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Baroness Barran Interview: The former domestic abuse campaigner turned Conservative charities minister

Baroness Barran Interview: The former domestic abuse campaigner turned Conservative charities minister

Baroness Diana Barran worked in the charity sector for nearly two decades before joining the House of Lords in 2018 | UK Parliament

11 min read

Civil society and loneliness minister Baroness Barran had nearly two decades of experience in the charity sector before joining the Lords. She talks to Georgina Bailey about how that has shaped her approach in government, whether wild swimming could solve loneliness, and plans to scrape the barnacles off the sector’s boat

Baroness Barran is running late. “Excuse the coughing, I just cycled through lots of pollen to get here – I’ve not got Covid,” she says as she sits down in her office in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Thanks to Covid, we are meeting on Google Meet rather than in person but that does not stop Barran providing a brisk and thorough overview of the topic we are here to discuss – charities.

Indeed, Barran, 62, appears almost uniquely well-suited for her government role as minister for civil society. She’s been in the Lords for just under three years, but has held this brief, which is unpaid and covers loneliness, volunteering, youth, memorials, and all DCMS Lords’ business, for two-thirds of that.

She speaks of the complexities of charity law and measuring charitable impact like someone who has spent years at the heart of the sector – which she has. Leaving the City in 2001 after a career in hedge fund management, the then plain Diana Barran joined the charity think tank New Philanthropy Capital. 

“A number of us who were involved in the early days of NPC had investment banking or fund management background,” she says. “Our theory was that if there was more data and better quality data on the impacts of both individual charities and different approaches to addressing different issues, you could encourage people to give more and give better. If there were two organisations working in the field of addiction, and one had much better outcomes than the other, all things being equal, we would all rather funding went to the one with better outcomes because it would help more people – that was the premise.” 

From there, she became involved in work on domestic abuse, eventually founding and running the charity SafeLives for 13 years, after noticing that nearly every organisation at the time was focused on providing refuge accommodation for women and their children. 

“For the majority of women, going into a refuge wasn’t really an option, either because they genuinely didn’t want to, or they maybe had a teenage son who they couldn’t take with them to the refuge. There are a host of other reasons,” she explains. While she did start working with groups who helped to keep women and children safe in their homes and hold perpetrators accountable, in the end it was easier to set up a new charity, she says.

These experiences, as well as her roles as a trustee of the grant making bodies Comic Relief and the Royal Foundation, have shaped how she approaches her job in government now. “There were times when it felt fantastically easy to work with government, and there were times when it felt a lot more difficult, so I think it’s good to have seen both of those.”

Charities should shine a light on issues that government is missing, and needs to do something about. That’s entirely valid

Several times throughout our conversation, Barran warns me about the dangers of lumping in different parts of the sector together.

“We mustn’t treat them as a blob. At one end, 80 per cent of charities have a turnover of under £100,000 a year and over 50 per cent have under £10,000 a year,” she says, describing these often hyper-local organisations as the “glue” of communities. At the other end are the large charities which deliver services with the government across a broad range of policy areas. “Both of those things are really valid.”

Barran also thinks that “charities should shine a light on issues that government is missing, and needs to do something about. That’s also entirely valid”.

“I hesitate to generalise, but having worked in a charity myself, I was amazed by how many people think that charities are entirely staffed by volunteers and have no paid staff at all, and also are pretty unaware that charities do campaigning; have policy teams. I think there is a bit of a perception that charities should be all about frontline delivery,” she says. 

“I’m not making a judgement on which is right or wrong. It’s up to an individual charity, and their board of trustees to decide what the right balance is for them...I think one just needs to be transparent.”

What about recent complaints from Tory backbenchers about the National Trust and Runnymede Trust for being outspoken on racism and Black Lives Matter – does she agree with those?

“[MPs] can express their own views. I think it’s up to the trustees of the individual charities and the Charity Commission to judge whether any lines have been breached,” she says, adding that it is essential the Commission stays independent, and that she won’t be sticking her nose in.  

Barran concedes there have been some concerns within the sector about the Commission’s focus on public trust, but says she thinks it is making a fair point. “Without public trust, charities would find themselves in a very different position because the public remains by far the largest donor to charities. And quite often we lose that in the general discourse, because it sounds like government is the major funder. But the public is the major funder.”

The Duchess of Cornwall meets (left to right) CEO of SafeLives Suzanne Jacob, Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs, Founder of SafeLives Baroness Barran and Elizabeth Jack during a reception for SafeLives' 15th anniversary at Clarence House in London [Credit: Alamy]

Admitting she has a “bias” for data driven work, Barran also says she was “struck incredibly strongly” by the lack of data available on domestic abuse when she started working in the field – something that is “true across too much of the voluntary sector”. 

“There are no common metrics. If you and I were both going to open up a pub, we’d know what sort of margin we would have to have on the beer, how many customers eating how many meals we need to make it pay. There just aren’t the equivalent metrics for very much of the voluntary sector, so everybody’s learning for the first time, which I’m not sure is helpful,” she says.  

