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5 December 2014

Did David Cameron’s favourite charity kill the Big Society?

What's the story behind the two words the Prime Minister hopes you'll forget?

By Lisa Nandy

It used to be that you couldn’t stop David Cameron talking about the Big Society. It was his favourite slogan, seen by his followers as a symbol of the changing nature of the Tories under his leadership. But since we learned his favourite charity is winding down accused of wasting millions of pounds of public money, he’s been strangely silent.

The Big Society Network was launched with a lot of fanfare by the Prime Minister at No 10 Downing Street after the election. But an investigation by the National Audit Office paints a sorry picture. Over the last four years more than £3m of public money was given to this organisation and its various subsidiaries, a lot of which has been wasted. There was the project that promised to sign a million people up to volunteer in one year but managed just 64, and the million pound scheme to encourage community sport that was wound down within months. All the while senior staff and trustees (including a Conservative donor) were paid thousands of pounds in consultancy fees.

The evidence public money has been wasted is bad enough, but more alarming is the special treatment we now know the Big Society Network received. Rules were changed and deadlines were moved to make sure a charity with no track record was eligible for public money. Concerns that the organisation hadn’t filed its accounts were brushed away by No 10, who met with the Tory donor who ran the charity and then told the Cabinet Office to continue its funding anyway. Civil servants were seconded as staff, central London office space was loaned to it by a government department.

At best, it shows how hollow the Big Society was. Instead of investing in hard graft up and down the country to build on the strengths, passion and energy that exist even in the most strained communities, it began as it has ended – a top down project, managed from Whitehall, empty and ineffective as a result.

The irony of the state stepping in to help these charities, as they inevitably unravelled, is probably not lost on those who were told they were the beating heart of the Big Society. For most of them this agenda, which promised so much, has collapsed into “sink or swim”, as state support has been withdrawn and communities have been left to pick up the pieces.

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Three million pounds may not have seemed like much money to people running the Big Society Network or the Ministers who knowingly threw good money after bad, but to the thousands of charities struggling to stay afloat it could have been a lifeline. This year, the NCVO found public sector cuts have disproportionately affected charity funding, and groups up and down the country have had to take agonising steps to cut what they offer to the most vulnerable at the time they need it most.

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That’s why, for so many charities, the silence from government about these grants is deafening – money that could have been put to good use elsewhere. I worked for a charity when David Cameron first launched the Big Society. For all its flaws it was an agenda that shone a spotlight on what communities and the voluntary sector had to offer, and seemed – initially at least – to understand their central role in building a stronger, fairer, more equal country. Now we have learned how far the government has strayed from that promise and the pressure is mounting for an explanation, it seems nobody, least of all the Prime Minister, wants to talk about the Big Society anymore.

Lisa Nandy is shadow Cabinet Office minister and Labour MP for Wigan