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Cabinet Office grant to Big Society charity questioned

  • @oliver_wright

A senior political adviser to David Cameron arranged a meeting in Downing Street to garner support for a charity accused of squandering £2.5m of public funds, The Independent has learnt.

Shaun Bailey, a special adviser to the Prime Minister on Youth and Crime, invited representatives of the Big Society Network to Downing Street so they could pitch a proposal to a group of parent-teacher associations.

Three months later, the network was awarded a grant of £299,000 by the Cabinet Office for the Get In project, which never got off the ground and the funding for which has never been repaid.

The Cabinet Office has always claimed that it followed correct procedures in awarding the grant and that it was not subject to political interference. They said that the meeting at No 10 was to discuss increasing volunteering in schools more widely and there were several organisations present.

But investigations reveal that the Parent-Teacher Association UK (PTA-UK) said it was given the impression at the Downing Street meeting that funding was “virtually guaranteed” – three months before the grant was awarded.

Mr Bailey was a key Cameron aide in Downing Street at the time and his involvement in brokering the meeting would have been seen as a clear signal of the Prime Minister’s personal support for the Big Society Network.

Unusually, the meeting was also attended by Almudena Lara, head of the Cabinet Office’s Social Action Fund. At the time she would have had an important role scrutinising the network’s bid.

The meeting would appear to back suggestions made by a senior figure involved in the bid that political pressure was brought to bear to ensure the bid was successful.

A recent report by the National Audit Office revealed that the Social Action Fund had previously rejected an application from the network for Get In because it did not meet eligibility requirements.

The Cabinet Office then amended those requirements and asked the fund to reconsider the application. The bid was rejected a second time.The Cabinet Office then asked the BSN to submit a third bid which was finally approved.

Tim Partington, chair of the PTA-UK, said the organisation’s CEO and a senior manager had been invited to attend the meeting at No 10 on 31 January 2012 by Mr Bailey but were not informed what it was about.

“The meeting turned out to be a pitch by the Big Society Network to solicit support for the Get In project,” he said.

“The impression was given that the bid was virtually guaranteed success. The trustees of PTA-UK decided not to support the bid based on the information provided.”

Trustees of the Big Society Network are due to meet representatives of the Charity Commission today to discuss the on-going inquiries into the organisation that The Independent revealed last week.

The Network is facing allegations that it misused government funding and made inappropriate payments to its directors – including a Tory donor.