A good choice, but is she overloaded?

Tracey Crouch has been appointed charities minister while retaining the brief for sports. Stephen Cook profiles her and finds out if charities in her constituency think she is a good appointment

Tracey Crouch
Tracey Crouch

The appointment of Tracey Crouch as the new Minister for Civil Society did not run smoothly. Five days after the election, she tweeted that she had been reappointed as sports minister, and social media speculation began next morning that John Glen MP, a fresh arrival at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (as it has since been renamed), would therefore take the charities brief.

This was not denied by the department, and sector bodies cranked out a ritual welcome to the new man. In the afternoon, however, it seems that a conclave of ministers at the DCMS decided that Crouch's previous responsibility for tourism and heritage would go naturally with the arts in Glen's portfolio, and civil society would come to her as well as sport.

In the evening Crouch rang sector leaders with the news, which circulated on social media. Next morning a tweet from Third Sector describing the failure of the DCMS to confirm Crouch's appointment as an "omnishambles" produced a dry response from Crouch, who said the word should be "congratulations". Soon afterwards came the official announcement and a fresh set of welcomes.

This messy sequence of events was perhaps symptomatic of the government's disarray after losing its parliamentary majority and being hit by the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath. Steve Reed, shadow minister for the sector, says the government is not giving the portfolio the priority it deserves.

"There is an ongoing sense that they don't quite know what to do with it and have filed it under miscellaneous," he says. "They persist in undervaluing a sector that could have contributed much to righting the wrongs that led to the loss of their majority. It should be at the centre of government rather than parked in a lay-by somewhere."

But the outcome could have been a lot worse for the sector. Crouch declined to be interviewed, but people who have worked with her mostly think she is a good choice. She has a creditable record as sports minister, particularly on improving governance and women's participation in sport, and is well thought of by many voluntary organisations in her Kent constituency of Chatham and Aylesford (see overleaf). In an earlier job as a political lobbyist, she worked with a range of charities.

But there is also widespread concern that lumping the brief in with sport signals a further downgrading of the Office for Civil Society, which was transferred after the 2015 general election from the more powerful Cabinet Office to the DCMS. Many doubt she will have the time to do it justice and fear that the government's commitment to the sector continues to weaken.

Crouch became sports minister in 2015 and, soon afterwards, published a policy document emphasising, among other things, better governance and gender equality. Iain Lindsey, a lecturer in sports policy at Durham University, says it had more support than usual from other government departments and was well received.

"It was the first for about 20 years and there was quite a big fanfare," he says. "Whether it will achieve the required scale of change is doubtful, however. She is relatively inexperienced, but there have been worse sports ministers. Some have been quite divisive, but she is a conciliatory and open person.

"Sport and civil society are very diverse, so there is overlap in that sense. A growing part of sport is using it to effect social change, and she's very engaged with that. But it comes down to having the clout, the budget and the status in government to get things done, and that may well apply to the new role too."

Before becoming a minister Crouch was a trustee of Women in Sport when it was led by Sue Tibballs, now chief executive of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation and a Third Sector columnist. Tibballs says Crouch is open, down-to-earth and easy to get on with: "That's refreshing compared with many MPs, and I'm delighted that she's been appointed. She's driven by her values and is very pragmatic. I hope this will mean a more constructive partnership with the sector after a bit of a wobble in the past few years. The voluntary sector is much bigger than sport and could teach it a lot about governance and behavioural change, and charities have been a big driver in increasing physical activity through fun runs and the like."

Sir John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, says Crouch's past exposure to charities means she knows the issues they face and the contribution they make. But she will be juggling two portfolios with little overlap, he adds: "It is vital a sector that contributes so much to society does not have its profile across government diluted."

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, says he is anxious about the width of Crouch's portfolio, but reassured by her: "You hear everywhere that she's very popular, very forthcoming and engaged. I think she will take a more informal approach and be very good on volunteering because of her commitment to sport and her experience as a football coach for girls. Youth social action also fits with that."

