On Friday the Independent reported that the government is seeking to recoup around £34,000 of funds given to the Big Society Network, following growing accusations of impropriety. On the face of it this has to be a good thing and if any public money has been misused then it is appropriate that every effort is made to recoup taxpayer’s money. However, whilst £34,000 might sound impressive, it’s less than 1.5% of the money that Big Society Network (and its parent charity Society Network Foundation) were awarded by public bodies including the Cabinet Office, Nesta and the Big Lottery Fund.
Suddenly the figures don’t sound quite so impressive do they? More of a gesture than anything else.
Or perhaps, if you were a cynically-minded person, you might wonder whether this was actually more of a deliberate attempt to deflect attention away from the government onto the Big Society Network.
Charity Minister, Brooks Newmark’s public admission that the government were trying to claw back this money puts the spotlight firmly on the trustees of the Big Society Network. It distracts us from focussing on the real issue at hand, which is why did the government see fit to directly award, or strong-arm others to make grants totalling more than £2.5m to an organisation with no track record to support half-baked proposals that promised the earth but delivered nothing?
We have still had no answer to questions about the role that Ministers and senior officials played in the grants being awarded. Why did former Nesta trustee, Liam Black, say that the organisation was ‘forced’ to fund BSN? If the senior Cabinet Office official quoted by the Independent who says they were told to “…go back and make it [the BSN application] work’ is correct, who was giving the instructions?
BSN’s trustees have responded by saying that the use of funds for the Get In project, which never saw the light of day, to support their other work had been sanctioned by the Cabinet Office. If that’s the case then there’s no prospect of any money being recouped (and I personally do not believe any money will be recouped) and eyes will – rightly – turn back to the Cabinet Office for agreeing to spend the money this way.
I feel there is little prospect of the truth emerging from the Cabinet Office. Governments have a knack of keeping things murky when there’s embarrassing information to disclose (WMD anyone?). More likely is a continuation of the ‘he said….she said’ mud-slinging between the former allies as they seek to absolve themselves of any blame.
More likely to shed light on the affair is the ongoing Charity Commission investigation into whether BSN acted in accordance with Charity Law. If they did spend funds restricted to the Get In project to fund their general activity without permission, then they would be in breach of Charity Law and the consequences are serious. If the trustees can prove they had permission to vary the terms of the funding, as they claim, then the Cabinet Office’s pursuit of BSN might be considered harassment. At the very least, it would be deliberate waste of public funds (no doubt the legal costs and time wasted pursuing the claim will exceed the £34,000 they’re seeking).
It would then be fair to suggest that their actions were a deliberate attempt to place the blame on the Big Society Network for their own failings.