Sir Ben Bradshaw is a Labour MP, having served as MP for Exeter since 1997. Between 2001 and 2002, he served in Sir Tony Blair’s government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, before becoming Deputy Leader of the House of Commons between 2002 and 2003.  From 2003 to 2006, he served as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and then Minister of State for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare at Defra between 2006 and 2007. During Gordon Brown’s premiership, he served as Minister of State for Health Services at the Department of Health, as well as taking on the Minister for the South West portfolio over the same period, between 2007 and 2009. He then served as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport between 2009 and 2010.

Tim Lamden (TL): You spent nearly a decade working as a minister in government across various departments. During your time in government, what was your overall experience of engaging with the voluntary sector? And do you feel there was sufficient engagement? Do you feel it was constructive overall?

Ben Bradshaw (BB): Well, it obviously varied between departments. My interaction in Defra would have been quite wide-ranging with charities and campaigning organisations that were campaigning on issues that were relevant to the department. I would say that some of them were more effective than others and more professional than others.

Initially, there would often be a problem with multiple organisations trying to get access to ministers, or trying to influence policy, all of whom did a similar thing. If I give you an example: the multitude of green groups that would want to lobby me on the areas I had responsibility for. Animal welfare groups, similarly, but the green environmental groups [lobbied me], particularly around biodiversity and conservation. Initially, they weren't very good at working together and they didn't really understand that it would be much more effective for them if they formed something - which they then eventually did, the Green Alliance - to lobby as a joint organisation, rather than having lots of different organisations trying to lobby and, for argument's sake, a minister being able to play one off against the other, so they wouldn't achieve anything anyway. It would be far more effective for them to come together and give me their three or five main strategic asks. So, my experience, really, was that part of the relationship was trying to get them to be clearer and more strategic in what their asks were. Once we got to that position, I found the engagement very useful. It wasn't always what the officials in the department necessarily wanted or supported, but it was useful in that regard.

I think in 'health', it was slightly different because we were dealing generally with much bigger organisations and bodies, putting the medical health charities to one side, who would be campaigning on particular causes or issues, Alzheimer's, or cancer, or whatever. Some of the delivery organisations we were using, which were either charitable or social enterprises, would generally be big enough so that wasn't a problem, if they were delivering a service at a local level and bidding for it. At the time, we had a policy of using them, based on quality, when it was sensible to do so. I had local interactions in my constituency with charitable and third sector organisations delivering health and social care services, for example. My interactions were generally positive, I would say.

So that's 'health' and 'environment'. At 'culture', it was slightly different. I mean, I don't know how broadly you are defining charities and social enterprises in your work. But at 'culture', obviously, the Arts Council is taking most of those decisions, quite rightly, at arm's length level from ministers. So, the direct interaction and lobbying from groups would not have been so tense, it was more of a strategic direction that we would be setting. So, I mean, the relationship and the interaction varied, depending on which department I was in.

TL: You said that some charities were more professional than others. On that point, as a minister, what was your assessment of the quality of evidence provided by the sector, on the whole, when it came to measuring its impact and making its case for support?

BB: Variable. Some organisations didn't really understand the importance of evidence and data and making a case to a minister that he or she could get past the Treasury, as to what cost-benefit this would deliver over what period of time. I think that got better. I would hope it's better now. Sometimes the evidence wasn't there until they collected it. It's one of the reasons we piloted quite a lot of stuff. Sometimes you had to pilot stuff to get that evidence base. But with those who could make a really strong and convincing and substantiated case that by doing x, you would deliver such and such a benefit, and save the Treasury such and such, or save so many lives, or improve public health, or improve the cleanliness of our natural environment, they were obviously in a stronger position than those who were just calling for us to do something because they liked the idea.

TL: PBE recently carried out a two-year commission called the Law Family Commission on Civil Society. As part of that, we called strongly for more collaboration between the state, business and the voluntary sector in tackling the problems facing our country. What was your experience as a minister of successful collaborations between the three sectors? And how can we foster more do you think?

