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Not Entirely Appropriate

Posted by Dr No on 08 August 2015

funding.jpgSupposed once by David ‘Hug a Hoodie’ Cameron to be the embodiment of big society in a way that say dear Joanna Lumley never could be, Camila Batmanthingy exploded last week as her charity Kids Company imploded. Boy, was it a big explosion, as if Demis Roussos, once described by Clive James as another larger than life Phenomenon having an immense reserve of inner warmth, had exploded. Appearing with a succession of ever more luminous ever larger tablecloths wound round her head and wrapped round her body, she railed and ranted against the media rumour-mongers who, she said, had caused Kids Company to come crashing down, in the space, she would have us believe, of a few days, if not hours. Other accounts have it that, like Icarus before her, Camila flew too high, and the steady heat of scrutiny melted the wax of her charity. The collapse was as complete as it was sudden.

First things first: let us be in no doubt that many staff and volunteers at Kids Company did sterling work. But, that said, the charity, and its outspoken flamboyant leader, and indeed what can only be described as the charity industry, raise serious questions about the way ‘big society’ works, and indeed what it is doing to wider society. Over a few short decades, successive governments have increasingly bank-rolled charities - some, like Kids Company, with millions of pounds - to do their work for them. Yet charities, and the work they do, can be murky beasts. There are no established rating scales for the restoration of hope. There is almost an expectation that the more charismatic the leader, the weaker his or her accounting skills will be, as if to know the price of anything is to know the value of nothing. Where we look for transparency and accountability, too often we find opacity and unaccountability.

Stories have emerged of Kids Company as a charity with immense reserves of inner employees and volunteers, but rather thinner on the ground with clients. Following some jiggery-pokery with its computerised records, the charity is said to have more than doubled its client numbers in the space a year, but a number of these newly discovered ‘clients’ are not clients as we would know them, but rather collaterals, the carers and teachers and others associated with the real clients. Batmanthingy famously re-mortgaged her home at least once to prop up the charity in lean times, but the charity has paid her back in better times, with a salary more than adequate to keep her well up in luminous tablecloths, not to mention a roof over her head. Though rather opaque, as is often the way with charity accounts, Kids Company’s latest Annual Report (for 2013) shows a wages and salaries bill of almost £12m, a total staff costs bill of over £15m, all on an income of £23m, with a footnote adding that one employee (the highest paid employee) ‘received remuneration in the £90,000-£100,000 [band]’, a salary we can reasonably assume went to the CEO.

As well as a flamboyant salary, other CEO ‘perks’ included an Arabian Nights style personal office, said to be needed to make the kids feel at home, and a revolving door of up to five personal assistants, said to be necessary to take dictation as the CEO has severe dyslexia, possibly as a result of trying to learn how to spell her own name. Not one to call a shovel a shovel when spade will do, Tom Goodfellow, a long serving trustee of another charity, writing in Hospital Dr, notes delicately that some of Kids Company’s general excesses may well be ‘not entirely appropriate’.

Commendable as small government-big society is in many ways, it is not without risk. Charities big and small are relatively unregulated, and for the dyscrupulous and unscrupulous minority can provide neat tracks for a nice gravy train running behind a fence of good intent. Add a flamboyant charismatic leader (one red flag), who is a trained psychotherapist (two red flags) and Common Purpose graduate (three red flags) and one starts to have the machinery of influence over wider society: more broadly, a third sector that uses its own carrots and sticks to shape wider society in its own image.

Batmanthingy is on record as an outspoken critic of government policy, but she also has, to coin a phrase, her own agenda, including, it has been said, a call for every school child to have a counsellor. Though not the Named Person scheme being rolled out in Scotland, such a third sector intervention is every bit as socially intrusive as the Scottish government backed scheme. It would also, rather conveniently, provide a myriad of branch lines on which to run extra gravy trains for troops of counsellors.

To the hapless but otherwise capable parent being forcibly ‘counselled’ by an uninvited counsellor, it makes little difference whether the intrusion is directly state run, or, as is increasingly the case, part state sponsored through a soviet of third sector organisations. The intrusion by any other name would smell as rank. The difference is that when the initiative is government run, there is a vague hope of voting the nutters out at the next election, but when it is the third sector trading as big brother disguised as big society, each sister her brother’s keeper, we risk finding ourselves in a creepy twilight world where the unaccountable rule over the unfortunate. Not, Dr No suggests, entirely appropriate, if we want to live in sane society.

5 comments was the father who started water cure.

How many of DC's pals have they got now, remember most got away. A4E, Rebakah?

I'm all for the Kids Company debacle getting proper scrutiny - not least because of the way personal contacts seem to have generated government handouts of a type most charities can only dream of - but it may not be fair to criticise on grounds of the high proportion of income going into staff cost unless there are excessive admin staff. You would expect an organisation that offers psychotherapy to be spending a high proportion of its income on the people who provide the therapy and who run the centres - bit like a high proportion of NHS spending going on doctors, nurses etc

True that we expect service organisations to spend a large part of their outgoings on staff, so the question is more about accountability, as in who is being paid to do what. With the health service, it's not difficult to find out, but the opacity of charity accounts, and the immunity from FOI requests, mean that in the case of charities it is much harder to find out. It is even possible the charity, or more particularly its CEO may not know. At this point it becomes impossible to establish that there isn't a gravy train operation going on, and if there is, whether it is on a branch line or the main line.

Wealthy (and not so wealthy) donors are free to donate as they wish, of course, (though there is the awkward tale of the woman who donated the proceeds from the sale of her house only to be denounced as mentally ill when she started to ask awkward questions) but when it is taxpayers' money being nodded through on our behalf, its another matter.

Kids Company/Batmanthingy are clear that they don't 'do' science (the latter is on record as saying she is a psychotherapist, not a scientist) or measure outcomes, because the important outcomes (hope, a sense of place and person etc) are unmeasurable. To Dr No, this seems to bat the issue in to the long grass somewhat prematurely. Why can't we measure hope, sense of pace and person? Better an approximate answer to the right question than an exact answer to the wrong question.

The other warning sign about Kids Company has been the observation by some (possibly with agendas of their own) on visits to Kids Company that there seemed to be plenty of staff, but few kids. Contrast that to a visit to a hospital, where the patients are all too visible.

Dr No's two main worries are:

(1) that charities can be used as gravy trains by the unscrupulous, and the protections from scrutiny available to charities mean that is is very difficult to spot when this is the case

(2) increasing state reliance on the third sector means we are in effect moving away from the post-war welfare-state back towards a more Victorian system. On one level this is clearly a backwards move (in the sense we have been there before). Whether it is also morally a backwards move (the test of a civilised society is how it looks after its disadvantaged?) is a moot point not easily answered. But just because it is a difficult question doesn't mean we shouldn't ask it and try to answer it: better an approximate answer to the right question than an exact answer to the wrong question.

Despite those rulles that are applying for charities organisations I may say that this couldn't be so difficult to trace any negative stuff, even if this is going on at the main or the backstage line.

We cannot expect
that those people are going to work for free, can we? I work in this field and it doesn't matter what good intentions I have, as long as I need money too.

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