Hot Seat: A new chapter begins as Rob Wilson remains Minister for Civil Society

Those who thought his pre-election tenure was a stop-gap were surprised

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

The forecasts were of a highly unpredictable election, with a tight result bringing weeks of uncertainty; there were also suggestions that the Office for Civil Society would be abolished – or at least get a new minister. In the event, the Conservative victory on 7 May actually left the voluntary sector much where it started.

More specifically, it was given the same minister – Rob Wilson, who was first elected as Conservative MP for Reading East in 2005, was re-elected in 2010 and in September 2014 was named Minister for Civil Society when his short-lived predecessor, Brooks Newmark, resigned after a tabloid sex scandal.

This year Wilson's constituents returned him with 46 per cent of the vote, his highest share to date. However, his success was marred the day after the poll when a constituent asked him on Twitter what he thought the Conservative government's austerity agenda would mean for rising levels of homelessness in Reading. His answer, "don't be a bad loser", was not well received in some quarters and led to a petition calling for his resignation, which has now attracted more than 5,700 signatures.

He did not resign, of course, and after two days of prime ministerial appointments appearing on Twitter, it was finally confirmed that Wilson would remain as charities minister. The following week, Labour confirmed that Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan, would continue as his shadow.

"I was delighted to be reappointed as Minister for Civil Society as part of a powerful new Cabinet Office ministerial team," Wilson told Third Sector, referring to his new boss Oliver Letwin, now minister in overall charge of the Cabinet Office, and two new appointments in the department, Matthew Hancock and John Penrose.

Wilson continued: "Before us lies the opportunity to work together and build a bigger, stronger society. This government wants to see a society where citizens are engaged at every stage of their lives, where we are all supported to take more responsibility for ourselves and others and where communities work together to ensure a brighter, more secure future."

Alongside strengthening social investment and the National Citizen Service, the Conservative manifesto revived its promise to build a big society. John Low, chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, questioned what this would mean. "Government should make it an urgent priority to work with charities to develop the big society concept into a coherent set of policies," he said.

Sir Stephen Bubb, chief executive of the charity leaders group Acevo, and Neil Cleeveley, his counterpart at the local infrastructure body Navca, both said Wilson should make launching the long-promised £40m Local Sustainability Fund his first priority.

Cleevely said he hoped the minister would "look beyond social investment and public service delivery, important though both are". He said: "We need him to be a powerful advocate for the sector. This means supporting our right to campaign without fear."

Some in the sector saw Wilson as a caretaker, appointed as a stop-gap before the election and unlikely to stick around after it. Standing in the shadow of Nick Hurd, who gained respect in his four years in the role before being succeeded by Newmark, Wilson at times appeared to struggle to endear himself to the sector. Both parties will probably be hoping to start afresh.

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