Nandy demands PM inquiry into Big Society Network grants

Nandy demands PM inquiry into Big Society Network grants
Civil Soceity, by Tania Mason

Lisa Nandy, the shadow minister for civil society, has written to David Cameron demanding an inquiry into the “squandering” by the Cabinet Office and Big Lottery Fund of millions of pounds of public money on “questionable projects” run by Big Society Network.

Nandy has picked up the baton from her predecessor, Gareth Thomas, who began asking Parliamentary questions last year about the cosy relationship between Big Society Network, the Cabinet Office, and BIG.  Thomas was prompted to look into the matter by Civil Society News’ own investigation into the ease with which BSN was able to acquire public funds.


Earlier this week the National Audit Office finally published its much-delayed report into the matter, which confirmed that the Cabinet Office had ignored its own appointed grants advisory panel and changed the application criteria in order to fund BSN, and that BIG failed to adequately consider the risks of funding its projects.


The NAO had begun investigating the grants last summer and its director general, Amyas Morse, had sent holding letters to Gareth Thomas on 28 August, 2 October, 10 January, 13 February and 11 April.  The final one promised Morse would “write again in May with a substantive response”.  In the end, the NAO’s report was not published until 21 July, a week after minister for civil society Nick Hurd stepped down in the government reshuffle.


Nandy: Millions squandered 


In her letter to the Prime Minister, Lisa Nandy said: “I hope you were as concerned as I was to discover that the Cabinet Office has wasted large sums of government funding on questionable projects which ended in failure.


“It is extraordinary that millions of pounds have been squandered, especially in this current climate where funding is scarce and many charitable organisations are fighting for survival.”


She urged Cameron to set up an immediate investigation into how the Cabinet Office “so clearly broke its own rules, and whether undue pressure was put on the Big Lottery to award funding to the Big Society Network and Society Network Foundation”.


“I’m sure you will be keen to ascertain how these two key aspects of your flagship Big Society policy could have fallen into such disrepute, particularly considering you personally launched the Big Society Network in No 10 just four years ago,” she told Cameron.


She also highlighted the other “worrying allegation” that has surfaced since the NAO report, namely the tweet by former Nesta trustee Liam Black claiming that Nesta was also “forced” to fund Big Society Network.  Nesta has denied this allegation.


Affair will ‘damage confidence in the government’ 


Nandy said the whole episode had caused much concern within the charity sector and she was “certain this will damage public confidence in the government”. She therefore asked Cameron to respond urgently to various questions:


* Will there be an inquiry into the Cabinet Office’s behaviour that addresses why the Cabinet Office broke its own rules and whether ministers put undue pressure on the Big Lottery Fund?


* Did ministers put pressure on any other organisations, including Nesta, to fund the Big Society Network or the Society Network Foundation?


* Why was the criteria changed to allow organisations that had existed for less than two years to receive funding from the Cabinet Office and will this now be reversed?


* Why was a second payment of £98,700 made to the Society Network Foundation in October 2012, despite the fact that the Cabinet Office was aware the project was failing?


* Did a minister authorise the second payment for the Get In project, and on what basis was that decision taken?


* Why didn’t the Cabinet Office investigate how its initial payment to the Society Network Foundation for the 
Get In project had been spent, and why was no account taken of the fact that – at the time the second payment was made – the project was in surplus of £60,800?


* What steps is the government taking to recover the £119,900 of taxpayers’ money it has wasted through the Get In project?


Big Society ‘a sham’ 


Nandy told Civil Society News this morning: “It’s deeply concerning to learn that millions of pounds were awarded to wasted vanity projects. At a time when many charities are fighting to survive, handing out large sums of money to flawed, pet projects is inexcusable.


“Given David Cameron launched the Big Society Network himself and given the connections between the organisations in question and the Conservative Party, there is an urgent need for further investigation.


“Above all, this shows that the Big Society was a sham which did little for communities and diverted money away from charities who badly need it.”


The PM’s office said Cameron would respond to Lisa Nandy in due course.