Lord Peter Hain is a Labour peer, having served as MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015. Between 1997 and 2002, he served in Sir Tony Blair’s government as a junior minister in the Wales Office, Foreign Office and Department of Trade and Industry. He was promoted to the Cabinet as Welsh Secretary in 2002 and served concurrently as Leader of the House of Commons from 2003 to 2005 and Northern Ireland Secretary from 2005 to 2007. From 2007 to 2008, he was Work and Pensions Secretary, while remaining Welsh Secretary, before resigning from both roles in 2008. He later returned to the Cabinet from 2009 to 2010 as Welsh Secretary.

Tim Lamden (TL): You spent over a decade as a minister in government across several major departments. Looking back over that period, do you feel civil society was treated as an equal, when it came to policymaking, with the state and business? And if not, why do you think this was?

Peter Hain (PH): Generally speaking, no, it wasn't treated as an equal. I think we as a Labour government were more open to civil society, the charitable sector, NGOs generally, and protest groups, than were our predecessors, or our successors, because many of us - I'm, perhaps, the most unusual example - had come from those areas, into 'big P' politics. In my case, I'd been a protester, a quite militant anti-apartheid protester, involved in the Anti-Nazi League, confronting fascists and racists. Those were my main NGO activities, but I had a wider experience with the protest sector, the NGO sector, and that was really my life until I became an MP. And I worked for 14 years in the trade union movement - first of all, the Post Office Workers Union, which then morphed into the Communication Workers Union - as a researcher. So, I viewed government from outside and then found myself inside. But whatever ministers' personal preferences were, I don't think that the policymaking machine in government, or the structure of the state, including under us - and we were more open to the third sector, as I indicated - really understood, or had much time for, outside groups on the whole.

TL: Why do you think that was?

PH: Well, in some cases, these groups were criticising government policy, and ministers and civil servants are notoriously thin-skinned when that happens. Whereas I always saw it as the job of the third sector, in generic terms, to do that, just as it was our job as ministers and government, and the Civil Service, to govern. And those are two different functions. But I do think they can mesh together very, very successfully, if they understand each other properly and there are proper relationships. So, I sought always to build those relationships with the groups that were operating at the time I held various ministerial posts, whether outside the Cabinet or inside the Cabinet. And I can give concrete examples of that later, but I think there's generally a suspicion of outside groups, depending on who they are. The more critical they are, the more suspicion there is and, really, hostility in some cases. The more consensual they are, most of the charities for example, they often are taken seriously and have a kind of inside track into the Civil Service. But they aren't always the most influential in the third sector, sometimes the ones making the most noise are the most influential.

TL: Do you think the door was more open to the business world?

PH: I think, generally speaking, government is more open to the business world. The CBI, for example, had a preeminent position as a non-governmental organisation, compared with even the TUC, even though pretty well every member of the Cabinet, if not every member of the Labour Cabinet, was a trade union member, myself included. But the business sector carries more weight in the media, in the establishment, in the British state, and in the whole culture, than the TUC does, and also the charity sector.

TL: ESG is a central expectation and measure of businesses in the UK and around the world now. Stretching your mind back to 2001, you had a short stint in the now defunct Department of Trade and Industry. Do you remember, during that time, there being an appetite among business for collaboration with civil society?

PH: I think it was limited. Some were better than others. But there's a very good example, which doesn't really bear directly on your question but is related, of an area that I was specifically tasked by Tony Blair to try and resolve if possible, which was the compensation, that we'd statutorily legislated for, for sick miners suffering from pneumoconioses and vibration white finger. We'd set up this multi-billion pound fund to pay out this compensation and there had been court action against government to help secure that, and yet we were we were in a position, I found, where we had already given out a lot of money - I forget whether it was £2 billion or £3bn - but it was in that territory, there was a lot of money. Some of the sickest miners, who could hardly breathe, were getting, you know, over £100,000, most were getting less than that. So, this was big, big bucks for a very vulnerable section of the community. And yet, we were getting no credit for it.

And so I sort of embarked upon a campaign, which deliberately built strong links within the regions, particularly the coal mining regions of the UK, with the miners’ union, the pressure groups around pressing for proper consultation, and the media in the areas, and we turned the whole thing around in the six months I was there. I'm not trying to be immodest, I'm simply saying, it's a matter of fact that we did turn it around. But I think it took all my experience of working with protest groups, and NGOs hostile to government, to achieve that. So that was within the Department of Trade and Industry. But, generally speaking, did I sense an appetite amongst business, or indeed the department itself, for collaboration? No, I didn't.

