"The Blog is increasingly tedious. It may act as a discussion forum but I doubt whether it has saved one job or in any small way stalled the tide of change. What's the point of bitching about the present if all it does is to bolster a few contributors' delicate egos?"I tend to agree and it might be fascinating to speculate on how this and other social media platforms have affected things. I'm fairly sure one effect has been a clamp-down on communication and information sharing, whether that be dire warnings by NPS about disciplinary action, efforts to make it as difficult as possible to copy and paste email or certain individuals deciding that the telephone is preferable to committing anything to paper or email.
Since time began, information has been power and the people who decide and run things have always tried to keep it to themselves. New media has given them a bit of a shock, but they're adapting nicely and in true Darwinian fashion, evolving ways in which to defeat opportunities for scrutiny afforded by the new platforms.
Like all mediums of communication, they are only as good as the information they contain. If the information is cut off, or manipulated, the forces that are at play can continue unchallenged, persuing their agendas unhindered and getting up to as much mischief as they think they can get away with. I'm essentially sanguine about it. I've had a go, provided a platform, tried to stir and contribute to a debate and established a record and audit trail for future researchers and historians. If it all stops tomorrow, I'll always reflect back on it as having been worthwhile and given me a great deal of satisfaction.
Over the life of this blog, quite a few posts have never made it to publication and ended up on the cutting room floor. Regular readers will be aware that on occasion I like to stray off on to other topics that I find interesting, but it's always dangerous when personal knowledge is scant. One such topic was the astonishing car crash that Kids Company became. Right from the start it fascinated me because the pioneering approach fitted perfectly with my own belief in trying new ways of working in order to better meet need.
Colleagues of my era will fondly recall that historically probation had an extremely lively and vibrant track-record of innovative developments that were actively encouraged by management at all levels. Examples included narrow boats, day centres, motorbike training, housing projects, employment schemes, outward bound courses, women's groups, food banks, starterhome packs etc etc. The list could go on and on because essentially the only limits were those of the imagination and vision of the officers involved.
As we came to realise, all this did not fit easily with the politicians who began to meddle in our line of work in order to chase electoral popularity and in particular pander to the right-wing press. Intermediate Treatment ended because of right-wing claims it was 'treats for naughty boys'. Our social work ethos was stamped out by the likes of Paul Boateng famously calling us 'a law enforcement agency'. The Befriending Fund and pool tables were withdrawn because 'they didn't portray the right image'. I won't rehearse all the background because it will be well known to regular readers and those familar with probation history.
Some recent irritating private correspondence got me thinking about how it's proving impossible to counter right-wing influences nowadays that seem all pervasive, despite mounting evidence that they don't work. The ongoing story about Age UK earning £6million per year in commission from energy supplier E.ON springs to mind. That fact alone should tell any sensible person that the result of privatising electricity and allowing a charity to get into bed with a supplier is likely to be ripping off a large number of people. But it all fits the right-wing mantra that private enterprise and charitable endeavour is the only way.
For all the recent warm words about prison reform from David Cameron, the agenda is actually about that well-worn path of providing more opportunities to business, or that other darling of the right-wing, the 'third' sector. Here I would draw readers attention to this handy list of DWP euphemisms which gives the following definition:-
'Reform’ – (I) To terminate something. (II) To sell something. (III) To pay a private company to do something.All this got me pondering on the demise of Kids Company. I started writing about it last year, but got distracted by other stuff going on:-
I feel like straying off-piste again. What are we to make of the extraordinary flaming crash to earth of the politicians favourite charity Kids Company and its 'charismatic' founder Camila Batmanghelidjh?
I've just watched the Chair of Trustees, Alan Yentob of BBC fame, take part in an astonishing car crash interview on Channel 4 News as he tried, wholly unsuccessfully, to assure us all that everything had been pretty hunky-dory, it was just a shortage of cash that had been the problem. It's to be hoped he doesn't use the same argument in defence of Auntie.
Ever since the shit hit the fan and the outfit was forced to cease trading, Camila has been doing the rounds of media outlets refusing to take any responsibility for anything, apart from failing to raise enough money. I think I've heard her blame the government, ministers, civil servants and the media, and according to her, and Chair Alan Yentob, the charity was well-managed and satisfied every audit. It's all a conspiracy and the charity is misunderstood 'because it doesn't tick all the usual boxes'.
I can see how that latter point might cause concern in a number of quarters, so much so in this case that the much-discussed latest £3million from the government was only paid over on condition that Camila was no longer in day-to-day control. The payment was made against the advice of civil servants and only because the relevant ministers issued a rare Direction Order. Camila doesn't make it too plain, but the money was specifically for a re-structuring (downsizing) of the charity and not for general running costs.
I suspect like many people I've been keen to learn more about the work of this charity and how things can have gone so wrong. In probation we are very used to working with chaotic and damaged people and how many have simply slipped through the net of statutory services before they reach us at age 18.That's as far as I got before other bigger probation stories came along, but possibly like many people, I've carried on watching how the post mortem has been conducted. I've watched the recent astonishing BBC documentary where stories of cash in brown envelopes being handed out on a weekly basis was confirmed. The cult of the personality in the shape of Camila was very much evident, as was her scary delusional state of denial about being in any way responsible for anything.
