YOU only have to look at Camila Batmanghelidjh sitting at the table at the launch of the Big Society – a splash of colour in a sea of suits – to understand why David Cameron liked to have her around. Of all the entrepreneurs he invited to the event in 2010, she was the one that lent most substance and authority to his empty PR stunt. Back then, she referred to the idea as “a lovely, hollow balloon”; if this was true, then she was the one tethering it to earth with her maternal girth and all her good works.
Batmanghelidjh was the perfect accessory for a right-wing Prime Minister who wanted to shift the responsibility for society’s vulnerable from the state to the voluntary sector and pass it off as a noble gesture. Educated at Sherborne School for Girls, she was at the heart of the establishment, but she had hip outsider status too. An Iranian immigrant, with exotic clothes and a flair for schmoozing celebrities, she did for Cameron what Noel Gallagher did for Tony Blair – glitzed up his premiership (and allowed him to associate with a traditionally left-wing cause).
Of course, it worked both ways. Cameron’s endorsement meant the money for Kids Company kept rolling in, with the minimum of scrutiny applied. Employees and civil servants may have been aghast at the way the charity was managed, with little record of how money was spent and no serious attempt to build up reserves, but, with so much staked on its success, all warnings were dismissed and fresh grants given.
Now the uneasy alliance has imploded, like Cool Britannia, but with much more collateral damage. The collapse of the charity may be entirely merited, but it still means thousands of under-privileged children have been cut adrift; and as we know, in the Big Society, it’s not the state’s job to clear up the mess.
As allegations of financial mismanagement, favouritism and possible sexual abuse spread like a contagion, it is difficult to assess whether this is a tale of wrong-doing or ineptitude. Reports of weed smoked on the premises and violence against staff – while unacceptable – sound more like the hazards of trying to help troubled youngsters than collusion in their crimes, but claims of sexual exploitation, reported but not acted on, are more difficult to play down. As for the financial mismanagement, there are too many questions over expenditure to buy into suggestions that this is a political plot to sabotage a woman who was increasingly outspoken about Tory welfare cuts. The question is, was there a deliberate attempt to deceive or did Kids Company simply spiral out of control?
There seems little doubt Batmanghelidjh guided many wayward teenagers back on to a steady path, but she hasn’t done herself any favours since the story broke last week. Her defence of the besieged charity has become increasingly outlandish until it’s almost impossible to understand why anyone was taken in by her in the first place. A Morten Morland cartoon in the Times showed all the colour washing out of her clothes in the rain. But it wasn’t just the cynics who invested in the illusion; in a dreich world, we all want to believe in larger-than-life characters with the power to transform lives. Any scandal with consequences must be regarded as teachable moment and there are plenty of lessons to be drawn from this one. The collapse of Kids Company exposes some of the problems around charities: the weakness in their regulation and the way they’re so often used to enhance reputations. And it highlights how increased reliance on their services and increased dependence on public sector funding has turned many into quasi-quangos.
But I would caution against seeing this as a parable on the Big Society which illustrates that dealing with troubled teenagers is best left to the state. After all, the public sector – police, local authorities and other statutory agencies – haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory when it comes to child protection since the 1970s. Children in council care have proved to be amongst the most vulnerable to the predatory behaviour by politicians and other establishment figures. In Rotherham, hundreds of victims of sexual exploitation were repeatedly dismissed by police and social services. It was Risky Business – a youth service funded by the local authority but operating at arms-length that first began to identify the scale of the problem.
And it is to Police Scotland’s credit that – in its bid to tackle issues such as sexual violence – it recognises and draws on the expertise of third sector organisations such as Rape Crisis and Barnardos.
Perhaps then the collapse of Kids Company tells us only this: that caring for troubled youngsters is the most important and challenging of jobs and whoever takes it on should be subject to the highest level of scrutiny. Those involved should be thoroughly vetted and power should be decentralised, not vested in one person, no matter how saintly, charismatic or skilled at fund-raising.
Such work should not be exploited either for political gain or turned into a personal crusade – and any hint that a charity is becoming bigger than people it cares for should be quickly acted on.
In the end, the trouble with Camila Batmanghelidjh was not that she took on a role that ought to have been fulfilled by the state, it was that she became untouchable so that when problems began to arise, everyone was too afraid to tackle them.
As other charities struggle to pick up the pieces from Kids Company’s demise, they should try to stay away from the limelight. It was Batmanghelidjh’s flamboyance that made her so attractive; but it was also what made her toxic. «