"A lot of the ministers, in my judgement, in my experience and my assessment of colleagues, were run by the departments, rather than the other way around. And I took the view that if you aren't a minister running things and in charge - not in some ego sense, but in order to get things done - what the hell are you there for?"

TL: Overall, during your time as a minister, which I think stretched for 13 years, what was your experience of engaging with the voluntary sector? Do you feel you had sufficient engagement as a minister? And was it constructive overall?

PH: Yeah, personally, partly because of my background, I gave a special priority [to the sector] - and made sure my private secretary, the civil servants with whom I was working, and the departments that I worked in as a whole, understood I was somebody who wanted to engage, I was a minister who was open to engagement. And however critical they might have been of government policy, I was, you know, somebody who had an open door. So, I think it was very constructive. And I think if you talk to those groups, I'd be surprised if they didn't think so as well. Across the sector, it depends who the ministers were. A lot of the ministers, in my judgement, in my experience and my assessment of colleagues, were run by the departments, rather than the other way around. And I took the view that if you aren't a minister running things and in charge - not in some ego sense, but in order to get things done - what the hell are you there for? If you're not going to make a difference as a minister, what are you there for? And so I think that some ministers were good at engaging with civil society, others were just basically run by their officials, whose general default position was not to engage, either because there wasn't time and there were other things to do, or because there was a suspicion of them in the way that I described earlier.

TL: That's really interesting. You spent a huge amount of your ministerial career at the Wales Office, as well as being Neath MP, and you played a huge part in devolution. You also did two years as Northern Ireland Secretary. Did you find discernible differences between the role of the voluntary sector in policymaking in those devolved nations and the role it played in UK government policymaking?

PH: Absolutely in Wales, where there was an open-door policy towards the voluntary sector and towards civil society in general, a collaborative one, including the trade unions, which wasn't the case in England, and in Whitehall, to anything like the same extent. So, Wales was being very different and partly it was because it was a new institution, a new form of Welsh government, a new parliament. And because a lot of the early ministers in Wales, from 1999 onwards, as well as the members of the then Assembly, now Senedd, came from the voluntary sector, or the trade union movement, or, generally speaking, from civil society groups. They'd worked in them, they'd lobbied government. So, you know, they were people who had come from the sector as I had and, therefore, they had a default position - and their civil servants did as well - which was much more open.

Northern Ireland, I'll come back to because that was a particular situation, which is unique for all the obvious reasons. I do, nevertheless, remember prior to devolution, when I was Welsh Minister, my first job for two years, and the main responsibility was to win a referendum and to establish the Welsh Assembly. When Tony Blair appointed me, he said, "I want you to lead the campaign to win the referendum," which is a pretty tough task, and we only won it narrowly. Prior to devolution, there was a secretary of state and two supporting ministers, of whom I was one. So, we covered a lot of departments. After devolution, there were ministers for business, for education, for transport, and so on. A lot more ministers. But I covered a range of briefs, and one of them was education, and I remember a particular experience, which I think might be a helpful illustration.

When I was Education Minister, I remember I was due to visit a further education college. Actually, it was in my constituency, as it happens. A couple of days before, my private secretary came in looking white, you know, with sort of nerves, saying "The police have told us there's going to be a demonstration by the lecturers at the college. And, you know, we're very worried about this. They're going to picket you and we should call off the visit." And I said, "No way, I'm not calling off the visit." So, she went away, as it were, rebuffed. I don't mean in a hard way. But her recommendation to call it off hadn't been accepted by the minister.

Then she came back a while later to say, "Well, okay then, if we're going to drive you in, in the ministerial car, we're going to go really fast past the picket and go straight in so that there's no way of your visit being obstructed, or a confrontation arising." And I said, "No, we're not going to do that. When we drive in, we're going to drive in as normal. And when we pass the picket, I'm going to stop and get out and talk to them." And she was incredibly nervous about it and, you know, very unhappy. And there was quite a lot of pressure on me to change my stance, but that's what I did. And I got out, you know, as the pickets were shouting and screaming as the car was recognised heading towards them. It was a kind of relatively long, little side road in. And there were chants going on, and everybody was kind of building up to the moment of confrontation, and when I stopped the car and got out, the whole thing just deflated. People were so sort of surprised that, suddenly, the minister they were confronting was among them. And, you know, it actually was a very positive engagement.

