Big Society ‘in tatters’ says Labour – as charity funds face recall

Government seeks to recoup £34,000 from fitness project that never began

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The Government is seeking to recoup almost £34,000 from a charity closely connected with David Cameron after an investigation found that it didn’t spend the money on the project it was given for.

The Cabinet Office has already admitted it failed to follow its own rules when it decided to award a Social Action Fund grant of £299,800 to Big Society Network’s parent charity, Society Network Foundation, in 2012. 

The childhood-fitness project that the grant was meant to pay for never even launched, but the decision to scrap it came only after £200,000 had been spent.

Now the Cabinet Office minister Brooks Newmark has revealed that government is seeking to recoup £33,994 of that money after discovering it was not used for the Get In project but was transferred to pay for other parts of Big Society Network’s operations.

Last month, the trustees of Society Network Foundation issued a statement insisting that they had been given authorisation by the Cabinet Office to move the unspent Social Action Fund grant into general funds.

The directors of Big Society Network and Society Network Foundation have applied to Companies House to have the firms struck off the register; however, an objection has been lodged against Society Network Foundation’s application. It is not known who lodged the objection but this can be someone that is owed money by the organisation.

The shadow Cabinet Office minister Lisa Nandy told the House of Commons: “We now know that the Government’s Big Society lies in tatters.

“We have since learned that the charity the Prime Minister ... launched at No 10 Downing street is not only under investigation by the Charity Commission, but is under investigation for moving Cabinet Office funding to its parent company, which is chaired by a major Conservative Party donor who also earned hefty consultancy fees from it.”

She then asked Mr Newmark: “Was the Cabinet Secretary aware that government funding was being transferred not to the thousands of legitimate charities in this country, but to the bank account of a Conservative party donor?”

Mr Newmark replied: “This allegation has been investigated by the grants manager, and appropriate action to recover any funds not spent in line with the grant agreement is being taken.” Mr Newmark also said “no evidence of impropriety has been found”.

The Cabinet Office later confirmed: “As per the minister’s comments, this allegation has been investigated by the grants manager .... The figure that we are seeking to recoup is £33,994.”

The Big Society Network, launched by Mr Cameron, was given at least £2.5m of National Lottery funding and public-sector grants despite at the time having no track record of charitable activity.

A project called Your Square Mile, whose purpose was to encourage and enable locals to improve their community, was awarded £830,000 by the Big Lottery Fund – despite officials assessing the application as “weak” in three out of the six criteria. In February 2012 the project had just 64 signed-up groups compared with the one million predicted in the funding application.

Another project, called Britain’s Personal Best, which aimed to build on the Olympics by encouraging people to excel in athletic, educational or creative challenges, was given £997,960 in April 2013 by the Big Lottery Fund. It claimed it would sign up 120,000 people to take on challenges in their community – but was wound up within months after failing to meet all the milestones the Big Lottery Fund had set.

Last night the Society Network Foundation stated: "It is the Charity's position that there is no basis to demanding repayment of the grant as suggested because the Cabinet Office agreed to waive the grant conditions when the remaining grant was withdrawn, thereby enabling the balance of funds held by the Charity to be applied to general operating costs. The Charity has set out its position to Social Investment Business the administrators of the grant about this issue and have not yet received a response from them."

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