In government she is looking to change that – particularly for areas where government is a major donor.

The department has helped fund What Works Centres, which operate more than nine different policy areas responsible for £250bn worth of government spend, to assess what policies deliver what outcomes, as well as the Justice Data Lab. Although it’s taken “a little bit of time”, she admits, government funding is also all now part of 360Giving, an initiative where charity funders and benefactors input their data to see who is giving money to who, for what. 

Barran is very keen on working in partnership with the third sector and other funders to deliver this cultural shift when it comes to impact measurement. “I don’t think government should be dictating what the metrics are,” she says. 

Although metrics could be as simple as establishing the unit cost of different types of interventions, “we have to always be terribly sensitive to avoiding creating perverse incentives – for example, setting up a metric which skews the way people work, where they avoid the most challenging cases, because they’re worried about not getting paid if they don’t meet that target,” she says. 

When it comes to funding, the impacts of Covid were felt disproportionately across different parts of the not-for-profit sector. While organisations were eligible for economy-wide government support, Barran admits that even the specific £750m package for voluntary, community and social enterprises the government announced last April could never have been enough to cushion the blow for everyone. 

“Our objectives were: to support those charities which were providing services which in turn protected capacity in the NHS; and supporting charities that saw a particular surge in demand for their services – things like support for people experiencing mental health challenges,” she says. “We never aimed to save the sector. That wouldn’t have been possible. But, actually, comparing the percentage of redundancies and charities who sadly had to close to many parts of the for-profit economy, charities have survived incredibly well… better, perhaps, than many forecast.”

Having seen the work of the sector up close again in the last 15 months, Barran says it is the generosity of volunteers which has stuck with her the most. 

“Whether it’s quietly just doing shopping for a neighbour or walking their dog while they were shielding, all of those day-to-day kindnesses, through to coming out of retirement to be part of the vaccine effort, it’s across the spectrum. That’s the overwhelming thing.”

While professionally she says she’s never worked as hard as in the early weeks of the pandemic, from a personal perspective Barran says she was in the “ultra-fortunate category,” spending her lockdown in Bath with her husband and four grown up children, who all returned home. “That was a treat for us as parents.” 

If loneliness is going to be successful, you’ve got to imagine you can get your mother through the door of whatever it is that you’re offering

Between them, the family completed all the lockdown stereotypes, she says, from making sourdough to growing vegetables and learning bridge – and they’ve all taken up wild swimming too. It is the latter point to which we return when discussing the other part of her brief: loneliness, which she first took on under Theresa May. 

While admitting “you shouldn’t shape government policy around your mum, obviously,” Barran says the experiences of her mother, a Jewish refugee from Hungary who came to London alone in World War II, have always stayed with her and influenced her approach to loneliness. “She worked in the War Office in the day and did a degree at the LSE at night, and her first Christmas in London she didn’t know anybody, so she spent Christmas in the LSE library. All of us can just imagine that’s a pretty grim prospect,” she says.

Barran follows two other pieces of advice in the brief, shared by friends and former colleagues.

First, from a Church of England vicar: local communities have the solutions within them to their problems. So if loneliness is a problem in a certain patch, ask the community what they need. 

Second, we’re back to mothers, although not hers: “Somebody said to me, if loneliness is going to be successful, you’ve got to imagine you can get your mother through the door of whatever it is that you’re offering.

“For most of us, if someone said, ‘Are you okay, because there is this loneliness club in town,’ I would go, ‘I’m fine, I’m really, really fine’. If someone said to me, ‘there’s a wild swimming club you could go and swim with,’ I’d be down like a shot. It is about connecting people with things they enjoy. Rather than saying, ‘you’re lonely, we feel sorry for you, here’s something to help’, saying, ‘OK, we understand you’re lonely, tell us what you enjoy. We’ll find something you enjoy and support that’. And through that, you will make connections which will address your loneliness. I call it a kind of Trojan horse strategy.” 

Looking forward, Barran’s next challenge will be navigating two important bits of legislation through the Lords – the Dormant Assets Bill, which it is hoped will release £900m for charities and good causes, and the Charities Bill, which will bring into law a number of Law Commission recommendations made by Lord Hodgson. “He describes it as scraping barnacles off the bottom of a boat,” Barran says. “None of the individual measures in the bill are earth shattering, but the combination of all of them means that there’ll be a lot less friction for charities to operate.”

 Her brief will also play into the conversations about levelling up – although exactly how is yet to be decided. Again, it will have different meanings and levels of involvement for different parts of the sector. “We were elected – not speaking personally, obviously, but as a government – with levelling up being a massive part of that, and we are absolutely committed in everything we do to make sure that that runs through every piece of policy,” she says.

For a sector increasingly worried about hostility from the government, it seems they have a friend – if a sometimes critical one – in Barran at least. 

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