One of the things that came out of it was I understood more - more than I had before - that actually college lecturers' pay in the FE sector had fallen behind schoolteachers. And so, I was able to do something in the subsequent budget. So that's a small example of my approach, but a positive one, I think, to show the benefits of not getting into a confrontation, unless the protesters are absolutely determined to smash your car!

"In Wales, there was an open-door policy towards the voluntary sector and towards civil society in general, a collaborative one, including the trade unions, which wasn't the case in England, and in Whitehall, to anything like the same extent."

TL: Do you think that charities, community organisations, civil society as a whole - if they want to engage successfully with government - would be well-advised to try not to be confrontational?

PH: No, I think there's a case for confrontation. And that was an example. I think civil society needs to make its voice heard. And sometimes the only way you can do it is by creating a noise and organising a demonstration to get people to take notice. Because you can write all the letters you like to ministers, and you'll get polite responses drafted by their civil servants. But you're not getting anywhere. So, if the door is open, and you're able to walk through it, then I think it's counterproductive to be confrontational, because you create a bad relationship. But if you find that the door is closed, or nobody's listening, whatever they say, or they're kind of tut-tutting, then, you know, I'm for upping the ante, wearing a civil society hat.

Wearing a minister's hat, I then have to manage that situation. But wearing a civil society hat, no, I think that there's a time for confrontation, there's a time for noise. And if you get the opportunity to have a constructive engagement, then, you know, drop those tactics and engage constructively. Unless you are seen as a force to be taken note of, and a force that can create difficulty for government - either by the quality of your arguments and your access to the public and the media, or by, you know, doing what Extinction Rebellion does, or Greenpeace has done from time to time - I think you have the right to do those things. I think there's a spectrum of influence and lobbying, which has got militant protests at one end of the spectrum, and quiet discussion and engagement, and meetings, and letters and briefings, and all that, at the other. And it depends where you are as a group in that spectrum, in your relationship to government, as to the tactics you adopt. 

TL: You were going to move on to Northern Ireland... 

PH: Yeah, that was different simply because of the peace process. I mean, I was there 2005 to 2007, and I was responsible for negotiating, under Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell, his Chief of Staff, the peace settlement that brought Ian Paisley Sr and Martin McGuinness - bitter blood enemies who had never exchanged any words before, let alone negotiated themselves directly - to share power. And that lasted, although Paisley moved on and has since died, 10 years. And that was immensely, immensely rewarding, but also incredibly time-consuming and energy-consuming being able to do that. So, the engagement with the political parties was pretty unique. I had a Political Director. Well, there isn't a Political Director anywhere else, except the Foreign Office, in the Civil Service. And the job of the Political Director in the Northern Ireland Office was to engage politically with the parties, not, you know, to have a partisan position, you needed to be an honest broker. And in parenthesis, one of the problems we've faced since 2010 is that successive governments since then have not been seen as honest brokers, they have been seen as partisan.

But let's return to your focus. There was a level of engagement with the parties, who were, in a sense, part of the third sector, though they were politically-elected political parties, but they were not in a functioning parliament, or a functioning government. So, they were outside. And that level of engagement was critical in building up to the position where they could trust me to pass messages on to each other - the two bitter old enemies in the case of the DUP and Sinn Fein - because they were not talking directly to each other. So they had to trust me, and the Prime Minister and Jonathan Powell, to pass on messages to each other. You know, classically, Paisley said, "If Sinn Fein sign up to support rule of law, justice and policing [which they'd never done before] then I'll share power with them." Sinn Fein said if they did that, which was their last card to play, having ended what they called ‘their war’ against the British in 2005, and disarmed and stood down their paramilitaries, their last, really big card, which I totally understood, was to sign up to support policing, which was a huge step for them to take, given their whole history has been one of confrontation with the police and the army and other agencies of the British state. So, there was a lot of that kind of work.

And there was also engagement with the voluntary sector around it. The Orange Order, the different victims' groups, various other groups. When I was Northern Ireland Secretary, I was effectively the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, so I was running everything, from agriculture, to energy, to business, to transport, to health, to education, the whole lot. I mean, a substantial amount of devolution. So, you were in charge of this vast machine mirroring, pretty well, every Whitehall department. So, there was a lot of engagement with the third sector in Northern Ireland, alongside the political parties.

"I think civil society needs to make its voice heard. And sometimes the only way you can do it is by creating a noise and organising a demonstration to get people to take notice. Because you can write all the letters you like to ministers, and you'll get polite responses drafted by their civil servants. But you're not getting anywhere."

