Thursday, 11 February 2016

Accountability and Ideology

"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.


  1. Interesting stuff Jim and I think you make a strong argument. I watched the recent programme on Kids Company but I came away with another impression at the time. All the sex allegations, that in the end shut Kids Company, were thrown out. It looked to me that it had grown too fast and Camila was unable to raise enough money from charitable donations, money on top of the money given by government.

    One young woman on the fringes of local gang activity was given a flat and was educated with money from Kids Company. At the time I thought this was money well spent and cheaper than the other route, of "care" and the criminal justice system, a life saved that would go on to benefit society.

    Camila was too close to the middle aged woman with mental health issues and this did breed dependence but at the end of the programme she was working in what was left of Kids Company.

    I think what impressed me was unconditional love that seemed to underpin Camila's approach and the fact that so many ex staff and former clients continued to support her.

    Jim do you have any idea about the actual numbers involved in Kids Company and do you think it could work if overseen by a benevolent bureaucracy? This just shows how wrong I can be but you have changed my mind on this issue


    1. Papa,

      No it would be very interesting to know what the true figures were, but I suspect that information was never collated and always remained a work of 'creative accounting' because Camila knew success at fund-raising depended on the true figure being unknown but inflated.

      I'm glad I got around to finally writing about it because it's made me so angry. This dreadful woman has done the whole cause of grass-roots, philanthropic, enlightened, innovative work a massive disservice.

      My nature is to whole-heartedly support initiatives like this, but they must be doing good work, carefully and skilfully and be trusted to spend the money wisely. I don't think Camila was experienced, qualified or even emotionally the right person to undertake this work and the culture of cult surrounding her was extremely worrying.

      On the point of unconditional love, I would be interested to hear the views of others, but my feeling is it is definitely not appropriate alone and needs to be combined with other skilled interventions and treatment.

  2. Good stuff Jim - In Probation we were allowed to innovate - as long as the Part B's were done - it did not cost anything significant or get bad publicity - sadly many schemes I saw which were valued by clients - faded away with staff changes & without corporate probation's backing.

    I have just read from The Independent which was breaking news about 60 minutes ago after a statement from Jeremy Hunt - it does not signify reasons for enthusiasm from probation folk trying to sustain employment contracts that are fair.

    “NHS junior doctors will be forced to accept a controversial new contract without agreement or further negotiation, the Health Secretary has announced.”

    I was a little surprised this as gone on for as long as four years - they did not spend so long wrecking probation - that length of time serves to remind us LibDems were in at the beginning!

    In most of the media coverage - there has been no real focus on the fact that the Junior Doctors are having their employment contracts changed by their employer without their agreement - the same seemed to have happened with probation; contracts that workers entered into but are changed by the employer.

    It is like someone to whom you have agreed to sell, say a car – turning up to pay for the vehicle and drive away. them but saying I am only going to pay so and so, which is less that when we agreed it – take it or leave it – workers reliant on a wage month by month cannot always just – leave it and go elsewhere. (The Ragged Trousered Philosopher – explained it a hundred years and more ago)

    It has taken longer for the NHS backbone staff to be picked off, but eventually they have nearly got them. Now the test will be will those doctors accept what seem worse terms to me or take their experience to places where they will be paid and employed fairly.

    I remember when Home Helps - a nice steady Local Government job - pensionable and secure, those contracts went decades ago, along with cleaning and catering in the NHS and other places. Maybe we should collectively have stood up more for each other from the beginning (Labour - the red Tories) are not absolved either.

    Who is left to pick off - the Civil Servants, Police and Military, came to mind, maybe but more likely not - someone is needed to write the ever more new contracts and protect those at the top who are getting the dosh!

    1. Genuine innovation will be stamped out these days, as it represents deviation from the standard models that the CRC owners want to implement because, in their Fordist wisdom, they think clients are widgets that can be manipulated through applying a process, and come out the other end 'cured'.

      Genuinely innovative attempts to work with people in a creative and meaningful way will be too difficult to measure for contract compliance, and will fall by the wayside.

