'It's known as the third sector - and that's a fair reflection of where it sits in the political pecking order'

EXCLUSIVE Rob Wilson, the former Minister for Civil Society, writes about his time in office and explains why the charity sector needs to align itself more closely with government

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

The charity sector is known as the third sector, and the truth is that is a fair reflection of where it sits in the political pecking order. Despite rallies of interest from governments over the decades, it has never really been integrated into political thinking. This is something I recognised and tried to change during my three years as Minister for Civil Society, with some success, although it was an uphill task.

I have always held those involved in the charity sector in high regard and valued the impact of their work. I feel they have much to offer government and the nation, so it was a genuine privilege to hold the civil society brief. So much so, in fact, that when I was given the opportunity to move up the ministerial ladder in a new government, I asked to stay put.

I had grown to love the job, but the main reason for my decision was that I wanted to complete the reforms I'd started to make the sector more resilient, independent and financially sustainable, and to ensure it was more integrated into government thinking.

Strong start

By July 2016 I'd made a strong start and felt that a new minister beginning from scratch would slow the rate of progress. There's a lot to learn and understand about the brief, even before factoring in the complication of the Office for Civil Society moving to the then Department for Culture, Media & Sport.

That move turned out to be a good one. I heard the arguments about the downgrading of the sector from the centre of government, but getting the OCS out of the Cabinet Office was a relief. The proximity to Number 10 under David Cameron was a mixed blessing: it meant a higher level of special adviser and senior civil servant interest, but the interference was at times unmanageable. It created unnecessary problems, for example with Kids Company - I wanted to withdraw funding from it as soon as practicable. Fortunately, the sector didn't see behind the curtain.

I don't think I'm being controversial if I say that some charity sector representatives are naturally suspicious of a Conservative government. David Cameron and Nick Hurd went some way to overcoming this scepticism and did much to improve relationships, although this progress was somewhat undermined by Brooks Newmark's brief tenure.

As a new Conservative minister, I felt that some of the previous mistrust had returned. The assumption, voiced loudly by some, was that I did not care and lacked passion, and I had no track record in the sector to help dispel these myths.

In fact, I was passionate and did care very much, as did the government. But as a minister my role couldn't just be about warm words. I had to focus on making serious and beneficial reforms, whether they were popular or not. Rather than seeking the sector's affection, I wanted to reshape it for the difficult challenges ahead and enable it to punch its weight. I have no doubt the sector will be in a significantly better place as my reforms run through.

The fact that some people from bigger charities and representative bodies might not be naturally sympathetic to the different challenges and perspective brought by a Conservative government and minister did not matter to me a jot.

Group-think mentality

I liked and respected the people I met from the sector, who often sat around my office table and gave me their views. I hope I always listened attentively and with an open mind. The one concern about these meetings was that ideas to challenge orthodox sectoral thinking were rare. It became apparent that some within the sector shared the worry that it had become too inward looking and had developed a group-think mentality.

In government, we were often surprised by the issues that were given highest priority. The big strategic issue for the sector is blindingly obvious: how can new funding streams be created to sustain and increase the much-needed contribution of charities and social enterprises to society at a time of stretched public funds? This is likely to be the case for a long time, so it's what I wanted government to focus on.

We felt the sector's prime concern should be the independence that new funding streams would provide. The implications of this were twofold: first, the sector needed to prioritise protecting its reputation; and, second, it had to support and advocate robust and effective regulation.

On these points the government and the sector should have been completely united in close partnership - and should be in the future. They help to increase public trust, support and funding to benefit charitable causes. It was disappointing, therefore, when government and some charity leaders did not fully concur on important reforms to fundraising and additional powers for the Charity Commission.

I saw these as essential in the drive to support a culture of trust. Many charities are much loved because they do such fantastic work, but it is still essential to uncover new sources of funding. Much progress has been made by government on this. I was keen to make available a wide range of funding sources as taxpayer-funded grants became harder to come by. Social investment, social impact bonds and payment by results will continue to grow in importance despite healthy scepticism.

So will a new openness to small and medium-sized charities and social enterprises winning government contracts. The fundamentals are in place. Independence and resilience will also cement the third sector in government thinking over time.

I took pride in identifying new funding sources. The Dormant Assets Commission has provided a blueprint to bring in up to £2bn and the Reclaim Fund will soon release tens of millions of pounds. My plan, alongside culture secretary Karen Bradley, was to set these into a long-term matched fund that would keep growing and fund local charities' work for decades to come, complementing the Big Lottery Fund but just as significant in scope and influence.

Alongside other initiatives, this would produce a multibillion-pound, long-term flow of funding. A generous country and an innovative government working closely with an open-minded, well-regulated and efficient sector - this was the vision that I had and there was genuine support for it in government.

My advice

I will finish with three pieces of advice. First, don't get sidetracked by inward- focused debates: what matters is creating new funding sources. The sector can do much more to align with government to bring this about. For example, although fracking is vehemently opposed by some green charities, there is no doubt it will go ahead at scale. It is a huge potential source of community finance, and charity leaders need to make the case for their share now.

Second, back the Charity Commission through thick and thin. It upholds the sector's reputation and is essential to its success. If it needs more money to deliver additional services, don't hesitate to support it. The same applies to the Fundraising Regulator. These bodies have the sector's best interests at heart.

Finally, get closer to the Conservative Party and government: judge them on their actions. We do value the role of charities highly, but we have a different view about how things are delivered. Get involved, help shape policy development and be open-minded. You have my best wishes and support. Good luck!

Rob Wilson was the Minister for Civil Society from September 2014 to June 2017

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