TL: As well as experience across the devolved nations, you also have quite significant experience internationally. I know you did a bit of time in the Foreign Office, but I'm sure most of your experience has come from your background in South Africa and your involvement with international organisations over many years. I wanted to know how you felt the UK compared internationally when it comes to the importance placed on the role of civil society in good government and policymaking?

PH: Generally speaking, quite well. My impression was that the Scandinavian countries were better at engaging with their third sectors. Many of the European Union countries were not as open as we were, as a Labour government. In the United States, pressure groups do play a role there, but the United States system of government is rather different. So, I mean, I think that's a whole different subject. But, generally speaking, I think we had a relatively positive relationship, compared with other governments, and in the Foreign Office, there was a relationship with a number of internationally-focused NGOs, such as RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute. I remember, we had a very good relationship with the World Wide Fund for Nature and with Global Witness, which resulted in an international treaty.

In my first two years in the Foreign Office, because I was Minister of State, covering Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the United Nations and the Commonwealth and other things, the best example of policymakers and civil society working well together was in the so-called 'blood diamonds treaty', which I was, really, responsible for initiating. And we worked very closely with a number of civil society organisations, the main one being Global Witness. This arose from the fact that there was the legal trade in diamonds and then there was the, what I call, 'blood diamonds'. I think I was the first to use that phrase in 1999/2000. These were eluvial diamonds scraped off the bottom of rivers, in conflict zones, like Angola, Sierra Leone, and Democratic Republic of Congo principally, and then they were controlled by terrorist groups. And they handed these over in return for guns, people that I call "merchants of death", and I named some of these people, from intelligence, in Parliament - the first time a minister had ever done that kind of thing - in early 2000, and built up a campaign to ensure that what I call blood diamonds, from these conflict areas, were filtered out and stopped from entering the legitimate trade, and appearing on wedding rings, and so forth.

We did a lot of campaigning and persuading of the World Diamond Council, which was deeply hostile, and the diamond industry, as well as the governments, including the one that I was close to in South Africa, and other southern African countries, which were big in diamonds - Namibia and Botswana being the main ones - and persuaded them all to actually back an international treaty. And we got a United Nations treaty negotiated in the end. And that was a very good example of - sounds like I'm banging my own drum - an initiative from a minister. Because I'd seen this intelligence of these arms merchants flying in - going off the radar, turning off the aircraft transponders - and landing at airstrips in Angola, for example, and taking on diamonds and giving over pretty heavy munitions. And as a result of which I named these guys and put some of them in prison. But we then wanted to work up to sort of stop this happening. And we were very largely successful. Global Witness was the main NGO involved, but there were others as well.

TL: Less positively, can you think of an example from your career which exemplifies the challenges and obstacles that get in the way of effective working between policymakers and civil society?

PH: When I was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, there had been a big campaign. I was in the job between 2007 and 2008, relatively briefly. But when I came in, there was a huge campaign building up from various pensions lobbyist groups, particularly from their most effective advocate, Ros Altmann, who is now actually a peer, and was briefly a Conservative Minister for Pensions. I don't think she's really a Conservative, but that's another story! But anyway, she was a very effective advocate for the cause of those people whose companies had gone bust - and there were about 140,000 of them - and taken their pension funds down with them. And there was the Pension Protection Fund. But that was not capable. It was not designed to deal with this. There was no public provision for financial assistance in any way for that situation.

And there were a lot of workers who were, you know, understandably lobbying hard, because I'd met some of them and I engaged a lot with them. I found that there was a tremendous hostility from all of them, including the Transport and General Workers' Union - it might have been the Unite union by then, I'm not sure - which was actually picketing me when I visited Hemel Hempstead. I remember going somewhere in Hertfordshire, where there was a Labour/Conservative marginal seat, and the Conservative candidate, who subsequently won the seat, was actually on the transport and workers' picket line picketing me. And I was actually on their side after looking at the case.

Gordon Brown as Chancellor, and then as Prime Minister, who had appointed me as DWP Secretary, was deeply hostile to doing anything, because he took the view that if you started bailing out pension funds, then companies might all, you know, do this kind of thing and rely on taxpayers to pick up the tab. So, he had a case, but, you know, when I looked at the figures, these were liabilities spread over 50 years. And there was a tremendous injustice, people who had worked for 30 years, bought a house in Spain, I remember a couple of people like this. They had planned their retirement on the basis of what were good pensions in industry at that stage - they were final salary pensions, which subsequently disappeared, of course - then just weeks before retirement, suddenly, their whole life just imploded.