  3. The issue now is that providers across a range of public services seem to believe that their role is to give the public what they want to give them and not to deliver what they need or anything defensible or evidence based. As a result we have 15 minute care visits and Wimpey style Probation offices. An inevitable consequence of allowing profit to drive the delivery of human services. What can I not do? Where can I make cuts to increase profit? Innovation is waved around as if it implies improvement. It depends what the objective of the innovation is. If the objective is reduced costs, innovation will be cuts in services. If it is to improve services, it will rarely be opposed but it is so often the case that innovation is the veneer not the content.

  4. by CRC still unclear about this that & t'other. Ideas change from week to week and to be quite frank by the time they make their minds up hopefully we'll be back in public hands

  5. This blog does act as a discussion forum and it has attracted millions of hits which suggests it arouses interest rather then tedium. This blog has never claimed it could stop change being imposed through power rather than consensus. But if the measure of anything is to be judged by its capacity to stop something happening overnight then would the suffragettes have bothered, as it took some thirty years to attain the vote for all women. Would Mandala have struggled for thirty years against apartheid? Both Mandala and the suffragettes 'bitched' against the present of their times. The 'tide of change' is always up for grabs: society is shaped by social not natural forces. It's good to question the divine right of kings and emperors or politicians of particular persuasions.

    1. Thanks Netnipper - may I say that your regular considered contributions are always eagerly awaited and add so much to the level of discussion and debate.

  6. Great post Jim, thanks. I too was struck by the downfall of Kids Company, having like you, until last summer, felt it was something I was in total accord with. Watching the documentary last week, and the way it made me feel, inspired me to write on my Loud Hayley twitter a/c, blog - which I don't do that often! It's here in case you are interested
    I did wonder if, had Camila not tried to do what she did on a such a 'grand' scale, and had she used her compassion and motherly-unconditional love as, say, a foster carer - whether she wouldn't have surely ended up one of those people who features on Desert Island Discs as being 'super foster mum of recent decades'. With a such accolades as 'over the years 82 children have lived under her roof and benefited from her care, love, and kindness' and she is still in touch with most of them'. Sadly, that is most certainly not the way things turned out.
    The Kids Company documentary certainly made me appreciate just how damaging a culture of over-dependency is for people.
    It is a shame that probation (CRC's) are not currently embracing the much-talked-about 'opening up of new innovation' and less restrictions, the Government tried to sell us during TR. Whilst I can see that maybe right now is not the time, as there is so much other stuff that must be done, with, let's face it, fewer folk to do it, I still hope that probation can move on positively, and in time have the space to be creative about new ways in which people can be helped and rehabilitated, and steered away from offending for good. And in the spirit of 'putting my money where my mouth is' for anyone interested, you will find one of my 'innovative ideas for offenders' also on my Loud Hayley blog!

    1. Thanks LoudHayley - I've taken the liberty of republishing your blog:-

      Kids Company - My Feelings About It's Downfall

      When stories first hit the news headlines in the summer of 2015, I immediately thought it was some sort of right wing smear, probably with an objective of 'saving money' yet again, by punishing the 'poor people'. I had read the articles and watched the documentaries, over the previous couple of decades about the charismatic and colourful Camila Batmanghelidjh. She was kind. She was lovely! She was doing what needed doing - not ticking boxes, and following local authority red tape. I honestly thought I loved her 'to hell with it' attitude towards all that bureaucracy, and felt in total accord with her hands-on motherly ways; her kindness and compassion - offering desperate, sad, deprived, neglected children a place of safety in an emulated family environment, bringing them comfort and a sense of 'real love'. Who wouldn't think all that sounded great? (Plus, I'd just become a mother myself, so I was possibly not approaching any of the things I saw or read about Kids Company, objectively!) However, from the summer of last year the more I heard ... the less I felt positive about Camila Batmanghelidijh and what she had created with her Kids Company culture.

      My thoughts crystallised as I watched the recent (2016) documentary, with film maker Lynn, still behind the camera having first made a documentary a decade earlier, when Kids Company was still the 'darling' of children's charities in the UK. Lynn was clearly finding that, for her too, the fog was clearing as the story unfolded, and the filming updated.

      At the invitation of Camila Batmanghelidijh herself, Lynn had been invited back to film and document her confrontations with the very people who were now, in 2015, questioning and challenging her abilities and discretion. So, after the updated 2016 released documentary, which Camilla had herself commissioned - I can only imagine that, like me, many previously staunch supporters ... saw the light.

