Rob Wilson: A fresh start for the minister

When the Office for Civil Society was moved to the DCMS, many in the sector feared a downgrading of their concerns by government but Stephen Cook finds the minister optimistic

Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society
Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society

One window in Rob Wilson's new office looks out past Big Ben towards Westminster Bridge, the other on Parliament Square, with the famous statue of Winston Churchill in the foreground and the Palace of Westminster behind. It would be hard to find a room with a more impressive view of the home of UK government.

And when the Minister for Civil Society surveys the parts of government he takes care of, he sees a similarly uplifting scene and some big achievements: the recent successful introduction of the new Fundraising Regulator, new legal powers for the Charity Commission, expansion of the National Citizen Service and social investment initiatives that lead the world.

There is, he adds, much more to do: he says he's optimistic, for example, that the Dormant Assets Commission, due to report by the end of the year, will find ways to unlock a billion pounds or more for social investment from the pensions, insurance and investment industries. He also wants to make it easier for smaller charities to win national and local government contracts and to help giving and volunteering to grow.

But his priorities do not coincide entirely with those of sector leaders (see below), and for him the main impediment to a fresh start under Theresa May's government appears to be that some aspect of the sector might feature again in the media, as fundraising did last year.

"I hope we won't see a repeat of some of the worst behaviour and that we have done the right thing in setting up a new Fundraising Regulator with very clear self-regulatory powers," he says. "Obviously I'm going to be watching very closely to make sure it is supported wholeheartedly by the sector, because at the end of the day that's the only way it will be effective.

"I think the new regulator, and the new powers for the Charity Commission, do offer a chance for a fresh start. There are also some governance issues that perhaps charities need to deal with more proactively, and I think they're doing that. So I'm very hopeful that we can make good progress over the next couple of years without these storms that seem to come up in the newspapers."

Would a fresh start also involve the government abandoning the so-called no-lobbying clause for all voluntary sector contracts? This was proposed earlier in the year but put on hold when it became clear that the measure was likely to be challenged by means of a judicial review. Wilson will not be drawn on this.

"It has been paused, and the Cabinet Office has been listening and looking at what it will do next," he says. "But I think the principle that taxpayers' money should not be used to lobby for more taxpayers' money is a very good, strong and honourable one.

"I guess there will be a moment where we look at how that's best done and the Cabinet Office will make an announcement in due course. The responsibility remains within the Cabinet Office and it will make the decision, but obviously it will work in close consultation with me."

Before the restructure of government after the Brexit referendum, Wilson's Office for Civil Society was, of course, part of the Cabinet Office, where it was established in 2006 with the intention of putting sector policies at the heart of government, with a brief to influence all Whitehall departments.

It has now been moved into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, apparently because all the resources of the Cabinet Office are likely to be concentrated on preparing for the UK's exit from the European Union. This - despite the commanding location of Wilson's new office - has been seen by some as a demotion that will limit the influence and strategic role of the OCS.

"I can understand why the sector is worried about cross-government reach, because that was the reputation of the Cabinet Office," says Wilson. "But the fact that the Prime Minister recently announced our new Youth Investment Fund and the #iwill Fund showed how much interest and awareness there is of the work we are doing.

"I see the move as really exciting, full of great opportunities, and I don't think the sector should be worried for one second. I'm bringing the Big Lottery Fund with me, so all the lottery functions are in one place - and if you look at sports and culture, volunteering is part and parcel of that, which is one of my responsibilities in civil society.

"If you look at which department has the best access to philanthropists and philanthropy, that's the DCMS. They are also very good here at working with corporations and big foundations, and I think there's a lot of opportunity for us in the civil society sector to make the most of that. There are so many really great synergies that it does actually make sense."

High on Wilson's to-do list is a bill, announced in the Queen's Speech, to put the National Citizen Service on a statutory footing now that its funding is to be increased to £1.2bn a year. It is rumoured that a legal requirement for schools to promote the NCS, which was unwelcome to other youth organisations, will not feature in the legislation. Wait and see, is Wilson's response.

