Hot Seat: New civil society minister Rob Wilson says he is 'keen for charities to do more'

Wilson says he wants to cut paperwork and open up more government contracts to the sector. Andy Ricketts reports

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

When Brooks Newmark was appointed Minister for Civil Society in July, people in the voluntary sector wondered who he was and what qualified him for the post.

Just weeks later, the exercise is being repeated all over again now that Newmark has quit – because of a newspaper exposé – to be replaced by Rob Wilson, the Conservative MP for Reading East.

Wilson, who is 49 and married with four children, is well connected to his constituency after moving to the area in 1984 as a student at Reading University. He was a local councillor before entering parliament.

His website says he was also an entrepreneur before being elected an MP, "successfully building several small businesses".

He has not had a ministerial post before, but was parliamentary private secretary to Jeremy Hunt until October 2013 – first while Hunt was culture secretary and after he moved to become health secretary.

Wilson then became PPS to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, until July this year.

Third Sector understands that he was offered the position of prisons minister in the reshuffle in July, but turned it down because of the imminent publication of his second book, which was about recent political controversies such as the expenses scandal and the plebgate affair.

Wilson was not available for interview, but he did respond in writing to questions posed by Third Sector.

Asked about the prisons minister position, Wilson's response says: "With great regret, I was unable to accept the Prime Minister's offer of joining the government earlier this summer. I was about to publish a book that could not be delayed and which was not compatible with serving as a minister."

Less than three months later, he finds himself having been handed a brief about which he appears to have little on-the-ground knowledge.

Asked about the charities he is involved with, Wilson's office lists some recent charitable activities and events he has supported, such as a rowing challenge for cancer research, a blindfold bus journey for Guide Dogs and World Mental Health Day.

He is a patron of the Friends of Reading Abbey, which works to preserve the ruins of the ancient building, although this is a position that comes with his office and the charity says he is a not an active patron.

Wilson complained to the Charity Commission in December about the Family & Childcare Trust after it used hashtags on Twitter that were being promoted by the Labour Party. The commission cleared the charity.

Asked now about the campaigning activities of charities, Wilson says that voluntary sector organisations have an important role to play in helping to shape government policy.

"Charities have every right to campaign to further their charitable purposes within the law," he says. "Many are brilliant at doing so.

"However, it has long been the case that charities must not be party-political. And furthermore, we have a system that allows people to question whether a charity has stuck to the rules on campaigning and political activity – and an independent regulator in the Charity Commission to investigate and reach a judgement on the evidence, which is as it should be."

Wilson says that his priorities for his new role include speaking to charities "to understand how the government can champion the great work that is done.

"While it is still early days, I am keen to support and pave the way for charities to do more by opening up government contracts and reducing the paperwork and permissions that get in the way of great work," he says.

Wilson says he wants to continue to expand the National Citizen Service.

"I am committed to strengthening communities so local needs are met by local people," he adds.

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