BB: Well, I mean, on policy in Defra, I can think of the marine environment, for example. There are two main policy areas that come to mind for me, which are the cod recovery plan in the North Sea and the campaign against the resumption of commercial whaling. On both issues, the then Labour government worked very closely with WWF, high reputation and global environmental charities on the global stage. So, that was an area where, because we shared a common policy objective, we could be pretty effective in negotiating agreements, either in the International Whaling Council (IWC) or in Europe, which is where fishing quotas are agreed. So those were kind of simple areas where we were able to achieve an objective and corral other governments, with the help of organisations that operated in those other countries, into a better place.

I think on health, it was much more around, what could this organisation do to deliver a service more efficiently, or in a more patient-centred way, or of a better quality? Or to help provide extra capacity? A classic example I can think of would be the independent sector treatment centres, which we commissioned to get waiting lists down in the first few years of the Labour government. So, those are some examples of positive collaboration, either to achieve a policy objective, domestically and internationally, or to deliver a better service more efficiently.

TL: If you were advising a charity now on how to best engage with and influence a government minister, what key advice would you give?

BB: Offer a policy solution, because the first question they're going to get back is, 'Well, what's your solution to this problem?' Rather than simply raise a problem, identify a problem that the government has and offer a solution.

Obviously, if it's a raw campaigning, broad campaign they want to embark on in order to influence ministers, it's all the classic campaigning techniques. It's about getting media buy-in, MP buy-in, public interest and members of the public contacting their MPs. I mean, you might not get access at all if what you're asking for is ridiculous, or, as I said earlier, if you're one of a number of organisations working in a similar field who are failing to club together and struggling to make your ask more strategic. The first thing I would do is say to an organisation, 'Are there other people doing what you're doing? Rather than you just trying to do this, get together and do it collectively.'

I would recommend getting a sympathetic MP to try to get that access for you if you fail to get it directly yourself. And, you know, a sensible MP would say, 'Well, I think that is something that we should get before a minister,' or they would say, 'This isn't worth bothering a minister with.' So, I think that can often act as quite a useful filter. You can get them to raise it in the House, you can get backbench MPs to ask for a meeting, all of those kinds of things - if a department, or a minister, is being unreasonable in refusing to respond to a request - I would recommend that charities do. But again, it depends what the objective is, whether it's about offering a solution, either as a delivery partner or if it's just an idea, or campaigning to pressure the government to change policy on something.

TL: You've touched on a couple of examples already. But I wonder if you can give me another example, from your time in government, that best illustrates what can be achieved when policymakers and civil society work well together?

BB: Well, I wasn't so closely involved in the first Climate Change Act, but I think that was probably a good example. But for me personally, the Animal Welfare Act, which I took through and, at the time, was globally groundbreaking in terms of what it did. If you know anything about animal welfare - A) the level of public interest in it, and B) the number of charities and organisations involved – [you know] the charities could have made that task very difficult by trying to individually have their little pet issues that they wanted to push further in that bill, at the expense of others.

But, actually, I think, because of the bill's scope and because it did so many things, they were very helpful and disciplined, both in blunting Conservative criticisms that it was too draconian, but also in themselves destabilising the process by being maximalist in some of their demands. I don't know if you remember the debates we had around docking dogs' tails and exemptions and all of those things which could have led to the unravelling of the overall bill, but didn't. That was pretty, at the time, historic and groundbreaking and was widely welcomed by the whole of the animal welfare/animal charity world. 

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

BB: I think it may be invidious to name names, but some of the more extreme animal rights and animal welfare charities that would campaign for a blanket ban on animal testing. I don't know if you remember, but there were quite a few attacks on scientists during that period when this was a hot topic. I think both their methods of campaigning, but also their absolutist demands and their refusal to base their arguments and demands on reason and evidence, probably damaged their cause, I think, for a generation.

