Freedom of no information

It’s been nearly four months since the Chancellor announced an ‘emergency’ package of funding for charities affected by COVID-19, including £310m for small charities. It’s been over two months since the National Lottery Community Fund (NLCF) started taking applications from small charities for the Coronavirus Community Support Fund (CCSF), which should have comprised nearly half of the Chancellor’s £750m total funding package.

By all accounts, the Fund has been very oversubscribed – yet we have very little data about how many applications have been submitted, how many have been successful, and how many grants have been awarded and distributed to applicants. An NLCF press release from early July claims that just under £8.5m has been ‘committed’ to benefit 500 organisations – but ‘committed’ doesn’t necessarily mean the money is out the door. It’s possible the true amount is a fraction of this figure. This is information that the public has a right to know; refusing to provide it is also totally unfair to existing and prospective applicant charities that are battling for survival.

Small charities are already stretched and cannot afford to waste precious fundraising resource on bids for ‘emergency’ funding that go into a black hole, with little information about when a decision let alone the grant itself may be forthcoming.

Why use an expert grant-maker like the Lottery to deliver a fund like this if you’re going to hamstring that expertise with red tape, bureaucratic complexity, and shifting goalposts? This programme is supposed to provide relatively small grants for small charities. It needs to be distributed quickly and with as little procedural friction as possible – not doing so is wasting everyone’s money, time and energy. As one of my colleagues said: it’s like buying a dog and then demanding that the dog teach you how to bark better than it can.

Much of this may not be in the NLCF’s control and is influenced by whatever written agreement exists between the NLCF and DCMS about the Fund, as well as political pressure and Ministerial interference in the process – the details of which remain hidden. Regardless of where the fault lies, the result is terrible funding practice – the negative impacts of which are going to be even worse for charities in a crisis. How many charity beneficiaries have suffered or even endured serious harm because of these delays?

That’s why one month ago, we submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the NLCF asking for basic data that should be in the public domain. It took them until yesterday to notify us that this request had been rejected in its entirety on grounds of cost. No information provided at all – not even the total number of applicants! They refused to answer basic questions that any grant-maker – let alone a public body – should be able to answer about a £200m+ funding programme. Why?

I suspect they’re being muzzled. But the potential for embarrassment shouldn’t override reasonable requests under FOIA and the public right to know what’s happening with public funds. There can’t be any reasonable expectation of commercial confidentiality here either – we’re talking about arrangements between two public bodies to distribute public money! It’s hardly top-secret defence information, or the mythical recipe for Coca-Cola.

We’ve officially asked for a review of the NLCF’s decision on our FOI request and are pursuing other avenues to get this information out – like asking MPs to start asking questions. If you’re as furious about it as we are, and want to help out by contacting your own MP, email us at [email protected] today and also check out the templates and tools at the #NeverMoreNeeded website.


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