The Kids Company saga is a depressing one, which sheds light on a variety of problems.
The way in which Camila Batmanghelidjh seems to have dazzled or dominated everyone in the organisation – including the trustees who were meant to keep such behaviour in check – is reminiscent of the way that the overmighty rockstar executives at various banks neutered their board members before steaming to disaster. Charismatic leaders can do much good, but they can also cause disasters – which is why there is meant to be oversight in any organisation.
Her hugely effective personal PR strategy apparently made lambs out of Fleet Street’s finest for years, who proceeded only to bleat rather than to ask serious questions. Huge credit goes to Miles Goslett for pursuing the story, and The Spectator for publishing it – others ought to be asking why they refused to do so.
But those issues refer to the woes of a private organisation and the failings of the media to cover them. The state’s involvement is more troubling – particularly the way in which at least two successive occupants of Downing Street (Brown and Cameron) are reported to have personally intervened to protect Kids Company funding for fear of a media backlash.
Their fears were evidently justified – the last few days have seen some remarkable instances of the charity lashing out at anyone who fails to be one hundred per cent supportive. Look at the claims of secret knowledge of child abuse conspiracies (which so far as I can tell were never raised in the media before this dispute or reported to the police at any point), the nonsensical allegation that this is an attempt to silence Batmanghelidjh (an accusation that rings rather hollow when broadcast by every television studio and radio station in the land) and the manufacturing of the usual tropes about evil Tories wanting to strip the poor of support (villains wanting to destroy people rarely overrule official advice to give them millions of pounds in taxpayer funding, in my experience of fairy tales).
For the good of taxpayers, charities themselves and the people they are meant to help, some changes need to be made – both to attitudes and rules.
First, Downing Street may not like negative media coverage but it ought to protect taxpayers’ money first and its own reputation second. It would be dangerous to say that Ministers must always obey civil servants’ advice, but no-one should be able to just phone the Prime Minister and get cash guaranteed to their organisation regardless of serious concerns about how they will use it. As Dominic Cummings argues, a cultural change in how funding is controlled is evidently required.
Second, if an organisation is to receive taxpayers’ money then it should have to demonstrate governance which is above the normal level demanded from ordinary companies or charities. Evidently the financial management of Kids Company was woefully lacking, and the fact that Alan Yentob, its Chairman of Trustees, recently told Channel 4 they ought to be thanking him, not asking awkward questions, sheds more than a little light on why that was never corrected. The trustees failed to enforce accountability on the management (if they ever tried) – but why weren’t the grant-givers watching the watchers?
Third, transparency ought to be the belt to accountability’s braces. The rule ought to be quite simple – if you take taxpayers’ money, then you take on the responsibility to account for its use. That means the Freedom of Information Act should travel with taxpayers’ cash, ensuring that it is always under the protection of transparency whether it is spent by a company, a charity or a quango. That might be an irritation for some organisations, but it should be the price of being supported by the taxpayer – if you don’t want to answer to the people for your actions, then don’t ask them to pay your bills.