He will also be dealing with independent charitable schools over the surprise proposal in the Prime Minister's recent speech on education that they will need to provide more public benefit to justify their charitable status. Isn't this something that everyone thought had been dealt with in an Upper Tribunal judgment in 2011 and in Charity Commission guidance?

"It's quite clear that some independent charitable schools are doing a great job and some aren't doing such a great job," says Wilson. "So there's a real mix. We've been trying to get independent schools to look at that through the Independent Schools Council, and it's absolutely right that we should look at it again. There will be a consultation: some views will be acted on, and some won't."

All of Wilson's previous responsibilities came with him to the DCMS, but responsibility for libraries - now run by volunteers in many places - was added to his brief. "We have a libraries task force that produced a best-practice toolkit, and we are producing a document called Ambition in the not too distant future," he says. "I am keen on a whole variety of models: mutuals, social enterprises, some volunteer-led - a mix of different options that local authorities can consider.

"Northampton has a very interesting social enterprise where they have 51 per cent ownership and their library service is part of a community hub that includes health and wellbeing. So I see libraries moving much more towards a community hub model."

What sector leaders think

The Minister for Civil Society divides opinion among six sector leaders, who tell us what he should concentrate on

Six sector leaders, asked about Wilson's record and what his priorities should be, all emphasise the protection of charities in the Brexit process. "He should be bashing down the door of the new Brexit department," says one, who asked not to be named. "He should be making sure that the interests of all charities are not harmed or traded away, and fighting for post-EU funding for charities that rely on it."

John Low (left), chief executive of the Charities Aid Foundation, says the result of the EU referendum has redefined British politics: "As the government negotiates our exit from Europe, charities will have a vital role to play - in both establishing Britain's new standing in the world and healing divisions at home. I hope the minister will work with charities to ensure their experience and expertise are brought to the fore."

Four leaders also mention Wilson's role in setting up the new Fundraising Regulator. "He resisted demands to go further and impose statutory regulation for a quick political win," says Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. "He came up with a pragmatic solution that stopped it becoming unduly politicised - a cross-party, sector-led inquiry."

Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, also says Wilson played a strategic role in setting up the new regulator. Lewis says: "He now needs to focus on ensuring the government takes a strategic approach to supporting fundraising and giving. His support for Remember A Charity is one good example."

Etherington says Wilson, after two years as charities minister, is interested in his job and has grown into it. "I think he understands the sector's needs," he says. "He's willing to talk, listen to a sensible case and be persuaded, which is crucial for a good minister."

The leader who asked not to be named finds Wilson less accessible and responsive: "He seems to avoid meeting organisations he thinks will be critical of government, so there is no real dialogue. He does engage with local and small organisations, which is good, but substantive policy issues or pan-sector needs don't get properly discussed.

"He's been preoccupied with pet projects, such as social impact bonds, or knee-jerk reactions to headlines. Consequently, government is struggling to understand the relevance of the sector to key issues.

The agenda in the Office for Civil Society feels very unbalanced."

Asheem Singh (right), head of the chief executives body Acevo, says Wilson is a "willing" minister, but "it is still unclear whether he has an inspiring vision for the future of the social sector and its intersection with government and business.

"At the moment, a spirit of competence rather than genuine intellectual curiosity appears to pervade his administration."

Singh adds that the Prime Minister's espousal of the cooperative and mutual-driven ethos of the late Victorian Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain, who latterly worked in coalition with the Conservatives, presents Wilson with "opportunities to make the case for comprehensive engagement with the civic sector across public services, the economy and politics".

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, says Wilson has served three governments and has a strong reputation in parliament: "But charities have never faced more uncertainty. He is in a great position to change this. If he achieved a £425m rebate for the Big Lottery Fund this year, for example, he could not only help tens of thousands of charities but could also be the most successful minister of our time."

Other subjects urged on Wilson by sector leaders are the need for fresh appointments to allay concerns about political patronage on the Charity Commission board, better access to government contracts for smaller charities, improvements to the bill that will change the Gift Aid Small Donations Scheme, reform of irrecoverable VAT for charities and the importance of the sector's role in democracy.

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