Rob Wilson, the Minister for Civil Society, has been challenged in parliament about why his department has refused to release the details of meetings between his advisers and the Society Network Foundation, the charity that owned the now-defunct Big Society Network.
During Cabinet Office questions in the House of Commons yesterday, Lisa Nandy, the shadow minister for civil society, questioned Wilson about why the department had refused to answer 76 parliamentary questions about more than £3m of funding given to the Big Society Network.
"Will the minister explain why his department, which is supposed to be responsible for government transparency, has refused to release any minutes or attendance lists of meetings between his advisers, the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation, and why over six months he has refused to answer 76 parliamentary questions on the subject?" asked Nandy.
"Some £3m was wasted, there were two damning reports from the National Audit Office and the only beneficiary from the big society has been a Tory donor’s bank account. Is it any wonder that the minister does not want to answer questions about it?"
Wilson said that it was the convention of this and previous administrations that the minutes of ministerial meetings were not routinely released, but that all the information pertinent to the issue had been shared with the NAO in the course of its investigations.
"As for the Tory party donors that she mentioned, it is not the case that any of the trustees gained financially from the Cabinet Office funding," said Wilson.
"The matter has been investigated by the Charity Commission and the NAO twice, which both found no evidence of what she suggests. Furthermore, the trustees of the charities have invested significant personal resources into them."
Wilson was earlier challenged by Paul Blomfield, the Labour MP for Sheffield Central, to justify the funding given to the BSN and the SNF, which totalled more than £3m from organisations including the Cabinet Office and the Big Lottery Fund.
Blomfield referred to the National Audit Office report, published in November, which showed that the Prime Minister's Office had a hand in securing a grant of £150,000 for the Big Society Network to run the Big Society Awards.
"Voluntary sector organisations in my constituency tell me they are struggling to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable as a result of this government’s policies, yet the NAO report shows that millions of pounds of public money was wasted on failing projects as a direct result of Prime Ministerial interference and ministerial decisions taken despite concerns raised about financial sustainability and weak performance," said Blomfield.
"Is not that truly shocking? When other charities are struggling to survive, how does the minister justify it?"
Wilson said he disagreed that the government should avoid funding new and innovative approaches, despite the risks that came with doing so.
He said that he welcomed the NAO’s latest report, which he said found no issues with Cabinet Office processes and did not have any wider implications for his department’s policies.