Olive Cooke case enabled fundraising reform despite charities not being responsible, says former minister

Rob Wilson tells a radio programme that the furore around her death created a 'political narrative' that allowed him to push through regulatory changes

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

Rob Wilson, the former Minister for Civil Society, said he "rode on the back" of the suicide of Olive Cooke to reform fundraising even though he was aware charities were not to blame for her death.

The 2015 death of Cooke, a 92-year-old poppy seller, provoked a furious media backlash against charities that led to the creation of the Fundraising Regulator in 2016.

A report into her death by the now defunct Fundraising Standards Board said she might have received almost 3,000 charity mailings in a year.

But her inquest heard that she suffered from depression and it was wrong to blame fundraising for her death.

Speaking on Radio 4 today, Wilson said civil servants briefed him "fairly quickly" that Cooke's story "wasn't as it seemed and we should steer clear of it".

But he said the furore created a "political narrative" that enabled him to pursue his reform agenda at a time when David Cameron, the Prime Minister at the time, was reluctant to do so in case it damaged his big society initiative.

Wilson said there had been complaints about face-to-face fundraisers, the amount of money going to fundraising agencies and the number of letters and phone calls asking for money before Cooke's suicide.

But he said everything "crystallised" with the publication of the critical report by the Fundraising Standards Board.

"That's the thing that meant there was a political narrative that could be built around it," he told Olive the Poppy Seller, a 30-minute programme broadcast as part of the series The Corrections, which revisits stories that left the public with the wrong idea.

"Either you construct something where you can take action or you ride on the back of something that's  happened so that you can take action. Either way I wanted to take action.

"The Cameron government would have been very risk-averse to me doing it without an issue to put the hook on it. That is essentially what it provided."

Wilson said that he "didn't want to use the death of someone in the way it might be coming across.

"But the fact was that whether the Olive Cooke story was the right one or not there was a problem that needed fixing."

Jo Fidgen and Chloe Hadjimatheou, co-presenters of the programme, said they found his comments "gobsmacking" because they revealed how politicians employed narratives.

Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, said in a statement that the programme highlighted how the Cooke story was misrepresented and had damaged the sector's reputation.

But he said this "does not mean that the subsequent reviews and reform of charity fundraising regulation that followed were inherently wrong".

He said: "We believe that fundraising is now of a higher standard as a result of both the changes to regulation and to fundraising practices more widely.

"So while Olive Cooke did not commit suicide because of charity fundraising, perhaps a real legacy of her tragic death is that it sparked important conversations about the values and culture of charity fundraising, leading to better standards of fundraising around the UK."

Ian MacQuillin, director of the fundraising think tank Rogare, told the programme "we wouldn't have the regulatory regime we have now" if it weren't for the death of Cooke, which he said created "real insecurity" in fundraising and caused "a siege mentality".

Jessica Dunne, Olive Cooke's grand-daughter, reiterated to the programme that the family did not blame charities.

"But once the story was out it was hard to change that and everybody was saying how she was this poor victim and these charities were terrible and they killed her," said Dunne. "That was so difficult."

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