Nesta was 'forced' to fund Big Society Network, says former trustee

22 Jul 2014 News

Former Nesta trustee Liam Black tweeted this morning that Nesta was “forced” to fund Big Society Network.

In the wake of the damning National Audit Office report published yesterday on the Cabinet Office and Big Lottery funding of Big Society Network and its charity arm, Society Network Foundation, Black tweeted this morning: “@Nesta_uk was also forced to provide £££ for Big Society Network. Scandalous waste of money.”

Black, a former chief executive of Jamie Oliver's restaurant social enterprise Fifteen, was a trustee of Nesta from January 2010 until April 2012.

Nesta confirmed to Civil Society News in May 2013, in response to a Freedom of Information request, that it gave statutory grants totalling £480,000 to Big Society Network in 2010 without holding a competitive pitch, to help the company set itself up and deliver various projects. At the time Nesta was a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). Nesta has since been spun off as an independent charity.

In its FoI response, Nesta confirmed that in December 2010 it awarded a grant of £400,000 to Big Society Network - £150,000 to part-finance the core costs of running the organisation in its early stages and the remaining £250,000 to support three projects subject to matched funding being raised and milestones being achieved.

These three projects were Nexters, Spring, and It’s our community.

There was no competitive pitch for the money. A Nesta spokeswoman said at the time: “While the vast majority of Nesta’s grants are made following open calls for proposals, we do have the ability to provide grants to projects that fit with our vision and advance our objects outside of open calls for proposals. That is what happened with the grants to the Big Society Network.”

Nesta also confirmed that it gave BSN £80,000 in August 2010 to support a project called Your Local Budget, which explored “innovative approaches to participatory budgeting”.

Nesta had not responded to an invitation to comment on Black’s tweet by the time of publication of this story, 1pm on Tuesday 22 July.

Pressure building for return of the money

Meanwhile, pressure is building for action to be taken to recoup some of the money given to Big Society Network in light of the NAO report.

Gareth Thomas MP, the former shadow minister for civil society, told Civil Society News this morning: “The Big Society Network was launched by David Cameron in Number 10, was stuffed full of his allies and had privileged access to Big Lottery and government funding. The result has been a three-year affair of grand ambitions that never came anywhere near being achieved, with all the while, the Big Lottery Fund looking on with a degree of benevolence few other charities could expect.

“The Big Lottery Fund cannot say they weren’t warned. Many in the charity sector raised concerns, as did I directly with Peter Ainsworth. I was assured there would be proper scrutiny of the Big Society Network’s ‘Britain’s Personal Best’ campaign but there quite clearly wasn’t.

“We need to know what recovery action the Big Lottery Fund are taking, how much of the £1.8m they hope to recoup, and how they intend to avoid a repeat of this debacle.”

Richard Caulfield, chief executive of Voluntary Sector North West, echoed the call for some money to be clawed back. He also said it was time for BIG to “come clean on their relationship with Big Society Network”.

“I think there’s an inner sanctum, a national set, that knows they can knock on the Lottery’s door and say ‘I’ve got an idea, can I have some money’ – while the rest of the world asks ‘what programmes have you got?’ and bends over backwards to meet their criteria.”

Caulfield said it was clear that funding was awarded to BSN on the back of “central pressure”.

He added: “I think there are some individuals who should be banned from ever receiving any Lottery or public funding again. And I think some heads should roll in Cabinet Office as to who is responsible for forcing public spending in that way, when you look at the amount of programmes they launch and don’t stick to the rules they set.

“I think this is a legacy of Nick Hurd – he was so likeable to those that played with him that they failed to criticise or challenge him. I have a different view on his legacy to what my national colleagues do. I think he provided an air of respectability to what was actually a fairly shoddy operation.”

However Toby Blume, sector commentator and consultant, said it was “unrealistic” to expect any money to be recovered: “I don’t think they have any money, I think they’ve spent it all.” He suggested that the next action to be taken should be for the Public Accounts Committee to look into the issue.

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