Anyway, I kept trying to persuade the Prime Minister inside and the noise of the outside campaign was getting more and more vigorous and militant. And we were in a very bad place. The Prime Minister, in particular, was in a very bad place. And I had some pretty fierce exchanges with him. And I remember Gus [O'Donnell] was actually the Cabinet Secretary at the time and, at one point, he spoke to me and said, "The Prime Minister wants to see you and he's very angry." This was just before a Cabinet meeting. So I was hauled in and hauled over the coals and threatened with the sack and the rest of it. But anyway, I stood my ground, and, eventually, he was persuaded, but that's a different story. So that was an example of huge obstacles in the way of those lobbying for justice for the pensioners, which created a tremendous friction within government, including my civil servants thinking that I was going be sacked, although I eventually persuaded the Prime Minister. So that's an example which turned out positively in the end, but for years was very negative.

"And I remember Gus [O'Donnell] was actually the Cabinet Secretary at the time and, at one point, he spoke to me and said, "The Prime Minister wants to see you and he's very angry." This was just before a Cabinet meeting. So I was hauled in and hauled over the coals and threatened with the sack and the rest of it."

TL: How would you summarise the approach and attitude of Tony Blair's government towards civil society? I've said Tony Blair's government because that was the government that you were in for the majority of your career. And how do you think the governments that have followed Blair's government have compared specifically in their approach to civil society?

PH: I think we had, generally, an open door towards civil society and worked with many groups before we got into power, and there was a lot of goodwill towards us. That soured in the case of trade unionists - the trade union movement in particular - when it came to Tony Blair and New Labour. The TUC General Secretary referred to the government's stance as treating trade unionists like "elderly embarrassing relatives". John Monks had a nice turn of phrase to that effect. So, I think the relationship soured and damaged us as a government, particularly since the unions are affiliated to the party. Generally speaking, I think it was a generally open-door stance with, you know, the qualifications that I've mentioned already.

What has happened since, you've had 13 years of austerity, completely unnecessary, in my view. A Keynesian economic agenda should have been pursued, as we'd started to do after the banking crisis. So that soured the relationship for a start. I mean, when you've got an NGO sector, and a voluntary sector, that was absolutely hammered as a result of austerity. I noticed this as an MP, just wholesale closures of voluntary sector groups that had been funded and built up their role over our period in government, just destroyed. So, I think austerity was the main reason why that relationship soured. And, generally speaking, I don't think that Conservative ministers had the same relationship with the NGO sector, despite, you know, notwithstanding austerity, which is the elephant in the room. Because most of them had come from the business sector, if not all of them. And so they, generally speaking, didn't really understand the NGO sector in the way that, you know, I certainly did, and a lot of Labour ministers did.

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

PH: I think working with groups to try and police the arms exports - licences that we'd introduced as a government to try and stop the abuses of selling British arms to governments who oppress their own populations, or are engaging in aggression externally. That was very positive. In DWP, working with Gingerbread, which represented lone parents at the time, and the Child Poverty Action Group was actually very positive. We were trying to reform and incentivise lone parents to get into work, but to support their childcare needs as well. And I think that was very, on the whole, positive, although there was tension there because, you know, a lot of people didn't want reforms, and we wanted them, on the basis that it's better if people work. They're healthier, the record shows, and they become much more fulfilled individuals, generally speaking - unless you're in terrible jobs. And so getting people into work was very much the priority, whether lone parents, or others who were disabled. I remember meeting with a blind person who had been given a job opportunity and training that had changed her life. And she had actually been blinded by an industrial injury at work. And there were groups, like the different disability NGO groups, who were obviously promoting their cause, but also very concerned that the opportunities we gave did not become oppressive. So, some of that was pretty inspiring, sometimes difficult, but pretty inspiring, as well as the Global Witness one.

"Most of the time, I think, where hostility builds up, that can be overcome by building relationships. In the end, government is about personal relationships, both inside the system and externally. And you neglect that at your peril, including establishing personal relationships with the charitable sector and civil society."

TL: I guess without those groups, people like the lady you just mentioned don't have a voice.

PH: Well, exactly, which is why, I think, the sector is so critically important. And why everybody in government - whether you're privileged to be a minister, as I was, or whether you are a civil servant - should, you know, be in listening mode and 'door open' mode. And most of the time, I think, where hostility builds up, that can be overcome by building relationships. In the end, government is about personal relationships, both inside the system and externally. And you neglect that at your peril, including establishing personal relationships with the charitable sector and civil society.