I'm trying to think of any others, apart from Prince Charles. There was a campaign - without mentioning the names of its high-profile supporters - that wanted hard-pressed taxpayers' money that was earmarked for the NHS to be spent on homoeopathic treatments for which, as I'm sure you're aware, there's absolutely no scientific basis to support them at all. It's quite easy to bat away organisations that are not providing any evidence for their suggestions, to be honest.

TL: You're saying there is a certain element of the sector that can be more challenging to engage with, rather than it being a sector-wide issue?

BB: I was a trustee of the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) and I always found that, certainly as far as they were concerned, that when they were lobbying government, their evidence base was very strong. And I think most reputable charities, particularly those that help deliver services - as THT does, for example, with sexual health services up and down the country - understand that in order to get those contracts, which help them do the other stuff, including their campaigning stuff, they need to have very good evidence and ways of measuring outcomes.

I was not a trustee when we were in government, but certainly when we were no longer in government and you had a Tory government, which you might have thought would not be as ideologically well-disposed to what the THT was trying to achieve, the charity still managed to get some real wins around eradicating HIV, and PrEP, and so forth. It was about making a case and coming up with a solution that would help either the government deliver something it wanted to deliver, or help the government save money so it could reallocate resources to one of its other priorities, and by reducing HIV infection that's an absolutely classic example of how you do that.

TL: So, penultimate question. Looking back on New Labour in power, how would you summarise the approach and attitude of Tony Blair's government towards civil society? And did it differ at all under Gordon Brown? And then the third part of that question is: how do you think governments that followed compare in their approach to the sector?

BB: Oh, in terms of overall approach and strategy, I'm not sure there was any difference between Gordon and Tony. I think there may have been a difference in the language and a difference of emphasis, but I remember at the time, either Gordon himself, or people around him, or commentators, suggesting that he would not be as keen on, you know, using the non-NHS sector for delivery of health and social care services, for example. Actually, in practice, it didn't change when he was in government.

I think since then, ideologically, the Conservatives and the coalition have done even more of that. But I think the reality has sunk in that the internal market within the NHS, for example, has kind of passed its sell-by date. So, we're going back to vertical integration. But that doesn't mean to say that services are not being commissioned from the voluntary and charitable sector. I think we've still got a kind of 'what works' approach, rather than an ideological one. I haven't been close to health policy since I left the Health Select Committee, which was quite a long time ago, 10 years ago now, so I'm not sure how it's developed since then. There might have been a difference in perception between Tony and Gordon, but there was not a difference in reality.

TL: Do you think there was greater commitment to the sector under Labour, though, than there has been since Labour left power?

BB: I don't know. Do you mean in terms of partners for government and service delivery?

TL: Yeah. I mean, ethos and partnership and collaboration.

BB: Well, I think certainly on the environment [there was more commitment to charities under Labour], because I think the environmental charity and campaigning organisations' policy goals and priorities were much better aligned with the Labour government than they are particularly with the current Conservative government.

On the health and social care sector, I'm not sure. I don't know and I'm not well-informed enough to know whether the current government is using the private sector now more than the charity or the social enterprise sector. Although I would say that the overall cuts in spending have impacted significantly [on charity services] at local level. My local Age Concern services that were commissioned publicly have closed. Mental health charities that were delivering services, including Mind, have stopped operating.

So, I think you'd have to talk to somebody in the sector as to whether this has been a result of deliberate policy decision, or whether it was just the fact that there's no money and government has significantly cut money, both to local authorities and to public health to provide these services. I don't know whether it's been a result of an ideological decision or just austerity, basically. 

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

BB: Well, I think it would have to be Stonewall, because when I was first elected in '97, I was hopeful that the Labour government would do quite a lot on LGBT human rights and equality. But what we did basically massively exceeded my hopes and expectations. I think Stonewall's effective, reasoned, and evidence-based campaigning was absolutely irreplaceable in achieving those goals. So, although more recently they've been the subject of this kind of pretty orchestrated and concerted campaign against them, certainly when we were in government, they were a valuable and vital partner in that equality agenda and legacy.