Stephen Cook: No clouds in the sky for the charities minister

But some sector leaders want more from Rob Wilson on the bigger picture, writes Third Sector's contributing editor

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Everything is going swimmingly: this appears to be the assessment by the charities minister, Rob Wilson, of the current state of play in the voluntary sector. In his latest interview with Third Sector, the only clouds he sees in the sky seem to have silver linings.

Some aspects of his satisfaction are understandable. For example, he kept his job in the great Brexit shake-out – indeed, he made a point of saying that he had told Theresa May before she became leader that he would like to carry on, which suggests that he supported her for the leadership and is therefore now doubly content. May’s Maidenhead constituency is next door to Wilson’s in Reading East.

Second, he faces no political opposition to speak of: Jeremy Corbyn is finding it difficult enough to appoint shadow ministers for the great offices of state, let alone find a replacement for Anna Turley, who resigned from the shadow charities brief in June. The result is that Wilson can say more or less what he likes without much challenge from the opposition, which no doubt has a cheering effect on him.

Third, he sees the controversies of recent years over fundraising and regulation as pretty much sorted: he has been midwife to the new Fundraising Regulator and steered new powers through parliament to consolidate the Charity Commission’s evolution into a more robust regulator. All that now remains, in his view, is for charities to behave themselves and stay out of the Daily Mail.

Wilson also makes a plausible case for the unexpected transplantation of his Office for Civil Society from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It means all the National Lottery distribution bodies are now under one roof, he points out, and there is scope for the arts sector to show charities how to reel in big philanthropists. Conversely, advances in social investment fostered by the OCS might also rub off on arts and culture: the minister could not resist using the word "synergy".

So how does all this play in the sector itself, as represented by its various leaders? First, there is a noticeable change of tone about Wilson himself since he took over the charities portfolio two years ago. Some of the early scepticism about whether he was the right man for the job seems to have morphed into acceptance: whatever his faults – the thinking seems to go – at least he has shown interest in the brief and got his head around it. Keeping him is generally seen as preferable to having to initiate someone new: better the devil you know.

On policy, sector leaders would have liked Wilson to talk about the bigger picture – safeguarding the interests of the voluntary sector in the coming upheaval of Brexit and promoting the greater role the sector could play in the Prime Minister’s vision that headlines the Conservative conference this week: "a country that works for everyone". Instead, Wilson listed projects such as the Dormant Assets Commission, making public sector contracts more available to smaller charities and measures to encourage giving and volunteering. Though laudable, these are hardly the "substantive policy issues or pan-sector needs" that at least one leader thinks need his attention.

This point connects with the view that the move of the OCS to the DCMS is in effect the demise of the project that began 10 years ago when Tony Blair created the Office of the Third Sector in the Cabinet Office in order to put the sector at the heart of government and spread the message across Whitehall that it should be fostered and harnessed, especially for the improvement of public services. One of the motives for the move to the DCMS might be clearing the decks for Brexit at the Cabinet Office. One of the justifications for it might be the potential for certain synergies at the DCMS, but there was always a feeling that the OCS was out of place in the Olympian atmosphere of the Cabinet Office, and here was a chance to move it out.

It might be that Wilson’s optimism about the advantages of the DCMS will be justified over time and that the OCS will retain what he calls "cross-government reach". It remains to be seen what will result from the recent appointment in No 10 of a special adviser on charities, Charlotte Lawson, who has worked for four years for the Centre for Social Justice, the think tank set up by the former work and pensions secretary and prominent Brexit campaigner Iain Duncan Smith.

But many observers simply think the OCS has been demoted into a department that has sometimes been seen as a rag-bag for functions that don’t quite fit elsewhere, and that more ambitious visions of the sector’s role will fade as a result. This would be of a piece with all the other constraints and misfortunes charities have recently suffered.

Wilson’s sunny outlook, in short, is not entirely reflected in the outside world. If he wants to shrink the distance between him and the sector, however, the single most significant move he could make would be to abandon the so-called no-lobbying clause for contracts between government and sector bodies, which was paused in the summer because of a potential legal challenge. Wilson asserts that an important principle is involved and the proposal is still being considered by the Cabinet Office. It’s possible that ministers will correct any potential legal defects in the proposal – by including an impact assessment, for example – and reintroduce it. One suspects the government will have greater matters on its mind and this one will stay in the long grass; but don’t count on it.

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