Rob Wilson: Charities minister in the limelight

The Minister for Civil Society has found himself on the front line in a battle over fundraising. Stephen Cook spoke to him and Andy Hillier gauged the mood in his constituency

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

The early months of Rob Wilson's tenure as charities minister seemed somewhat tentative. He was appointed in haste to his first government job last September after Brooks Newmark's resignation over inappropriate selfies, and at first came over as restrained and cautious. Some thought he was just minding the shop until the election.

He remained quiet during the campaign, when charities were not a big issue, and, after the Conservative win, was one of the tail-enders in the announcement of ministerial jobs. This revived the sense of uncertainty - was he the preferred candidate, and how interested in the sector was he, really?

But a week after the election, the story of Olive Cooke broke in the national press and any expectation that Wilson could continue living a quiet life went out of the window. Willy-nilly, he suddenly found himself in a media and political storm about high-pressure fundraising.

After more than a month it was starting to subside, but then the Daily Mail raised the stakes with another expose of telephone fundraising and days ago David Cameron announced "tough" immediate measures, while Wilson commissioned a review of self-regulation. "Victory!" declared the Mail.

'No policy by tabloid'

So was this knee-jerk politics - government by tabloid? "I can assure you that the action we're taking was not spurred by tabloid or any other media headlines," says Wilson. "What happened is that quite a serious problem came to our attention. I met the self-regulatory bodies and stressed to them the importance of short-term, confidence-building measures, some of which they have taken.

"But more was needed because we have to give the public confidence that we are on top of an issue that has resonated very, very strongly with them. I want to make sure giving continues as strongly as before, and a series of stories like this can have quite a big impact if people stop giving because they're worried nothing is being done.

"I've always thought from the moment the Olive Cooke story came to light that you need to take some quite tough short-term action, but also make sure you get the medium and longer-term things in place."

It remains to be seen whether new anti-harrassment clauses in fundraising agency contracts, the detailing of fundraising activities in charities' annual reports, and - potentially - the restructuring of self-regulation will succeed in curbing such practices as direct mail list-swapping and telephone fundraisers being required to make three asks.

What's certain, however, is that Wilson has suddenly been projected from a relative backwater into a warmer part of the political landscape than his predecessor-but-one, Nick Hurd, ever occupied in his four years in office. As a rookie minister, he faces the stern test of steering through the Commons a charities bill that will no longer be the relatively technical, innocuous measure it was until recently. Juices will flow; sparks might fly.

It's also clear - although he expresses it mildly - that Wilson's patience with the fundraising bodies is wearing thin, and this interview elicited his first unequivocal statement that the failure of the self-regulatory system to pick up the public discontents revealed in the wake of the Olive Cooke case is the clearest demonstration that it is not working in its present form.

"It's fair to say that before the Olive Cooke case there was no feeling that anything like this was going on in the sector, or certainly the self-regulators weren't reporting that there was any kind of problem," he says. "That makes me feel there is a detachment between what is going on in the sector and what's feeding through to the self-regulators. I think it is a problem if your self-regulators aren't picking up what's going on.

"Lord Hodgson was talking about issues and problems of this kind in his review of the charities act in 2012. We were going to look at how this developed over the next period, but I'm not sure much was done until the Olive Cooke case came out of the blue and spurred everyone into thinking in detail about what should happen next. I'm slightly surprised more wasn't done in that period."

'Slow progress'

What about the report by consultants last year that mapped a way forward? "I think one report in three years is probably what you might describe as slow progress," says Wilson. "One of the positive things that has come out recently is that the Institute of Fundraising is going to appoint an independent chair and more lay members to its standards committee. But it's very late in the day to be doing that."

Wilson also emphasises that he wants to step back and give the sector itself the room to come up with the right answers to the problems of fundraising, which is why he has asked for the review to be led by Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Two members of the review, Labour's Baroness Pitkeathley and the Lib Dems' Lord Wallace, have extensive experience of the sector.

"My whole philosophy is light-touch," Wilson says. "Don't push people too hard because they will find their own way to solutions if you guide them in the right direction - but don't push them."

In spite of the recent furore, Wilson declares that he really loves his job and was absolutely delighted to be reappointed, "because I know the sector wasn't sure I was going to be". He says he's busy expanding the National Citizen Service, working on the "strong manifesto commitment" to social investment bonds and building a "stronger, more resilient and capable sector".

He recounts bumping recently into the very first charities minister, Ed Miliband, and discovering a shared passion for social investment - although he accepts that it is not a panacea for the sector and he doesn't want charities to become like businesses.

Where does Wilson see his future? "I haven't really thought that far ahead, to be honest - and thinking too far ahead in politics is for fools," he says. "What I know is that I've got a very important job to do here. One of the key things the PM wants to achieve is a bigger, stronger society, and I feel I've got to deliver."

Has that project been damaged by recent events? "In all sectors, you get problems that come out of a clear blue sky, like an Exocet, to upset the straight line we'd all like to follow. I'm not saying it hasn't caused a difficulty, but the important thing is how you respond to the challenges you face.

"I think we have an opportunity here to actually make things better and make sure more people end up giving rather than fewer. And one way to make sure fewer people give is to have them constantly complaining that they're being harried and harassed by people from call centres.

"So I've got to make sure we strike a balance there between the need for charities to get the money to do the great work they do and the right of the public to be left in peace."


