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David Keighley: Why did Yentob not see Kids Company was an accident waiting to happen?

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Alan Yentob’s behaviour in the Kids Company saga, even by the standards of the shameless we-can-do-no-wrong BBC executives, has been outrageous.

His evasive and belligerent responses in his interview by former BBC reporter Matt Frei on Channel 4 News last Thursday evening  were an appalling spectacle. His performance was such that it could be used by PR crisis management companies as a training exercise in how not to be interviewed in such circumstances.

It also defies belief that one of the Corporation’s most senior managers did not understand that his elevated position as its creative director generated a massive conflict of interest when he rang the BBC’s flagship television investigative programme Newsnight to influence a story about a charity of which he was chairman.

Good on Ian Katz and his right-on Newsnight team that on this occasion they did not accede to his self-interested request.  But had they done so – as happened under a different Newsnight regime with the Savile programme in 2011 – the Corporation’s battalions of press officers would no doubt have found excuse after excuse why this was OK.

Irrespective of that, it looks increasingly like Yentob, as chairman of the Kids Company Trustees since 2002 – and therefore for most of the charity’s history – was guilty of something else much more fundamental.

A charity which had raised around £130m, and attracted £30m of government funding, spectacularly collapsed under his watch as chairman – and he did not see it coming.

Further revelations like these in the Mail on Sunday suggest that he and the rest of the Trustees had major shortcomings in the way they supervised the running of the charity.

As the Guardian points out here with a forensic examination of  Kids Company  finances, they failed in the most basic ways. In effect, they presided over an unsupported and unsustainable ballooning of activities, salaries and staff numbers. Above all, they did not build upcash reserves that would ensure that the charity could weather temporary setbacks in fund-raising efforts.

Yentob risibly claimed in the Channel 4 interview that all this was above board. The charity’s problem was not such profligacy, but rather, it was a victim of its own success: there was unpredictable demand, the number of children in its alleged ‘care’ was rising so steeply and so unpredictably that it was swamped.

But this does not ring true. Loud alarm bells have been sounding about Kids Company finances for at least six months, and rumours of financial profligacy and incontinence have been swirling around the care sector for much longer than that. Tim Loughton, when he was children’s minister, tried to block the government grant to the charity because he was dissatisfied how money was being spent three years ago, but he was over-ruled by David Cameron.

Then, back in February, the journalist Miles Goslett published a very well researched and seriously disturbing article in the Spectator. It highlighted fundamental concerns about lack of accountability over the numbers of children being helped, how they were being given inexplicable cash handouts, and how at least one major donor was deeply troubled about how her money was being spent.

This cut to the heart of how the charity was being run. A more responsible board of Trustees would there and then have ordered an immediate inquiry and provided evidence explaining why such claims were wrong.

Instead, Goslett’s allegations were arrogantly and airily dismissed, with former Kids Company boss Camilla Batmaghelidjh telling staff last week that he was a ‘fantasist’.

From the outside, it is deeply puzzling why the Trustees did not act at this stage. Under very clear Charity Commission rules, they are required by law to ensure tight financial management .They are personally responsible for misspending if it occurs.

But an examination of their backgrounds could give clues why.   The Trustees listed on the Kids Company website are:

  • Yentob (chairman);
  • Richard Handover, chief executive of W H Smith
  • Sunetra Atkinson, ex wife of the entertainer Rowan Atkinson, a former BBC make-up artist
  • Erica Bolton (2005), an arts world PR.
  • Jayne Tyler, a law firm partner who lists herself as an expert in EU law and company acquisitions
  • Francesca Robinson – a recruitment firm principal.
  • Andrew Webster – who has been a Trustee of the Astrozeneca Pension Fund, and worked earlier in his career as a HR manager for an engineering company.

The outstanding point here is that, although there is a clear range of business experience, not one of them has any qualification in, or experience of, work in the child protection arena.

How on earth could this be? Such work is both deeply complex and highly specialised. It requires the best standards of professional expertise.  A charity operating in a similar field, The Wave Trust, for example, has at least one trustee who is a a leading academic expert in child care.

Yentob had been in his post as chairman since 2002, and he (and his colleagues) must surely have understood throughout that time that the charity’s reputation was based not on the amount of money it raised, but the robustness and integrity of the services it delivered.

Or did he?  What has happened over the last month, culminating in the car crash of closure, indicates that something in the equation was deeply rotten and that it took the Trustees completely unawares.  The Charity Commission is now investigating, and if it sticks to its own rules and holds them properly to account, they must surely be in for a rough ride.

What does this say about Yentob? . First and foremost that he may be a very senior and very experienced BBC executive but it seems that he does not understand conflict of interest and he seems not to have the faintest idea how to run a complex real-world operation.  Time and time again, the BBC has been shown to a lousy steward of public money.  Here is yet another illustration of this.

And what does it reveal about David Cameron’s government?  Kids Company was a flagship ‘Big Society’ project and because of Cameron’s generous support, Batmanghelidjh assumed major status, raking in more than £160m in funding.  Real charities, of course, need cash, but their key attributes are having genuine vision, people of integrity and a real deep connection with the communities they serve.  The services delivered by Kids Company, by contrast, now look to have been an elaborate house of cards.  Cameron holds at least some of the responsibility for that and shovelling government cash into Batmanghelidjh’s maw both undermined its integrity as a charity and inflated its problems.

And Kid’s Company itself? Clearly there are manyinvestigations to be undertaken before the full picture emerges. But what is now certain is that it was a frail construction, it had inadequate supervision, and that there are serious concerns about the level, quality and volume of services it was actually operating.

How much of the blame for this lies at the door of itsfounder…and her celebrity chums, aided and abetted by a Conservative government ethos that seems to put form above substance?

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David Keighleyhttp://news-watch.co.uk
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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