Former charities minister says 'highly confrontational' campaigning damages sector

Rob Wilson, who lost his seat in last year's election, tells an NCVO conference that this attitude from some charities harms their relationship with government

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

The "highly confrontational" attitude of some charity campaigning has damaged the sector’s relationship with government, according to Rob Wilson, the former charities minister.

Speaking at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ campaigning conference in central London this morning, Wilson warned charities that they should avoid being negative or straying into party political matters in their campaigns.

He said the sector was failing to make its voice heard at the top of government because it was too fragmented in its approach.

Wilson, who was Minister for Civil Society between 2014 and 2017 when he lost his Reading East seat in the general election, disputed the idea that government was opposed to charity campaigning, saying "nothing could be further from the truth".

But he added: "From the government’s perspective, it dislikes confrontation, so it’s rarely a good idea to venture straight into that. It brings out a defensiveness in civil servants who don’t want their minister criticised or viewed negatively. It colours their advice, and specifically their willingness to put critics in front of their minister.

"A number of overseas aid charities have been highly confrontational at times."

Wilson did not name any charities, but he has previously been critical of Oxfam, writing in a newspaper article in January that the charity had "disappeared up its own morally righteous posterior".

He said today that the result of this behaviour had been "a worsening of relations with government and its backbench MPs".

He said: "The campaigns that cause this to happen are generally the ones that venture into contested political ground, where charities are seen to align with one side or the other."

But he added that the vast majority of charities had been careful not to do this.

For charities that did wish to engage in direct public criticism of government, he said his advice was to have strong evidence to back up a campaign, to engage in constructive conversations with government officials, to be positive from the start and to use measured and temperate language.

And Wilson added that a weak government was more likely to do deals behind the scenes to avoid public rows, but would stiffen its position if criticised in public.

He said it was "highly desirable" to have charities highlighting the unintended consequences of its policies, but the sector "has become more distant from people’s political and social concerns".

He said: "It is a long time since civil society has had the confidence and the voice to properly and powerfully articulate itself as having, at least in part, the answer to many of society’s most pressing problems.

"The challenge for the sector is that it is fragmented, its ideas are often boiled down to the lowest common denominator and there is a degree of virtue signalling.

"The sector rarely speaks with a single voice and isn’t able to capture the public mood.

"The solution is to spend more time thinking together about what it is that will reinvent and reinvigorate thought leadership in the sector."

Wilson rejected the idea that charities had been silenced by the lobbying act, which restricts how much charities can spend on campaigning in the run-up to an election. He said he "never saw compelling evidence that there was a closing down of charities’ ability to say what they want" as a result of the act.

But he said Lord Hodgson, who carried out a review of the act in 2016, had made some good recommendations to improve it and he hoped they would be enacted, although the government announced in September last year that it would not be taking them forward.

Wilson also announced he was part of a group working to set up a community support bank, which he said would combine banking with social purpose because 50 per cent of the bank’s profits would go to charity.

If the project successfully obtained a banking licence, he said, the group hoped to "make a very significant contribution to social and business change in this country in the future".

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