Rob Wilson: 'I'm trying to build a system of support'

The Minister for Civil Society tells Stephen Cook about his vision of sustainability for charities and social enterprises

Rob Wilson
Rob Wilson

The new Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, comes across as a man who chooses his words carefully - which is perhaps not surprising after the problems with terminology experienced by his predecessor during his short and ill-starred tenure.

Brooks Newmark was lured into asserting that charities should "stick to their knitting" and was obliged to clarify the next day that he supported campaigning consistent with charitable objectives. Wilson's response on this key issue is more carefully scripted.

"I think challenge is important," he says. "It's important that charities can campaign on things that matter to them, and as long as they do that within the rules, I welcome it. If they stray into the party political area, there are clear Charity Commission rules against that, and I support the rules as they stand."

The key thing is that charities are as transparent as possible in how they spend their money

He plays a similarly straight bat on other controversial sector subjects, such as Oxfam's Perfect Storm campaign, still under examination by the Charity Commission five months after a complaint from the Conservative MP Conor Burns. "It's wise for me to wait - I don't want to prejudge the issue," says Wilson. On chief executive salaries, he says: "The key thing is that charities are as transparent as possible in how they spend their money."

What about the National Audit Office reports criticising Cabinet Office and Big Lottery Fund grants to the Big Society Network? "This was before my time, of course. It seems like we funded something ambitious that didn't work out and has subsequently been very heavily scrutinised."

But Wilson becomes more expansive when talking about the role of charities and social enterprises in public service delivery - which perhaps reflects his entrepreneurial experience. This began, he says, with a school bookmaking business at the age of 14 - "probably illegal" - and continued with building up two businesses, which he sold when elected as Tory MP for Reading East in 2005.

"We need first to focus relentlessly on sustainability for the sector," he says. "Charities should not be at the mercy of the economy or government funding or grants. They have to build in a robustness, and we have to help build a robustness in the system, that means we don't get these big peaks and troughs.

"One of the main ways of achieving this is that the state shouldn't be doing everything. The public sector and Whitehall aren't great at pulling levers and getting things done out in the regions and localities. We need to find a much more active and responsive system.

"And that's going to take two things. One is a much more proactive commissioning process from government that is simple and not too demanding; the other is that we have to help to build much more capacity in the sector to be able to deliver what government is going to need in the future.

"So I'm trying to build a system that supports social enterprises and charities at every stage: from incubators to help with contracts and help with getting the first round of funding, to what we're doing with Big Society Capital.

"What I want in the future is a system whereby we fully support social enterprises and charities, whatever stage of their development they are at."

Wilson mentions the investment and contract readiness fund, which has allocated its original £10m but received an extra £1.5m to last until March, and says there are plans "for a much bigger fund that really does what I've been talking to you about. So I hope you can see an emerging picture about the different sizes and types of organisation out there, needing different types of help, and what I'm trying to build, which is a flexible system of financing and options that will give them the support they need when they need it."

He does not give details of the "much bigger fund", but after the interview it emerges that this is to be a £100m fund running over 10 years, which he had mentioned, in passing, in a speech just before the Autumn Statement. This will consist partly of £60m in repayments of loans from the now defunct Futurebuilders fund, which were first announced back in June.

The remaining £40m contribution, which is yet to be finalised, is to come from the Big Lottery Fund and Big Society Capital. Both organisations appeared to be taken aback when asked about it, saying the details had yet to be finalised and were expected to be announced in the new year.

So what about the effect of the lobbying act on charities and Wilson's pitch to the sector in the forthcoming election? He thinks the act was necessary to give the public more confidence in the way third parties interact with the political system, and will avert the situation in some countries where "unregulated billions" are put into political campaigns. "The act does not prevent charities from campaigning to further their charitable purposes," he adds.

In the election campaign, Wilson says, the big issues are, as usual, going to be about the economy, education and health, and he downplays the idea of the big society featuring strongly in the next Conservative manifesto. "But I personally think we have a really strong story to tell, both about our record in office as a coalition government and about the civil society area, and I'm sure we'll have a strong manifesto offering to take that forward."

How Wilson was diverted from prisons to charities via a book of scandals and a shock resignation

Wilson's appointment as charities minister is in some ways an accident of history and timing. His longest-standing political interests have been children and education rather than charities and the voluntary sector: he was an early advocate of the pupil premium, which gives schools extra funding for children who are looked after or otherwise disadvantaged, and was shadow minister for higher education until 2010.

He was not appointed as a minister when the coalition government took office, and soon afterwards he published his first book, 5 Days to Power, an account of the negotiations that led to the deal between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Until this year his only political appointments have been as parliamentary private secretary, first to Jeremy Hunt at the Department of Health and then to George Osborne, the Chancellor.

But in the July reshuffle this year he was invited by David Cameron to be prisons minister and was faced with a harsh dilemma. His second book, which has a strong political theme, was about to be published, and Whitehall rules meant that he would have to cancel publication if he accepted. But the book, The Eye of the Storm: the View from the Centre of a Political Scandal, had already been printed and distributed to shops and reviewers, and he regretfully turned down the job.

The book was about the human side of political disasters, ranging from the MPs' expenses scandal to the downfalls of Labour ministers Charles Clarke and Jacqui Smith, the former LibDem energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne and the former Conservative minister Andrew Mitchell in the so-called "plebgate" saga.

"No one sees or is really that interested in the impact of these scandals and dramas on the individuals concerned and their families," Wilson has said. "And the cost, in the fury and heat of the moment, can be considerable."

One theme of the book is that ministers in trouble could not necessarily expect the help of 10 Downing Street, but this did not prevent David Cameron calling up Wilson when Brooks Newmark fell from grace in September after texting explicit pictures of himself to a journalist posing as a young female PR worker.

One of the ironies of this sequence of events is that if Wilson's book had been published three months later, it would almost certainly have included an account of the most colourful and tragic political falls from grace in recent years - that of his predecessor.

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