Questions are raised over Social Action Fund grant to Big Society Network

This Get In flyer was on Big Society Network's website in January 2012

Questions are raised over Social Action Fund grant to Big Society Network

Finance | Tania Mason | 19 Mar 2013

Big Society Network was awarded £200,000 from the government’s Social Action Fund last year ahead of more than 600 other applicants, even though it failed to meet a number of the stated criteria, Civil Society News can reveal.

And the grant was left off the list of successful bidders that was published online last April when the money was transferred. It was only added to the list in January this year after the omission was pointed out to Social Investment Business, which administers the Fund on behalf of the Office for Civil Society.

It is also not clear how the £199,900 has been spent and what, if any, social outcomes have been achieved, as the campaign that was meant to be funded by the grant appears never to have launched and has now been put on hold by the Cabinet Office.

A number of questions have been raised about the process that was followed by Social Investment Business and the government in awarding the grant.

Nick Hurd has already investigated a formal complaint and stated in a letter dated 31 January 2013, seen by Civil Society News, that he had found no impropriety or misconduct by officials at 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office in relation to the grant.

His letter was copied to the PM’s Office; Cabinet Office ministers Francis Maude and Grant Shapps, and Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood.

However, another complaint has also been lodged with Sir Stephen Bubb, chair of Social Investment Business, who has confirmed he is conducting his own investigation into how applications were handled internally.

Big Society Network was set up by Nat Wei, then the government’s Big Society adviser, shortly after the election and announced by David Cameron in his first speech outlining his Big Society vision. Its remit is to encourage volunteering and community action.  Its parent charity, Society Network Foundation, was one of 24 successful bidders in round two of the Social Action Fund, which attracted around 640 applications for £11m of funding.

Criteria not met

The criteria for awarding grants from the Fund, as stated on the Social Investment Business website, included that applicants must provide two years’ audited accounts and proof of turnover of at least £100,000.

At the time of the 3 February 2012 application deadline, Society Network Foundation had not filed any accounts with Companies House or the Charity Commission.  Two sets of accounts filed since – both late – state that it has been and remains a dormant company.

Big Society Network is also currently nearly three months overdue to file its latest accounts, and its abbreviated unaudited accounts for the year to March 2011 – which were also filed late - show a balance sheet deficit of £25,141.

Left off published list of winners

On 16 April last year, Social Investment Business published a press release with a link to a list of those organisations that were successful in round two of the bidding.  But the Foundation was omitted from the list and only added nine months later.  The Social Investment Business told Civil Society News that this was “an individual oversight, which was corrected”.

According to the Social Investment Business application guidance, Social Action Fund applications are scored by assessors and then a Cabinet Office advisory panel decides which grants to award. Social Investment Business CEO Jonathan Jenkins is a member of this panel. Its recommendations are then sent to the minister for sign-off.

Nick Hurd’s investigation letter states: “Social Action Fund was an open and independently run and managed process by the SIB, bids had to meet a set criteria for shortlist, and were then passed to an external advisory board of experts to consider.  Number 10/Cabinet Office were not involved in this selection process.”

However, Sir Stephen Bubb insisted that decisions on grants were not made by the panel, but by Hurd himself. “The minister makes the decisions himself, the panel is advisory only,” Bubb said.

SIB: 'Track record is enough'

Jonathan Jenkins declined to speak to Civil Society News but his spokesman agreed to answer questions by email. Asked why Society Network Foundation got the grant when it hadn’t provided any accounts or proof of income, he said: “It was agreed that as long as an organisation had a track record (as an organisation or collectively at senior management level) that matched the criteria, then their application would be considered.

“We absolutely do not ignore eligibility criteria. We score applications based on their ability to meet the criteria along with a number of other factors. The criteria alone does not reflect an organisation’s ability to effectively deliver against a fund’s objectives.”

Campaign funded by the grant now ‘on ice’

Big Society Network’s CEO Steve Moore said the grant has been spent developing a campaign called Get In, which is modelled on Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign in the US to tackle obesity among children.

“The grant has been used to develop the campaign and to develop relationships and partnerships with organisations and to consult widely across government and the sports industry to do that,” he said.

However, after Civil Society News told Moore that it had seen an email from Big Society Network stating that Get In is now “on ice”, he admitted: “The Cabinet Office have decided they want to put it on hold pending more discussions about arrangements for delivering it.”

Moore added that he could not remember “what boxes were ticked and what criteria were met” when the application was submitted. “I know we made a full application and at no stage do I recall having to provide any additional evidence in support of the proposal.

“I think the same rules as the Big Lottery apply – generally the rule is that you supply two years’ accounts etc but on certain occasions those conditions are waived.”

Dormant accounts were filed because the charity was only registered in May 2011, he said.

Cabinet Office: all necessary criteria were met

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We take the integrity of our grants application process very seriously.

"We have already undertaken a full and thorough review into the details of Big Society Network's grant from the Social Action Fund. We found no evidence of impropriety and we are fully satisfied with both the conduct of our officials, and that all necessary criteria were met during this application."

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