Exclusive: Lottery ‘gambled’ £1m on David Cameron’s Big Society project

Scheme designed to boost volunteering was considered ‘risk’ – and failed to deliver

Britain’s main distributor of lottery money granted almost £1m to an organisation with close links to David Cameron that made a series of claims on its funding application which are now being disputed, The Independent has established.

The Big Lottery Fund gave the money to a project designed to capitalise on the legacy of the Olympics, even though the organisation behind it broke promises on a previous project which had received £830,000 of lottery funding.

Tonight the BLF admitted that “funding it [the project] was a risk” but insisted that it had included “close monitoring” in the grant offer.

Britain’s Personal Best never delivered the proposed weekend of volunteering to celebrate the Olympic spirit, and the BLF withdrew the grant. But £766,042 of lottery money it received had already been spent.

The revelations raise further questions over the practices employed by the Big Society Network which was behind the project and was launched by the Prime Minister to great fanfare shortly after he entered Downing Street.

Video: PM discusses 'Big Society' plan in 2011

Lisa Nandy, the shadow minister for civil society, said she was concerned as to whether any political connections between the Big Society Network (BSN) and the Conservatives had a bearing on the success of the bid. “Huge sums of money have been wasted on an organisation with virtually no track record but strong connections to the Conservative Party,” she said. “I have written to the Big Lottery at their invitation to request more information about how Britain’s Personal Best was funded. We urgently need greater transparency about what has gone on and a full account of why these grants were made.”

The Charity Commission is conducting an “operational compliance case” into the charity over separate allegations that it misused government funding. The Big Society Network denies the allegations.

An investigation by The Independent can now reveal that a number of the network’s key partners claim the information about their relationship with the project, which was set out in the bid to the BLF, was over-stated. Among the claims made by BSN were that it was supported by the NHS Confederation which, it said, “would enable us to reach their diverse workforce of 1.4 million employees”. It claimed the organisation would “integrate and flow” Britain’s Personal Best through its Sport and Heath Programme.

Lisa Nandy says more transparency is needed in the way Lottery grants are made Lisa Nandy says more transparency is needed in the way Lottery grants are made (Rex)
However the Confederation said this was not correct and that it was not the direct employer of NHS staff. It said it did not commit to “integrate and flow” Britain’s Personal Best through its Sport and Health Programme.

“In practice, we had one meeting of a small number of NHS organisations who met with the Britain’s Personal Best team to help them understand how to connect to the NHS. These conversations were summarised in a short news item in a newsletter sent to our members.”

The bid document also claimed that Institute of Fundraising was a “strategic network partner” that would provide “access to and engagement with the UK’s largest fundraising charities citing Save the Children, Shelter and Scope. But sources at the Institute said it made no commitment to BPB, held no meetings with them in advance of the bid document going in, and to its knowledge had not spoken to any of its members.

Several organisations quoted in the document said it accurately represented their position though some subsequently had concerns about how the project was run.

In a statement the trustees of the Big Society Network said: “The bid document for funding from the Big Lottery Fund on behalf of the Britain’s Personal Best programme was prepared rigorously and diligently over a nine-month period. The process involved consultations with a broad range of civil society organisations and other partners and at every stage during this period we worked with the Big Lottery Fund to respond to their requests to ensure that it met their specific requirements.

“The bid document was detailed, clear and transparent. The trustees are not aware of any political involvement at all in the process.

“All the partner organisations were known to the Big Lottery Fund and the bid proposal included precisely the contributions they agreed to make… Overall the Britain’s Personal Best programme helped create thousands of positive experiences for the participants at the many events that were organised throughout the country and we were disappointed that we could not reach an agreement with the Big Lottery Fund on how to continue this work in the future.”

A spokeswoman for the Big Lottery Fund said: “We recognise the bid was ambitious and funding it was a risk. This is the reason that close monitoring and additional terms and conditions were included in the grant offer.

“The success of the project was highly dependent on successful engagement with a number of partners who had written to confirm their support to us. We put a number of measures in place to review and monitor progress made. We withdrew the grant once it became clear that the agreed outcomes were not going to be met.”

She added that “letters of support from key partners were received during the assessment process” including from those organisations who had now expressed concerns.

Big society: Other disputed claims

The Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo)

The bid document said Acevo was another “strategic network partner” which covered a “broad range of interests and beneficiary needs” and would provide “regular engagement with organisations on a regional level”.

Acevo says it did back the bid, and provided a “supporting quote” for the press release, but a spokesman said: “We certainly do not recognise the paragraph about Acevo that they have included – in many places it does  not reflect or represent language we would use to describe ourselves… We would not work with the organisation again.”

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)

The bid document said BIS would “corral their extensive range of stakeholders behind BPB” and use it to “further their existing enterprise activities in schools”.

The Department said: “Some BIS officials met organisers early in 2013 and a second time last summer but did not take the conversations further as they could not see any specific benefits to come from our involvement.”

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