Rob Wilson defends Eric Pickles 'sock-puppet charities' statement

The civil society minister insists that charity campaigning is an important role for charities, but says it would be wrong for political lobbying to be paid for by taxpayers' money

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, has said there is no "big problem" with a statement from the communities secretary, Eric Pickles, which urged all government departments to adopt an "anti-lobbying, anti-sock puppet clause" in agreements governing grants to charities and other groups.

Last week, Pickles published a written statement that said all government departments should stop making "payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence parliament, government or political parties".

Charity sector leaders expressed concern at his action.

Wilson was asked about Pickles’s statement yesterday at the pre-election hustings of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering.

The minister said he had been "absolutely crystal clear from the moment I’ve taken this job" that campaigning was an important role for charities.

But he said it was important that clear criteria were attached to grants and it would be wrong for political lobbying to be paid for by taxpayers’ money.

"Other parties might want to be alarmist about it, but I don't think there is a big problem here," Wilson said of Pickles’s statement, although he admitted he had not read the statement in detail.

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office – the department in which the Minister for Civil Society works – was unable to confirm whether it was considering Pickles’s proposal.

Lisa Nandy, Wilson’s Labour shadow, responded by saying: "I’ve been accused of being alarmist before I’ve even spoken, which is a new one."

She said she was concerned by Pickles’s statement and said that it was part of a "series of attacks on the sector's right to speak".

Nandy reiterated her previous commitments that a Labour government would repeal the lobbying act and ban gagging clauses from public contracts.

Both Nandy and Wilson told the event that government contracts were often too big to allow many charities to bid for them and they should be made smaller. Both said that public services would benefit from increased localism and devolution of power, although Nandy admitted: "It’s a challenge to let go – we’ll often talk about it in opposition."

She said that localism and devolution created a role for charities. "We would embed the sector's voice and independence into structures around the country," she said.

Nandy said a Labour government would avoid stamping its mark on the sector with grand projects. "Big, shiny national initiatives don't always deliver what you think they're going to when you work them out in Whitehall," she said.

But Wilson said he doubted that a Labour government would actually let go of that power and embrace localism. "Socialism wants a command-and-control system," he said.

Wilson said local bodies should be free of central government interference. "I don't want to go into local authorities and clinical commissioning groups and start running them for them," he said.

Speaking alongside Nandy and Wilson was Jean Lambert, a Green Party member of the European Parliament for London.

She told the event that the third sector was "a very strong part of the social glue that holds our society together" and  its campaigning voice was important. Lambert said: "It’s not a sector, in my view, that has ever been about silence, acquiescence and quiet good works."

The Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party, the two other parties invited to participate, declined to send spokespeople.

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