Last week, the National Audit Office produced a report about grants to the now-defunct charity the Society Network Foundation and its operational arm the Big Society Network, which was set up to help promote the government’s big society agenda. The report was a sequel to an earlier one, published in July, which found that the Cabinet Office and the Big Lottery Fund had not followed all their own procedures in funding a number of big society projects that rapidly failed, such as Get In, Your Square Mile and Britain’s Personal Best.
The first report reflected poorly on the behaviour of the Cabinet Office, which changed its guidelines to make sure a grant was made to the youth volunteering project Get In even though the Social Investment Business, which administered the relevant fund, had initially turned it down.
The second report reveals how, in the case of a later grant it made directly to the Society Network Foundation, the Cabinet Office was, in effect, having its arm twisted by No 10 Downing Street. The foundation needed more money to put on the Big Society Awards in 2013, but the Cabinet Office felt this would not be appropriate because the foundation was having difficulty managing its finances and had not filed its accounts.
The report details how the Prime Minister’s office got involved and asked the Cabinet Office, despite its reservations, to continue with the grant. The Minister for Civil Society at the time, Nick Hurd, then decided the grant should go ahead, "but subject to clarity over the key performance indicators". The episode is a cameo of how the pecking order works in government.
Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, says that No 10 has questions to answer about how it overrode the warnings of the Cabinet Office, and maybe the committee will summon witnesses and put those questions to them. The shadow minister for civil society, Lisa Nandy MP, is right to point out that the Conservative donors and supporters who ran the Big Society Network were working "hand in glove" with ministers and advisers to obtain grant funding.
The trustees of the foundation have issued a statement saying that there was no evidence of malpractice and that the opprobrium it attracted was "plainly politically motivated" and made it difficult for it to operate effectively.
Labour did indeed lead the criticism, but the point is that the criticism was justified. The Society Network Foundation was part of the Prime Minister’s pet big society project; it received a lot of public and lottery money as a result of a series of manouevres or special persuasion, as the NAO reports have indicated; and it wasted that money on a series of projects that were either half-baked, poorly executed, or both.