There is some sympathy in the sector for the way Rob Wilson was dropped into his job in a hurry without significant previous experience - his political interests had been mainly in education and he narrowly missed being appointed as prisons minister last year. The scope for him to get out and familiarise himself with charities on the ground is also said to be limited by a demanding ministerial workload and the voting requirements of a government with a small majority.

Those in the sector who have met him inevitably compare him with his predecessor-but-one, Nick Hurd, who was a long-standing enthusiast for the sector and had plenty of time to play himself in. Hurd was regarded as a strong advocate for charities across government, but some perceive that Wilson is interested less in that part of his role than in holding the sector to account, as in the current furore over fundraising.

His style is seen to be very different from Hurd's. One observer contrasts the way Hurd dealt with the media attack over senior sector pay - "he didn't intervene, said it was a matter for trustees and so on" - with the way Wilson has handled the fundraising episode: "Extremely active, making comments, exhorting people to do this and that."

Another sees Wilson as "a very fair bloke, very reasonable and straightforward. His perspective is more that of donors, which is different from that of fundraisers. And it is a huge challenge, responding to those public anxieties and dealing with the onslaught of the tabloids."

Some are dismayed by Wilson's apparent impatience for change in fundraising, including his determination to try to fix the system by the autumn rather than allow a bit more breathing space. Others are sympathetic to the pressure he is under from the media and Number 10 to take swift action.

Do people get the impression that Wilson is really interested in and dedicated to the sector? "I think he is just passing through," says one. "He hasn't shown particular commitment and he hasn't been heard saying how essential for society he considers the sector to be.

"I get the impression that he's a new minister, relying a lot on officials, who is very aware of the media agenda and less of what the real issues are for the sector."

Some have also come to feel that Wilson, who has been in parliament for 10 years, is ambitious and that his interest in the sector is more instrumental than intrinsic. " He is likely to do the things that enable that ambition to be realised," says one. "Most ambitious politicians have something that really matters to them - climate change, for example. But it's hard to know as yet what really matters to Wilson, and whether the ambition will be realised."

The same observer also notes a populist instinct: "I suspect he tends to think 'this is all very interesting, but can I sell it? What would Mrs Smith of Middleton Street, Reading, think about it?'"

One observer at Wilson's recent speech in which he outlined his plans for the sector contrasted his presentation with that of other junior ministers who have subsequently been promoted. Another at the same event thought he acquitted himself well, given that he had an unpopular message to impart.

A third says Wilson is aware he is dealing with a predominantly left-of-centre sector and any perception that he is tentative or awkward derives from uncertainty about who his allies will be: "So he is cautious about who he engages and relaxes with."

Whatever their perspectives, most observers agree that Wilson has a hot political potato in his hands. "On fundraising, he's got to get it right, and it remains a work in progress," says one. "If he doesn't, the Mail will go for him, and he's aware that to avoid that he's got to give them enough of a victory." Stephen Cook


Rob Wilson's majority as MP for Reading East fell from 7,605 in 2010 to 6,520 this year. He told his local paper after the count that the result was "really satisfactory" and he was going to celebrate with a bacon sandwich and a whisky.

That evening, a local photojournalist, Lynda Bowyer, tweeted to ask what he and the Conservative Party would do about the rise in homelessness. Wilson simply replied "don't be a bad loser", provoking a petition for his resignation on the 38 Degrees website that attracted more than 5,700 signatures.

Wilson admitted it was a comment made in haste after a long night and sent Bowyer a copy of Conservative housing policy. She replied that she wanted to know what he was going to do locally and says "he still hasn't answered the question".

Generally, Wilson is said to be an assiduous constituency MP. A spokeswoman for Launchpad, a local homelessness charity, describes him as an "avid supporter" on social media: "He retweets events that we have coming up and attends our annual carols by candle-light."

Near his constituency office in Caversham lies Church House, which is used by local voluntary groups. A volunteer who does not want to give her name says that Wilson was "quite helpful" when the charity that runs the building applied for a grant to install a lift.

Upstairs is Caversham Good Neighbours - local volunteers who drive elderly and disabled residents to medical appointments. On the noticeboard is a picture of Wilson at its 50th anniversary event in May. Pat Rawlings, the secretary, says: "We invited him and he came. We had a lot of older people there and he interacted with everybody. We were very pleased with his attitude."

In the town centre, Nick Harborne, manager of Reading Refugee Support Group, says he wrote to Wilson last year to complain about the Home Office providing gift vouchers to its staff who successfully contested asylum tribunal cases. "He came to our offices to discuss it and then wrote to James Brokenshire, the immigration minister," says Harborne. "Brokenshire then sent us a response that didn't really answer the question."

Harborne says Wilson has supported Reading's bid to become a City of Sanctuary, an initiative to treat refugees and asylum seekers better. But he says he would like Wilson to do more for smaller charities that have lost local authority funding.

"It's incredibly difficult for small charities," he says. "In Reading, we have fundraising events such as Oxjam, where Oxfam takes over the bars and clubs. Then every lunchtime we have chuggers on the street for the larger charities. It makes it almost impossible for small charities like ours to fundraise locally. It's a Tesco-isation of the charity sector."

Reading has many large companies, but Harborne says they don't tend to support small local charities and he believes Wilson could help with this. "I would like to see a better understanding between big business and small charities," he says.

Annette Haworth, chair of Reading Voluntary Action, says Wilson is often shown in the local paper visiting charity events. Since he became minister he has also attended a meeting to discuss local issues. "But we don't know what will result as it's still quite early days," she says. "He's a local person and seems to join in."

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