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Big Society Network/Society Network Foundation (NAO Report)

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 7 January 2015

3. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the findings of the report from the National Audit Office entitled “Follow-up: grants to the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation”, HC 840. (906845)

I welcome the NAO report into the matter, which found that there were no issues with Cabinet Office processes and, as a result, did not make any recommendations. Therefore, I do not feel that there are any wider implications for the policies of my Department.

The Minister clearly must have read a different version of the report. Voluntary sector organisations in my constituency tell me that they are struggling to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable as a result of this Government’s polices, yet the NAO report shows that millions of pounds of public money was wasted on failing projects as a direct result of prime ministerial interference and ministerial decisions taken despite

“concerns raised about financial sustainability and weak performance”.

Is not that truly shocking? When other charities are struggling to survive, how does the Minister justify it?

I simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I disagree that we should avoid funding new and innovative approaches, despite the risks that come with doing so. I note that according to the Charity Commission, the number of registered charities went up from 162,000 to 164,000 between 2010 and 2014, and the total income of all registered charities has grown from £54 billion to £64 billion in the same period.

One of the lessons for us all to learn is the transformative potential of social enterprises encouraged by the Treasury—social enterprises such as the Cinnamon Network, which does everything from running food banks to helping people when they are released from prison. Social enterprises have the potential to make a real change in our society.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. Supporting social enterprises has been a huge priority for this Government, which is why in the autumn statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased social investment tax relief, raising the cap to £5 million. We are the party of small business, but we are also the party of social enterprises.

Will the Minister explain why his Department, which is supposed to be responsible for Government transparency, has refused to release any minutes or attendance lists of meetings between his advisers, the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation, and why over six months he has refused to answer 76 parliamentary questions on the subject? Some £3 million were wasted, there were two damning reports from the National Audit Office, thousands of charities are in crisis, and the only beneficiary from the big society has been a Tory donor’s bank account. Is it any wonder that the Minister does not want to answer questions about it?

As the hon. Lady knows, it has long been the convention in this and previous Administrations that the minutes of ministerial meetings are not routinely released, but all the information pertinent to this issue was shared with the NAO in the course of its investigations. As for the Tory party donors that she mentioned, it is not the case that any of the trustees gained financially from the Cabinet Office funding. The matter has been investigated by the Charities Commission and the NAO twice, and which both found no evidence of what she suggests. Furthermore, the trustees of the charities have invested significant personal resources into them.