BIG leaders are far too close to government, says shadow minister

BIG leaders are far too close to government, says shadow minister
Civil Society, by Tania Mason     

The Big Lottery Fund’s board and senior management are dysfunctional and have allowed themselves to become far too close to ministers, shadow minister for civil society Gareth Thomas has alleged.

In an exclusive interview with, Thomas said there was an “atmosphere of fear around BIG in the sector”, with “no charity wanting to be seen to criticise BIG for fear of jeopardising future grant applications either for themselves, their affiliates or others in their networks”.

“There is no proper evaluation of BIG grants and no transparency around solicited bids,” Thomas continued. “There’s a perception that you have to know somebody within BIG to get a grant.

“Yet charities with quite legitimate concerns about the way it operates are not willing to articulate this for fear of being victimised in future grants programmes.”

Serious reform is necessary, he contended. “Ministers and BIG have become far too close – there should be much more active scrutiny by Parliament.”

Grants to Big Society Network group

The funding given to Big Society Network and its charitable arm Society Network Foundation is a prime example of this, Thomas said. Big Society Network was awarded £830,000 by BIG in 2011 to run the Your Square Mile project, yet Thomas said he had heard from sources in the sector that the project did not meet most of its objectives. He has asked BIG to provide him with its evaluation of the project.

Thomas queried BSN’s “track record” which has been cited by the Cabinet Office, Social Investment Business and Big Lottery Fund for their decisions to award funding to it outside of published criteria or without a competitive pitch.

“The track record so far seems to be one of failure,” he said. “Your Square Mile has apparently not delivered, Get In did not deliver. That organisation and its subsidiaries have failed or are failing to deliver on two major projects. So why did BIG award another million pounds in May this year?

“It’s hard to avoid the implication that this particular charity might have got money because of its close connections to government.”

Thomas also raised doubts that BSN’s latest project, Britain’s Personal Best, would deliver on its objectives given that it is due to launch on the weekend of 3-5 October yet has only just advertised for a volunteer manager, a nations manager and a project manager, not yet announced any media partners, and its website is still no more than a holding page.

“The timescale to make anything like a success of the £1m investment in the Britain’s Personal Best initiative looks incredibly tight,” Thomas said. “Is BIG monitoring this award and can it reclaim some of the monies it has allocated if the organisation does not meet its objectives?”

He questioned how much due diligence was conducted by BIG, by the Cabinet Office and the Social Investment Business before the grants to BSN and SNF were made, given that SNF has never filed any accounts and BSN has only ever filed abbreviated balance sheets, both of which were filed late with Companies House.

The fact that the agency has never seen fit to publish the fact that it has received over £3m of public and lottery money is worrying in itself and should have been a red light to any funder.

He said the public has a right to know how taxpayers’ money is being spent and that it should not require a huge investigative exercise to find out whether an organisation has got public funding. 

Social Investment Business not wholly transparent

Thomas also criticised the lack of transparency demonstrated by SIB CEO Jonathan Jenkins in a letter responding to Thomas’ enquiries regarding the Social Action Fund grant to Big Society Network.

In it, Jenkins admits that SIB awarded £199,900 from the Social Action Fund to Society Network Foundation, but fails to mention that the original award was for £299,800 and that the final £100,000 was withheld because SNF failed to deliver on the Get In project that it had been funded for.

Thomas only found this out in a Parliamentary answer from civil society minister Nick Hurd.

He said he had written back to Jenkins to seek further clarity.  “I would have thought that as the shadow minister I would have been entitled to be given a more accurate explanation,” he said.

“Big Society Network seems to have had privileged access to ministers, to the Big Lottery Fund and to the Social Investment Business, and that cannot be allowed to continue,” he concluded.

BIG: no evidence to support claims

The Big Lottery Fund rejected Thomas’ claims, saying it had already offered to meet the shadow minister to discuss his concerns.

It said in a statement: “The recent independent and anonymous survey of the Big Lottery Fund’s stakeholders demonstrated that the Fund compares favourably to other funders, with 73 per cent of respondents supporting the view that Big Lottery Fund is an effective funder.  This is further supported by our regular customer feedback which demonstrates 81.4 per cent overall satisfaction with our service by our customers and 89 per cent of our customers say they have been treated fairly.

“Big Lottery Fund supports around 12,000 projects a year, each of which is independently assessed. The award to Society Network Foundation for the project Britain’s Personal Best…followed our stringent assessment criteria which considered the organisation’s ability to deliver the relevant project outcomes as well as assessing the organisation’s general financial situation. We are actively managing these awards.

“The Big Lottery Fund, its board and senior management team continue to work tirelessly to support individuals and communities most in need, through independent and transparent grantmaking. There is no evidence to support the suggestions made by Mr Thomas.”