The Independent today reported that the trustees of the beleaguered Society Foundation Network (which ran the Big Society Network) have begun proceedings to wind up the charity. The company will also be wound up. (In case you’re wondering… Big Society Network was set up as a company, not a charity – as that was further evidence that Big Society was not more of the same old charities, it didn’t matter if you were a privately owned company you could still do good…. and turn a profit).
It’s not particularly surprising that the trustees have decided to call it a day. They’ve been under the microscope for some time now – after a period of some years when no one wanted to listen to the questions emanating from some charity sector leaders – and the questions are not going away. Unlike of course, the money, which has all gone…apart from that which has been ‘saved’ by funders who finally (FINALLY!??!) decided to withdraw their grant.
The Charity Commission have said that their investigation will continue. It is apparently an ‘operational compliance’ case…which is not a particularly serious inquiry, so don’t hold your breath there. And so the trustees – who may well have been good intentioned – disappear until, no doubt, we see them re-appear magically re-invented in some other guise. And the whole sordid, sorry affair disappears (like that £2.5m again!)
But, as I’ve said before, I feel that the Big Society Network are not the real story here. We have heard nothing about the role that the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office Ministers, Nick Hurd and Francis Maude, played in decisions to fund BSN.
The Big Society Network may have been naïve, arrogant, self-important and even megalomaniacal, but they were only making the most of an opportunity which was presented to them. If decisions had not been made at the notionally independent funders – Nesta, BIG Lottery Fund and Social Investment Business – to support BSN then there would have been no issue here.
So, the questions which Parliament and the NAO really ought to be investingating is who made these decisions?
Did Ministers pressure funders into supporting BSN? Clearly Liam Black, who was a trustee of Nesta at the time, has said they were ‘forced’ to fund them.
The official lines from BIG, Nesta and the Cabinet Office has all been that there was nothing untoward going on and these decisions were all above board. Well they would say that wouldn’t they?
Whichever way you look at it, some absolutely appalling decisions have been taken and – since this is public money – someone should be held accountable for those decisions.
I am still firmly of the view that there are Ministerial fingerprints all over this. I’ve seen enough of Whitehall up close to know how the machine works and it seems implausible to me that these things happened without Ministerial oversight at the very least. To take one example, I cannot believe that the request made to Social Investment Business to ‘look again’ at BSN’s application for funding and the instruction to change the eligibility criteria would have happened without Ministerial sign off.
If Ministers want to fund disastrous vanity projects – and let’s face it lots of them do – then that is actually their prerogative and we can judge them for it at the next election. What I really object to is them doing so secretly in an underhand way, and in wasting everyone else’s time by creating a completely unequal playing field. Think how many charities and community groups applied to these funders for grants only to be rejected as the pot had already been licked clean by BSN? Now think of the hours spent on each application they submitted?
It’s a lot of waste of precious charitable time and money. Waste that could have been prevented if Ministers had just come out and said ‘we don’t like any of you existing charities and community groups, we want private companies like BSN to deliver social good now’.