Interview: Things hot up for Mr Wilson

After a quiet start, charities minister Rob Wilson has had his hands full recently since the sector hit the headlines. Susannah Birkwood asks about his plans for tighter regulation of charity fundraising

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

The first nine months of Rob Wilson's tenure as charities minister seemed relatively uneventful, but the same can hardly be said of the last seven: he's been at the centre of the fundraising crisis, dealt with questions from MPs about the Cabinet Office's relationship with Kids Company, which collapsed late last year, and helped to pilot the charities bill through the Commons. He's also grown a beard.

His top concern has been the review of fundraising regulation last September by Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Wilson has accepted all its recommendations, which included abolishing the Fundraising Standards Board, setting up a new Fundraising Regulator, stripping the Institute of Fundraising of its responsibility for setting the Code of Fundraising Practice and establishing a Fundraising Preference Service that would enable people to opt out from receiving fundraising calls and direct mail from charities.

The decision to axe the FRSB came as a surprise to many in the sector. A group of 17 major charities, coordinated by the IoF, secured front page coverage in The Times in September by calling for a new regulator to be established, but the FRSB had made a good case for its survival in the weeks before the Etherington review was published, arguing that any weakness in the way it had regulated fundraising was down to a lack of resources and the unwillingness of the IoF to make the changes it requested to the code.

Does Wilson think the decision to close it was fair? "The problem was that when the Etherington review did its consultation, it found that the FRSB wasn't well-supported and had - unfairly - lost the confidence of the sector," he says. "A large part of the loss of confidence was because the people who should have been backing it weren't backing it in the way that was anticipated when it was set up. Unfortunately, the sector never really got behind it."

He acknowledges that the FRSB, which is funded by fees paid by members, might have been insufficiently resourced, but he does not believe this was its main problem. "It was a question of clearly not having the sector rowing behind it in a robust way, and supporting and enacting its decisions and judgements," he says. "And you could tell that there was a tension that existed between it and the IoF." He says the main priority of the IoF was its members, whom it represented "very vigorously", which meant the interests of donors were frequently sidelined.

The IoF has recently indicated that it would like to influence the new regulator: its chief executive, Peter Lewis, said in December that he hoped the independent chair of the IoF's standards committee, Suzanne McCarthy, would be appointed chair of the equivalent committee being established by the new Fundraising Regulator. At one point he appeared to indicate that the IoF would hand over the code only once it was satisfied fundraisers were sufficiently represented on the new regulator, but it was later made clear this was not the case.

Wilson says he is not concerned by this. He declines to say whether it would be appropriate for McCarthy to be involved in the new regulator, calling it a matter for Stephen Dunmore, the former Big Lottery Fund chief executive who was appointed interim chief executive of the new regulator in December. But Wilson does say the changes recommended by the review mean the IoF will have less leverage with the body Dunmore is setting up than it had with the FRSB.

In particular, he says, the IoF's influence will be limited by the fact that it will no longer control the committee that sets the code: "Through everything that has happened, the IoF has had a big wake-up call. The new regime doesn't need the permission of the IoF to go ahead and do what needs to be done. That will be a big difference."

So is that why he believes the new regulator will thrive where the FRSB failed? "That's part of it. Another part of it is the leadership of the new organisation," says Wilson, referring to his appointment of Lord Grade as chair of the regulator last November. He says he appointed Grade, whom he had not met before he saw his name on a list of potential candidates compiled by civil servants, because he wanted someone who had experience, dynamism, energy and an "understanding that you have to deliver". He has yet to meet Dunmore.

One aspect of the new regulatory regime that has caused consternation among fundraisers is the proposed Fundraising Preference Service, which some have described as Wilson's "baby". Asked if this is the case, he responds: "Really? It's very kind of them to make it anybody's baby."

He won't be drawn on how he would like the service to work and whether people should be able to block all charities or merely opt out from those they dislike. He simply says that the FPS has to "do what it is supposed to do" - give members of the public an option to reset their relationship with charities, which he calls "a way of saying 'god, I've had enough of this'". He is "a bit perplexed", he adds, as to why the FPS has proved so controversial with the sector.

Asked if the government has carried out any research into the financial impact that measures such as the FPS will have on the sector - a recent estimate by the fundraising academic Adrian Sargeant put the amount at £2bn over the next five years - Wilson says it has not. "It's not a statutory piece of regulation, so we have no plans to do that," he says. "If it does become statutory, obviously we would be obliged to do it."

Wilson acknowledges that one of the perceived problems with the FRSB was that charities and agencies could choose whether they signed up to be regulated, which organisations with poor practices might be unlikely to do. And yet he says membership of the new regulator will also be voluntary - why? "Because it's a self-regulatory system," he replies. But he also indicates that although membership will be voluntary in name, it will not be in practice.

"I've taken additional powers to make sure that if people don't sign up for the new regulator and if they don't pay for it, I can force them to do that," he says. He is referring to an amendment added to the charities bill in January that could be used to require mandatory registration and compliance with the fundraising regulator if self-regulation were deemed to have failed.

Because Wilson has been a supporter - and at times an instigator - of tough proposals towards charities, some in the sector view him as a politician more comfortable in the role of regulator than of charity champion, in contrast to his predecessor, Nick Hurd. He also seems less open about some things: Hurd, for example, made public that he gave 1 per cent of his salary to charity, but Wilson will not discuss the subject.

"One of the things I find quite often in this job is that almost anything you say alarms the sector, so sometimes it is better not to say anything," he says, having deflected a series of questions or answered them in vague terms. He does not deny, however, that the Conservative Party in general is not regarded very fondly by much of the sector, and believes this is a typical experience for parties that are in power.

"There are certainly people in the sector who aren't supportive of what the Conservatives are trying to do and the policies we're trying to pursue," he says. "But that's natural with any government."

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