But Etherington also points out that the experienced civil servant in charge of the OCS, Mark Fisher, has just been transferred to the secretariat of the Grenfell fire inquiry, and that Charlotte Lawson, the Prime Minister's special adviser on the voluntary sector, has not been re-appointed after the election.

"This was a great loss, and there's concern that Number 10's interest is waning a bit, which is problematic for us," says Etherington. "But of course this is not something that affects just the voluntary sector: there are many sectors that can't find any leverage with the government at the moment because of Brexit."

For that reason Etherington speculates that there will not be much government activity on the voluntary sector before the next election other than matters currently in hand (see "What's in the minister's in-tray?"). The sector could use the time, he says, to reflect, regroup and consider what it might want to see in party manifestos for the next election.

THE VIEW FROM HER CONSTITUENCY

Chatham and Aylesford stretches from some of the country's most deprived urban wards in the north of the constituency to pleasant Kent villages in the south. It was held by Labour from its creation in 1997 until 2010, when Tracey Crouch won it for the Conservatives. She has a good reputation with many local voluntary organisations: some say she is more approachable and responsive than the Conservative-controlled Medway Council, which recently reduced the discretionary 20 per cent business rate relief for charities.

people talkingJohn Norley (inset), chief executive of Medway Age UK, is not keen on the role being combined

Nucleus Arts, a charity of which Crouch is a patron, asked all three local MPs for help on this, but says it received no response. Crouch told Third Sector she did not respond to Nucleus because its sites are not in her constituency, but wrote to the council on behalf of another local charity that contacted her. She added that she did not have a general view on the question because it was a council matter.

Dalia Halpern-Matthews, director of Nucleus, says many of its beneficiaries are in the constituency and she still hopes Crouch will help: "Generally, Tracey does seem well-meaning and isn't just a smarmy politician trying to win votes. She wants to make a difference and do the right thing, but she also has to follow the party line."

Stephen Perez is coordinator of the Arches Local Partnership, one of the 150 Big Local projects that have been given £1m by the Big Lottery Fund. He says Crouch has helped with improving a local park and regenerating the Luton Road area.

"She's someone who really cares, as opposed to going through the motions," says Perez. "She's always wanted to know what was going on and acts as a facilitator. "She gets attention from people at the top of the tree while we keep to the core of being resident-driven. The area we cover is staunchly Labour, but people here like her, even if they don't vote for her. She won't tell you something if it's not true, and she stands out from other politicians because she's not always thinking of herself and what she can get out of it."

Louise Shrubsole, manager of the All Saints Community Project near Luton Road, also says Crouch is supportive: "She's determined to get money into this area and is prepared to work with politicians of other parties. Some politicians might think 'these people will never vote for me so I won't do anything', but she's not like that."

charity workersIan Childs (inset), project manager, Medway Foodbank

John Norley, chief executive of Medway Age UK, says Crouch came to the opening of a new dementia centre in 2013. "She was pleasant and had done her research," he says, "but the assumption was that she would do the VIP ceremonial and of course we had someone else for that because we don't count on MPs turning up to do it."

Will she make a good minister? "At a time when the country needs the voluntary and community sector most, putting it in with sport is an erosion of the importance of charity," Norley says. "It's treating it like an old ball you bat around the field and no one wants to take home."

Ian Childs, project manager of Medway Foodbank, is impressed by Crouch's involvement with the sector. "I'm not a Conservative, but I'm very supportive of her," he says. "She's approachable, interested, effective.

"I can't get Conservatives on the council to speak to me, let alone meet me, so to have an MP who is engaged like that is refreshing. She's been very positive and supportive about food banks, whatever her own view is."

At ministerial level, however, Childs thinks charities are important enough to have their own brief rather than being combined with sport. "I'm worried we will be the lesser partner," he says. It's one thing for a minister to turn up, smile and offer support, and another to make some serious decisions that help the sector in a practical way.

"If everything just stays as it is, we'll know where we really stand."

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