More than hitting the buffers

If you were expecting the 1895 Gare Montparnasse locomotive-dangling-through-wall image, sorry to disappoint. This is “nearer home”: Hatch Street, Dublin, 1900, round the back of Harcourt Street (into which I commuted for a year or so, while at the High School):

Harcourt St

History does, indeed, repeat itself. Here’s Aliso Street, Los Angeles, 1948:

Aliso St

 

And yesterday the whole of UK charity-welfare came equally-adrift.

The whole thrust of Tory “Big Society” is that the “voluntary” sector and charities can substitute for properly-run “official” services. The total failure of Kids Company proves the fallacy there. Government (national and local) cannot hand over cash and expect do-gooding to make good.

If it is an “essential” welfare service — and anything to do with the health, welfare, protection and development of the nation’s young should be “essential” — then it is too important to be left to colourful self-promoters. Or to the whims of self-preening philanthropists.

Any local authority, attempting to operate on the kind of pattern Ms Batmanghelidjh promoted, would have been exposed and closed down within hours. Which is why Ms Batmanghelidjh’s latest is worth the study:

Kids Company has become “a football for the media and the civil servants”, the charity’s founder has said. [1]

Camila Batmanghelidjh told the BBC the charity had run out of money because the government had not taken responsibility for child protection. [2]

Kids Company closed on Wednesday after ministers said they wanted to recover a £3m grant given to the charity. [3]

The Cabinet Office said it believed conditions attached to the use of the money had not been met. [4]

Ms Batmanghelidjh told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Kids Company had been subjected to a “trial by media” based on “rumours and conjectures”. [5]

[1] The football cliché has to be high on @JohnRentoul’s “banned list” (and, before him, George Orwell’s). Pause, though, to muse: the popular media (the market-place where Ms Batmanghelidjh and her like sell themselves) is obsessed with football: therefore, to invoke another dead metaphor it’s heat/kitchen.

We often hear the expression deployed defensively. It is the complaint of the affronted, when a demand comes in for accountability or merely answerability. When public money (and in Kids Company that’s at least £37 million or, in another count, over £40 million) is involved, we need accounts and answers.

[2] Note the logical disconnect. If the government is responsible for “child protection” (and there’s a term needing full definition), why does more government money handed out to the well-meaning assure better “protection”?

What might go some way is ensuring there are enough professionals out there, doing and being answerable for the job. What we find, though, is something different. There’s a small item In the Back of the current issue of Private Eye:

PE

Not just “a challenge too far” but one that is too expensive, but can be plastered over with well-intentioned amateurs (doubtless, on minimum wage, until the “voluntary-sector” provider goes spectacularly bust.

 

[3] Here we hit another buffer. Why should the public purse be paying the wages and on-costs of these “volunteers”? Yes, of course, there has to be a professional in-house staff. Yes, too, they should be paid the rate for the job. No, they shouldn’t be — by extension — civil and public servants, unless they are prepared to accept the scriptures that go with the office.

Billy Kenber and Jill Sherman’s story in today’s The Times has this:

An audit commissioned by the Cabinet Office last year said that cashflow problems were a “key financial risk”. Auditors said this meant that “it is not possible to build reserves and invest in new activities and locations”.

On at least two occasions, the charity has been unable to pay employee tax contributions to HM Revenue & Customs. In 2002 it failed to hand over almost £700,000 in national insurance contributions. In a highly unusual agreement the following year, the taxman agreed to waive the funds in exchange for a £100,000 donation, which was paid by a supporter of the charity.

Senior staff at the charity blamed such problems on the large numbers of vulnerable children who needed its services and said that a shortage of funds did not indicate poor management.

Downing Street support

The tax deal in July 2003 was an example of the political support Kids Company enjoyed. Critics say that it was because of support at the highest level of government that it survived for so long. Gordon Brown was a supporter and David Cameron once invited Ms Batmanghelidjh to attend his cabinet.

Mr Cameron overruled the concerns of Department for Education officials who wanted to end a multimillion pound grant to the charity in 2012 after Ms Batmanghelidjh wrote a personal plea to him, according to sources.

The department secured Mr Cameron’s agreement for a civil servant to be seconded to the charity to report on what was causing the dysfunction.

At several points in that, any “hands-off” approach ceased to work. Kids Company was breaking the law, was effectively — and successfully — blackmailing the Treasury for support, and had at least one civil servant at the heart of the operation. Imagine the parallel: not the British Prime Minister manipulating HMR&C, but an American President forcing the arm of the IRS — a guarantee of impeachment would follow.

[4] See [3] above. But also notice how the civil service behaved ethically, and insisted on a (very rare) political directive. And got it.

Then we start the ministerial blame-game. It looks as if Michael Gove, when he was at Education, covered himself. Currently two ministers —  Matthew Hancock and Oliver Letwin — have their names in the frame. All the “noise”, though, is they were directed to do the deal by “Downing Street”. If “lessons will be learned”, then “heads may roll”.

[5] Ah, yes! Another of those convenient clichés. It usual implies that someone, somewhere with a soapbox has uncovered a festering cell-pit, and is exploiting it in the medis greasy-poll contest.

On the other hand, the bigger the “exposure”, the larger the potential libel damages. Or not, if the ligament recognises the verity of the accusation.

Anyway, the press and other media are fully entitled to enquire how public money, and charitable donations are expended.

What they mayl be slow to question is why we as a society are out-sourcing essential welfare, delegating key services to amateurs.

A foot-note:

Over my years I have observed a whole series of self-promoting exploiters of the British public. I still have my wallet and pensions intact.

The first that I recall was John Bloom, who allegedly got the better of Bernard Levin, and then (1963-4) was done down by the bigger fish in the “white goods” market. Undoubtedly there was a cartel of the manufacturers up against him, but a lot of decent “little people” lost money because he was an exploiter.

Let us quickly pass over the likes of Sir Freddy Laker, intruders like John DeLorean, and (the daddy of them all) Robert Maxwell.

Actually, no: let’s not pass over Maxwell. He is, after all, the ultimate exemplar.  I recall a conversation with a guy who had worked as an agent for Maxwell in his 1964 Buckingham constituency election. The anecdotes and warning were ominous: many others in politics and business knew of Maxwell’s ability to cut corners and exploit. But he got away with it until 1991.

There’s, then, a tradition of colourful characters whose colours mask shady doings.

And we get caught time and again.

The difference, this time, could be:

The buck stops … where?

 

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Filed under Conservative family values, David Cameron, History, sleaze., Tories.

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