      From the very outset I felt annoyed by the 2016 version of Camila! For starters I thought her manner was plain ... well, silly would seem to describe it, almost childlike (perhaps ironically), with a whiff of 'tantrum even; and was also that of someone in total denial about their situation. And, I had up to now always thought of her as an 'eminent psychotherapist'. However, here she was displaying the sort of behaviour which would make me think someone would probably benefit from seeing a psychotherapist - quite urgently! So, not only was I annoyed, but also confused - the 'security' of my own judgements about people were now in question - specifically her - what she had represented to me over the previous couple of decades, was breaking down before my very eyes on a television screen in my own sitting room.

    2. By the end of the 2016 documentary, I had changed my mind, about Kids Company, and Camila. I realised that what I had thought about them for the past two decades had been misguided, and, comfortingly, I felt I understood why I had thought what I had thought previously, and why.

      First off, I had blindly believed the media output about her, and the organisation she fronted so very flamboyantly, and charismatically. Her 'dark side' had been well hidden behind her colourful presentation.

      I now conclude that Camila Batmanghelidijh was dysfunctional. She undoubtedly has great compassion for people, driven by her own need to 'mother', 'care for' and love. She undoubtedly, at the time, helped many young (and adult!) people by realising her vision to provide a family environment, via an open-door policy. Her charisma enabled her to persuade rich, and powerful people and organisations into parting with lots of money.

      But, what she created was sadly a culture of dependency for a lot of people around her, including the children. Which wasn't fair, or right in the long-run. Much of what she did was to meet her own needs, by meeting the needs of the children, and others attached to the Kids Company culture, including her dedicated, hard working, doubtless kind and caring staff.

      Anyone who follows my @LoudHayley Twitter account will know, I am NOT a supporter of the current Prime Minister David Cameron; or his cabinet or government; nor the last one. I am mainly of socialist/humanist thinking. I like and have hope in Jeremy Corbyn. However, I do feel that whoever brought the Kids Company issue to light, (even if on the right wing of politics!), was correct to do so, and I thank them for making me see it for what it was; and also for helping me realise my own thoughts and attitudes about why any sort of dependency culture for anyone, is very unhealthy for well-being.

  7. Off topic but...
    A private firm's contract to run cleaning, catering and maintenance for the NHS has been ended early.
    Interserve won a seven-year £300m contract to manage NHS buildings in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland.
    The company was issued a formal warning last year after a row over cleanliness at the city's three hospitals.
    In a joint statement, the firm and the NHS said the contract is "no longer appropriate" and will end three years early.

    1. Bodes well!
      The best predictor of future behaviour...

    2. But are the penalties sufficient to deter such companies dabbling, cashing in, but walking away when it doesn't suit? An energy company (SSE?) recently found it cheaper to close power stations & pay fines for breach of contract rather than continue as per their initial bid. Sod the employees, sod the local mpact - the focus is solely on the comany balance sheet.

      They're all just asset stripping pickpockets with no shame, morals or understanding of anything other than their own greedy wants.

    3. Yup! Just one of many illustrations that show the failings of capitalism and why it should have no place in public service provision.

    4. SSE faces Capacity Market fine over closure of most of Fiddler’s Ferry

      SSE faces paying a £33 million fine for not fulfilling a Capacity Market contract for the winter of 2018-19 if it proceeds with plans to close three of the four furnaces at its Fiddler’s Ferry coal-fired power station in Cheshire.

      The fourth unit is due to remain open thanks to a contract to provide power during the winter of 2016-17.

      Paul Smith, SSE Managing Director, Generation, said: “The fact it makes more sense for SSE to contemplate making a substantial payment in lieu of the capacity agreement relating to Fiddler’s Ferry in 2018-19 demonstrates just how economically challenged Fiddler’s Ferry has become – its losses are unsustainable."

    5. Mr Smith failed to mention the loss of 270 jobs.


    7. Staff at Leicester's hospitals are celebrating the scrapping of a catering and cleaning contract with a private company.

      Health campaigners and politicians have also welcomed the move to end the contract with Interserve four years early, as revealed by the Mercury yesterday.

      The company has been under fire for poor standards since it took over cleaning, catering and other support services in April 2013 after winning a seven-year contract worth £300 million.

      Bosses at Leicester's hospitals said they, and other NHS trusts across Leicestershire, will run services themselves from May 1.


    Closures of courts and tribunals in England and Wales announced