Editorial: Will the new minister ruffle feathers, like his short-lived predecessor?

The new Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, has said little yet, but as a backbencher earlier this year he accused a charity of acting in a party political manner, writes Andy Ricketts

Andy Ricketts
Andy Ricketts

It isn’t every day that a story about the charities minister is the most read article on the BBC website, but that’s what happened when the news of Brooks Newmark’s resignation broke.

Newmark stood down on Saturday evening before the Sunday Mirror newspaper published allegations that he had sent an explicit picture of himself to a male journalist posing as a young female Conservative activist.

The married Newmark, whose card had already been marked by much of the sector after his comments that charities should stick to their knitting and stay out of politics, said he had been foolish and apologised for letting his family down.

The newspaper itself has attracted criticism for the way it procured the story, and the new press regulator has since said that it will look into whether the story had breached any guidelines.

It’s been an unedifying saga that has left nobody with much credit.

Of course, the crucial question for the voluntary sector now is what Newmark’s replacement will turn out to be like.

Rob Wilson, the Conservative MP for Reading East, has mostly inhabited the backbenches since being elected to parliament in 2005. Like Newmark, this is his first ministerial position, although he has been parliamentary private secretary to Chancellor George Osborne and to Jeremy Hunt, when he was the culture secretary.

The BBC reported earlier this year that he turned down a ministerial post during the reshuffle in July because he was about to publish a book about MPs who have been caught up in scandals and the effect that those events had had on them. Wilson could not have known at the time that his predecessor might have made another juicy subject for his publication.

In his new role, Wilson has so far made few public pronouncements other than the obligatory comments about wanting to support the sector and some warm words about charities and volunteers.

Earlier this year, he ruffled the feathers of the Family and Childcare Trust when he complained to the Charity Commission that it had been acting in a party political manner when it used keywords on Twitter that had also been used by the Labour Party. The regulator rejected the complaint, but the case gives an insight into the thoughts of the minister at the time.

At a time when many in the sector consider that charities’ campaigning activities are under attack like never before, it will be instructive to hear Wilson’s latest thinking in this area.

With an election looming, it’s not clear how much time Wilson will have to make his mark. Some will be hoping that it isn’t too indelible.

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