - I can't remember what it's called - £80 million has gone to this organisation set up by a Tory lord. So, they give money to their friends. It's sort of soft corruption. But this guy has got it because his view is that he thinks the only intervention you need to do in the early years is to stop people divorcing and separating. That's the sort of ideological take and so they've used an organisation that buys into ideology, which for me is abhorrent. It should be about keeping the child at the heart of what you do. So, even when they do use the voluntary sector - and I don't think we did this, I genuinely don't think we ever did this - they use voluntary organisations that buy into their anti-woke and very sort of socially conservative agenda.

TL: So, my final question is: over the course of your time in government, what was the most inspiring charity, or civil society initiative, you encountered? And why?

MH: I think the experiments that people were doing at grassroots level around early years. But it's a bit invidious. I mean, there's a whole load of stuff! I did a really good thing when I was Culture Minister, and we didn't have money, and I wanted to set up a bursary scheme for people who came out of colleges - music college, or fine arts, or theatre - so that kids from poorer families have that chance in that first and second year. Because we didn't have money, I did it with a charity, they did a fantastic job, and he writes to me every year and that's kept going. For me, I'm proud of that. It's a charitable organisation, we originally put in 50-50 and then, of course, under the Tories, they withdrew that. It was the Jerwood Trust. And they've kept it going and they do 40 kids a year now, kids that come from families where they had free school meals. There's lots of stuff, there was lots of innovative work. But I suppose my heart goes to the early years stuff, because that's what I really loved.

TL: Can you tell me a bit about those experiments you're talking about with early years? What kind of things are we talking about? What were those organisations doing?

MH: Instead of people working in silos - so you had care, education, health working in their silos - we were looking at ways in which we could build those services around the needs of the child, to put the child at the heart. It is really interesting work. For example, one of the things I discovered was that the term 'urgent' has a different meaning if you're a social worker, or if you're a health worker, or if you're an early years teacher. So trying to break down the barriers, even on language, is sometimes a challenge. And I think there were some really interesting experiments going on around that. I got to visit all these settings and see how kids learn to do play, with a real sort of laser concentration on supporting the development, the early skills that kids from particularly poor backgrounds very, very rarely have.

When I started going round, you'd go to day nurseries, everything was misspelt, because you had 16-year-olds, very low paid workers, so anything that was on the wall, there was always spelling mistakes. And then when I went to see some of these settings, I'll never forget walking into one in Coram's Fields, she was a really inspirational woman running that - they're just closing it now - and she just had the photos of each child up, each baby - these were six- and nine-month-old babies - with their name on top. It's just a clever little trick. So that kids start visualising letters and recognising them. Early, early, early intervention. This is where the link between the academics and the other public service players comes in. All the data shows that if you don't intervene early, you get a massive disparity. Kids who start off with good cognitive skills at 22 months, but come from a poor background, and kids who start off with poor cognitive skills, but come from a rich background, and the graph goes like that if you don't intervene.

Pic credit: Creative Commons License : https://members.parliament.uk/member/140/portrait