UK culture department takes responsibility for social enterprise

Responsibility for social enterprises and social investment in the UK government has moved from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The civil society brief has moved with the minister Rob Wilson as part of new prime minister Theresa May’s ministerial reshuffle.

The news, which has disappointed many social enterprise leaders, was confirmed on 21 July after several days of rumours.

Following the official announcement of his new role, minister for civil society and Conservative MP for Reading East, Rob Wilson, said: “I am delighted to be able to continue my role as minister for civil society, helping to build a bigger and stronger civil society with compassion at its heart.

“There is a huge amount of work still to do to deliver the improvements in society that I wish to see. There are things that I want to see through in the months ahead, which is why I asked to return. The next period will be extremely exciting for the sector, particularly with the great synergies between the Office for Civil Society and DCMS.”

However, many in the social enterprise and social investment sector reacted with dismay.

Even before the official announcement, more than 25 social enterprise leaders wrote to ministers at the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy imploring them to take on some responsibility for social enterprise, social investment and mutuals. Former civil society minister Nick Hurd, who gained much respect in the sector during his tenure, is now a minister in this department.

The letter, which was signed by Ed Mayo of Co-operatives UK, Daniel Brewer of Resonance and Jonathan Jenkins of the Social Investment Business, among others, said: “We are concerned about responsibility within government for civil society seemingly moving to DCMS. We are grateful to Rob Wilson for all his support for social enterprise and social investment and we value the Treasury’s work on co-operative society legislation, for instance.

“At the same time, these policy areas have always sat somewhat uncomfortably outside the Department for Business. We have welcomed ministerial responsibility for social enterprise sitting at the heart of government, but we have at times been frustrated by the absence this left in Victoria Street.”

From the outside looking in, it is difficult to see why civil society is being moved to the DCMS - Peter Holbrook

Reacting to the announcement, Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, said it was “a curious move”.

“From the outside looking in, it is difficult to see why civil society is being moved to the DCMS,” he said. “It is a curious move with potentially serious consequences for our sector’s future – there is a danger that the needs of social enterprises, social investors and mutuals will be sidelined.”

Nigel Kershaw, executive chair of The Big Issue Group, said the move was "disappointing".

He added: “While some social enterprises will work in the areas of culture, media and sport – our support extends beyond that. It’s about finding sustainable business solutions that are making a difference to people’s lives throughout the UK in a time when we need a more innovative way of doing business.”

Cliff Prior, chief executive of Big Society Capital, said: “We look forward to continuing our work with minister Rob Wilson in his new department to enable more charities and social enterprises to access social investment.

“In her acceptance speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May set out some of the key social challenges facing the UK, including the people left behind in the UK’s progress. At a time of change and uncertainty, charities and social enterprises make an ever more important contribution to tackling some of these tough social issues, and social investment can help them achieve more. 

“We encourage government to continue developing initiatives that support an innovative and vibrant social sector, from ensuring charities and social enterprises can bid for, and win, public service contracts, to delivering better outcomes for some of the most disadvantaged people in our communities.”

A government statement said the the functions of the Office for Civil Society have been transferred to the DCMS. However, it added that the Office for Civil Society’s functions relating to policy innovation – the Government Outcomes Lab – will remain at the Cabinet Office.

Wilson will report to Karen Bradley, the new secretary of state for culture, media and sport. He will also take on responsibility for libraries.

Karen Bradley said: “Culture, media and sport are all areas which help to make life richer, drive the economy and promote the UK around the world. The civil society work is an exciting addition to DCMS and fits perfectly with the department’s mission to enrich lives.”

Wilson supported Theresa May in the recent Conservative party leadership contest and backed the ‘remain’ camp in the Brexit vote.