Jayne Dowle: Personal egos, politicians and the Kids Company debacle

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IN a perfect world, there would have been no need for Kids Company to exist. The charity, founded by psychotherapist Camilla Batmanghelidjh, was set up with a laudable aim: to improve the lives of under-privileged inner-city youngsters by offering a safe place away from the streets.

Now it has foundered in disarray and disaster, amid serious allegations of financial mismanagement and abuse of both its responsible position and the very people it set out to help and support. Just what did the charity do with all the public money it received?

A report by the National Audit Office has disclosed that Kids Company continued to secure financial support from successive governments despite concerns being raised for years. And we’re not talking pennies rattling in a collection tin.

In total, Iranian-born Ms Batmanghelidjh took £46m in state funding. The money kept on coming despite criticism from civil servants, despite reports of junior Ministers attempting to question the sizeable nature of the grants being issued, and recently, despite the Prime Minister caving in and signing on the dotted line after receiving a “Dear David” letter from Ms Batmanghelidjh. She has admitted to calling her approach “loving blackmail”.

Voices of dissent, like Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, were over-ruled. Although initially a supporter of the charity and a backer of government support, Gove appears to have eventually raised his own concerns, only to be shot down in flames by the Prime Minister. Did his reportedly outspoken stance contribute to his downfall? Did it cause tension with the PM’s wife, Samantha, known to support the charity’s ethos? Who knows what has really been going on? The full truth may never emerge but what we can say – with confidence – is that this whole debacle shows us the ugly side of charity work in Britain today.

Why should Kids Company have been regarded as such as special case? Just think of all the charities and voluntary organisations which have faced catastrophic cuts to their funding in the past five years. Everything from the Arts Council to Citizen’s Advice has seen Government support slashed. However, the NAO report found that Kids Company received twice as much in grants as Barnardo’s between 2011 and 2013 when the aforementioned Mr Gove headed the Department for Education and Skills.

Did no alarm bells ring? Did the august body of the Charity Commission have no overall view on this? Its chairman, William Shawcross, has firmly placed the blame for the demise of Kids Company onto its trustees, led by former BBC Alan Yentob. This is toothless, to be frank, but it does bring us onto the not inconsequential question of how charity trustees are chosen, and what the vetting process is.

What did give Kids Company the advantage, then? It operated in London, Bristol and Liverpool, and at the last count, purported to help 36,000 children, teenagers and vulnerable adults through 11 centres. It started, though, in South London, and thanks to the fearsome networking skills of Ms Batmanghelidjh, became a pet project of the kind of people whose social conscience is pricked by the irony of living in multi-million pound mansions next to some of the most challenged and crime-infested social housing in the country. I’ll give you an example. The band Coldplay, led by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ex, Chris Martin, is reported to have been a big financial supporter. In other words, it was a trendy cause.

And it appears that David Cameron betrayed a sustained error of judgement when he continued to be persuaded by what Ms Batmanghelidjh herself describes as “ghetto-strategies”. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be laughable. A world leader who can negotiate at international top tables, caving in when faced with a bit of streetwise suss from South London. Didn’t he stop for a minute and ponder on the ridiculous situation he found himself involved with?

It could be argued that there would be no need for charities to step into the breach if Government departments were doing their job properly. Or is the award of £46m over the years a tacit indication that here was government outsourcing at its finest – if a private charity can do the job, let them get on with it? And let’s not forget; as the arm-twisting continued, the Department of Education warned of “reputational damage” to the Government if funding was to suddenly cease.

The question now, though, is what will happen to all those vulnerable youngsters to whom Kids Company offered a lifeline. We must not lose sight of their futures while politicians examine the Establishment failings that have led us to this deeply disturbing state of affairs. I didn’t realise that Britain was so well off that it could allow £46m to be frittered away in order to appease personal egos.