The trustees of Society Network Foundation (Big Society Network) issued a statement defending themselves against the growing number of accusations of impropriety they’ve faced in recent days. The statement claimed that all the accusations are unsubstantiated and unproven and that they have acted properly at all times. They fiercely denied having used political influence to secure the grants which have been the subject of much scrutiny and questioning over the past couple of weeks.
The statement went on to address many of the claims that have been made and for that they deserve credit. However the SNF trustees have not addressed, nor to be fair could they be expected to, was what role the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office Ministers Nick Hurd and Francis Maude played in decisions to put over £2m into the Big Society Network. We still do not know whether Ministers intervened in the procedures of the Big Lottery Fund, Nesta and the Social Investment Business (who had been contracted to deliver the Social Action Fund) to secure support for SNF/BSN.
We have now had statements from the Cabinet Office, Nesta, Big Lottery Fund and SNF all denying that they have done anything other than follow their procedures (which rather begs the question whether their procedures are fit for purpose). But we have not heard anything at all about the role of Ministers. And yet the National Audit Office report does not mince its words. It makes clear that the actions of BIG and the Cabinet Office fell below the standards expected of guardians of public money. So do we believe the massed ranks of organisations accused of acting questionably, or the NAO, with their track record of uncovering poor practice of public spending? Hmmmm….
Frankly SNF would not have had to use political influence if the Prime Minister and his colleagues were falling over themselves to fund them. In fact, we don’t know whether any agreement to fund BSN was made before they even constituted themselves. They had no track record of delivering the type of scheme they proposed and were not connected to the hundreds of thousands of local community groups that their delivery plans relied on engaging. Did Ministers make clear that funding would be forthcoming if the election was won?
Was that the basis for the BSN being set up?
One element of the SNF statement jumped out at me. They denied that any unauthorised payments were made to officers (of BSN or SNF) and explained that the £40,000 paid to trustee Martyn Rose had been authorised by trustees. Okay. It happens. Some charities do, from time to time, seek exemptions from the Charity Commission to make payments to their trustees. The rules on this are quite clear; payments to trustees can only be justified where it is in the best interests of the charity and its beneficiaries.
The explanation given by SNF seems to suggest that Mr Rose had contributed £193,000 personally to support the BSN and so his ‘net contribution’ was, after the £40,000 payment, still in excess of £150,000. As if the amount of money someone donates has any relevance to them receiving payments for services from that charity? Does the Gates Foundation use its funding as leverage to sell Microsoft products? I don’t think so. The argument presented is at best irrelevant and at worst suggests a disregard for Charity Law.
Society Network Foundation’s statement says they are not planning any new projects for the time being (be grateful for small mercies), though that’s not true of the charity’s named contact and CEO of the Big Society Network, Steve Moore, who is in the process of setting up a new charity which has something to do with the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta, or not. Cynics might suggest it is not mere coincidence that the Government have announced they will put £1m into funding to commemorate the occasion.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of all these murky events, I suspect that even if no laws have been broken, what went on appears to have fallen well below the standards which we should expect from those administering public money.
I hope that we can yet determine whether Ministers personally intervened to secure funding for their pet project. A project which turned out to the a complete waste of taxpayers money.
UPDATE 12.00 Mon 4th Aug 2014
Steve Moore emailed me this morning with the following:
“I want to make clear that I have supported the development of a new charitable application but that this has been undertaken wholly independently of the Society Network Foundation and the Big Society Network.
I further want to be be clear that at no point have I had any contact with any Government Minister or civil servant regarding this charity application. I was totally unaware of the Government’s funding commitment to the Magna Carta until it was announced in the Budget. I have made no approach to any public body for funding for this charity.
You will be aware that the comments in your post might arouse suspicion among your readers that this charity was set up in anticipation of (and with some prior knowledge of) Government funding being available to support the Magna Carta anniversary. This is not true and were it be inferred by your readers would potentially be damaging to the reputation of myself and the prospective trustees.
I would be grateful if you would kind enough to acknowledge the contents of this e mail, correct your blog post accordingly and tweet out any subsequent correction to make your readers and followers aware of this correspondence.
My very best