But the most dreadful bit I found was the extremely unprofessional and unwise policy of dependency built up in respect of several highly-damaged young people. This really upset me and there must be continuing concerns regarding how these people will be able to cope post-crash of the charity. In effect Camila seemed to be distributing largess in a pretty uncontrolled, arbitrary way that included not only payment of rent, but also 'employment' to non-jobs within the charity for certain chosen ones.
I well remember being glued to the media on the day of the charity's slide into insolvency and the dire warnings of thousands of kids being put at risk and how social services would not be able to cope. The penny dropped for me when I heard a spokesperson for one local authority say that 'they didn't expect to be inundated with referrals'. I found that astonishing in the light of the thousands of kids the charity was supposedly dealing with. How could that be? Maybe the rumours and suspicions about the numbers was true after all?
For those of you still with me, I'm coming to the point. How was it that this outfit hoodwinked so many politicians of all colours over such a length of time? This article by Steve Richards in The Independent I believe has the answer and it's all to do with the right-wing's hatred of public services:-
The fall of Kids Company exposes the fatal flaw in Cameron's big idea
Kids Company’s failure is the consequence of ideological disdain for the state and a faith in the light regulatory touch.
In politics nothing happens by chance. There are always connections: patterns that make sense of the seemingly freakish. What has happened to the once deified Kids Company is no aberration. The fall is rooted in ministerial prejudice and attachment to evidence-free ideology. So let us make the connections.
One of the many myths distorting perceptions of our current politics is that David Cameron has dropped his vision of the “Big Society”, the slogan that shaped the early years of his leadership. Cameron no longer uses the phrase, but the half-baked ideas behind the concept continue to permeate his Government, and explains why Kids Company was given such freedom to make mistakes and handed indiscriminately generous dollops of Government cash.
On one level the Big Society was politically very smart. As one of its architects told me at the time, it was an attempt to “reheat Thatcherism” while appearing to move on from Margaret Thatcher’s ideological grip on her party. The astute but contorted positioning was best summarised by Cameron’s very first speech as the new Conservative leader in December 2005, in which he declared “there is such a thing as society, but it is not the same as the state”.
In implying distance from Thatcher, who had once asserted there was no such thing as society, Cameron was making precisely the same argument as she had done. Thatcher argued from the late 1970s onwards that charities could do a better job than the stifling state in delivering local services, being more flexible and innovative.
Having spoken often to those involved in re-projecting the Conservative message after Cameron became leader, I have no doubt of the sincerity of their mission. The likes of Oliver Letwin – still highly influential – and Cameron’s friend and former advisor, Steve Hilton, enthused about the way in which public services could be improved. Unlike some small state ideologues, they cared about outcomes, improved delivery of public services, and were thoughtful in discussions.
But, even in opposition, the concept was a mess and not properly thought through. In long discussions, I asked Letwin, Hilton and indeed Cameron who or what would hold these new service providers to account. They could never answer questions about accountability. They were terrific in their enthusiasm for innovation, but the more tedious issues of the framework in which this would work interested them less.
At one point, before the 2010 election, one senior Tory told me then that he had hit upon an answer to my questions about accountability. In the end, they said, accountability was not important. “A thousand flowers would bloom.” There would be some weeds, too – but we would celebrate the flowers.
But the flowers were not given much of a chance either. As part of the incoherence of the policy, there was no promise of overall additional funding to charities. Once in power, Government budgets were cut. In managing to extract extra money from the Government, Kids Company was an exception. Charities are the victim of another evidence-free ministerial prejudice. A lot of current ministers – especially those that have never served in departments responsible for delivery – believe that public services improve when their spending is cut. Part of the frustration other charities have with Kids Company is that, while they struggled with less generous funding, ministers continued to sign the cheques for this particular high-profile organisation – a symbol of the Big Society in action.
Now we have the consequence of ideological disdain for the state and a faith in the light regulatory touch. This week’s report from the Public Administration Committee, chaired by the Conservative MP, Bernard Jenkin, is forensically damning. It reports “an extraordinary catalogue of failures... at every level”.
The committee notes that the charity struggled with its finances while favourite clients enjoyed extravagant support. The committee is scathing about how political pressure seemed to override concerns about whether spending on Kids Company represented a good use of more than £40m.
As a matter of ideological inclination, ministers allowed the charity to float freely with calamitous consequences. The chair of the trustees, Alan Yentob, comes from the cosy structure of the BBC, wholly unsuitable preparation for keeping a beady eye on how money is being spent. The charisma of Camila Batmanghelidjh beguiled ministers, aching to show that she and others like her were the future, rather than dreary councillor-quango leaders. I do not blame Batmanghelidjh or Yentob. They were victims of the culture that assumes flowers will bloom if there are no constraints.
Kids Company as a whole was not supervised by Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission nor local government. “There is... a strong case for regulation of charities who have responsibilities for children or vulnerable adults”, the MPs recommend.
Perhaps most local government leaders are drearier than Batmanghelidjh, but at least their lines of accountability are fairly clear: they must stand for election. There are still very big issues about efficiency, bureaucracy and innovation in the delivery of public services by bodies more accountable than Kids Company. Every halfpenny of public money should be accounted for, over-management of institutions with guaranteed incomes must be addressed and innovation should be encouraged. These are big challenges.
Instead of seeking to meet them, Cameron’s ideological entourage sought to allow a charity with a highly sensitive remit to do more or less what it wanted.
There is such a thing as a Big Society, but it involves the state and is not the same as allowing one generously funded, lightly regulated charity to do what it wants. What happened to Kids Company is no accident. Never lose sight of the connections.