After Kids Company: the problem with charity

The closure of the Kids Company charity amid a flurry of allegations has raised much controversy; opinion is divided between support for its charismatic founder and former chief executive, Camilla Batmanghelidjh, and serious concern about the way in which the charity, dealing with some of the most vulnerable people in society, has operated.

Batmanghelidjh was of course a charity leader with enormous public presence and political clout; concerns by Ministers and civil servants about the governance of the charity are reported to have been routinely overruled by No 10, and the most recent grant of £3m was subject to an Accounting Officer’s Direction – essentially a Ministerial instruction to the Permanent Secretary as the Departmental Accounting Officer to go ahead with expenditure despite official advice that it offers poor value for the taxpayer. Such Directions are not entered into lightly – there were only three in the last Parliament – and it’s an eloquent testimony to Batmanghelidjh’s political clout.

At first, there was a widespread view that the closure of Kids Company was about a government that has no love for the charitable sector throwing its weight about.  Since then it’s become much more complicated.  Allegations of autocratic management, discredited methodology and inadequate safeguarding, are now emerging.

We don’t hear much about the Big Society these days.  But the political impetus hasn’t changed; the Tories are still determined to slash back the state with voluntary provision moving into its place to support the vulnerable, in – it is implied – a more creative and cost-effective manner.  And Batmanghelidjh is very much cut in the mould of the Tory philanthropist – herself from a hugely privileged background and at ease in the circles that dominate the political establishment, flamboyant and – until her downfall – a political model of can-do positivism in the face of the grey, rule-bound professional social services.

But the demise of Kids Company tells us a lot about the failures of the Big Society model.  Of course charities are subject to oversight and scrutiny but this case tells us quite a lot about their limits – especially when a charismatic leader has a high media profile and political access.  Concerns about methodology and resources appear to demonstrate that such organisations cannot offer a universal service, as well as showing the contrast with cautious, risk-assessed, accountable process-driven statutory provision.  When a vulnerable child dies, social services are subject to vitriolic attack; you never hear about the successes. But in the light of the uncertaintaies of autocratic financial management that fights shy of scrutiny and hit-and-miss methodologies based more on moralistic assumptions than empirical evidence, the statutory approach looks a lot more sustainable.  Batmanghelidjh and her supporters have talked about catching the children who have fallen through the statutory net; perhaps that’s a case for ensuring that the statutory services are given the resources they need to do the job, and that the work of social services is properly valued.

Clement Attlee famously wrote that charity was a cold grey loveless thing and if a rich man wanted to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.  Perhaps the real lesson of the collapse of Kids Company is that Attlee’s words ring as true now as they did eighty years ago, and that there is no substitute for collective provision of services; and that, in the sixth richest nation on earth, we should be prepared – collectively, through the state – to spend what it costs.

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