Supposed 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.