August 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of the closure of the children’s charity Kids Company. The charity had been forced to close in 2015 following allegations of serious sexual abuse broadcast by BBC’s Newsnight programme, and stories of “gross financial mismanagement”, led by the Spectator magazine, including mismanagement of a £3 million grant given to the charity shortly before it closed. A subsequent investigation by the Metropolitan Police into the allegations of sexual and physical abuse that were aired so sensationally by Newsnight however found “no evidence of criminality” and no fault with the charity’s safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults. In 2017 the courts finally confirmed that the £3million grant that had been given to the charity did not have to be returned, and that the terms of the grant had not been breached by the charity. But by then the doors were closed and the charity in liquidation.
The narrative is puzzling, with commentators on all sides sensing that there was something missing in this story, something that didn’t quite add up in the disjunct between the apparent success and good work of the charity, which even its detractors acknowledged, and the media narrative of sexual abuse and financial dysfunction.
In her interviews discussing the closure and disruption of the charity, former CEO Camila Batmanghelidjh has alluded to “a drive to discredit Kids Company” amongst certain sections of Whitehall, Westminster and the media, and even a possible “conspiracy” to disrupt and destroy the charity.
These suggestions of a politically-motivated agenda to discredit the charity were quickly picked up by the main news outlets and as peremptorily dismissed: ‘Camila Batmanghelidjh claims “government conspiracy” brought down Kids Company as viewers blast shamed founder for selling book’, was how The Mirror reported it, while on Twitter, the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire carefully tweeted: “’Government conspiracy dismantled Kids Company – but I don’t know who’, says Camila Batmanghelidjh”, prompting the requisite outrage amongst her 45,000 followers. “Judging by her physical size,” one of them responded, “she clearly ate the fat of the millions given to the charity!” “Ridiculous fat fraudster – archetypal of the kind infesting the fake charity sector”, another of the former Newsnight presenter’s followers tweeted, “This walking circus of a woman is as delusional as always”.
But what if she wasn’t delusional: what if there was a project to discredit the charity, perhaps for ideological reasons. That there was something at least rather murky going on behind the scenes was acknowledged by no less a person than Steve Hilton, the former adviser and head of strategy to David Cameron: “I do think there was a conspiracy, among parts of the establishment that she threatened”, he told the Sunday Times in September 2017. He even alluded to the possible reason behind this “conspiracy”, pointing to the existence of an ideological campaign to discredit the whole idea of a “big society” among certain parts of Whitehall and Westminster: “She was seen as a poster child for the big society. And that was a conscious decision on our part. As a result, she became a victim of attacks on the big society from the civil service and the media” (‘Former PM adviser says Camila Batmanghelidjh was the victim of a ‘conspiracy’, Third Sector).
Interestingly, no one in the media thought this lead, with its implication of the “civil service” getting involved in political projects, was worth investigating – presumably content with the number of “Scoop of the Year” awards they’d already given themselves over the initial reporting. But Hilton seems to have been onto something, as a remarkable number of figures who attacked the charity and led the campaign to discredit it were attached to one particular think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies. Was this just a coincidence?
In February 2016, the Royal Television Awards presented BBC Newsnight’s policy editor, Chris Cook, with “Scoop of the Year: The Closure of Kids Company”, while two months later Fraser Nelson’s Spectator magazine also won “Scoop of the Year” for its largely uncorroborated article about Kids Company, narrowly beating the Sun’s exposé of Lord Sewel’s cocaine habit for this coveted media award.
The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) is one of the most influential think tanks in Britain. It was set up to advance the neoliberal ideas of Friedrich Hayek, founder of the famous Chicago School of free market economics, which set the intellectual and ideological framework for what became known as Thatcherism. As the Margaret Thatcher Foundation observes, the think tank “was one of the most potent ingredients in the intellectual ferment that produced Thatcherism”, and it states that one of its aims was to challenge “the institutions of big government and the mentality that went with them”. This ideological agenda and visceral dislike of ‘the State’ is evident on the CPS’s own website, which notes that “the Centre develops and promotes policies to limit the role of the state”, and refers to its “global role in the dissemination of free market economics”, in particular through “developing the policies of privatisation“. As the Independent notes, the think tank was basically set up by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher to introduce the whole project of neoliberalism into Britain.
One of the key figures in the story of the disruption of Kids Company is Oliver Letwin, who has a particularly interesting and intimate link with the think tank – indeed, his Chicago-born mother, Shirley Letwin, was a friend of Hayek and was enlisted to work for the CPS by Keith Joseph to help set it up.
Letwin himself became a special adviser to Keith Joseph in the 1980s, and was a member of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit. His interest in developing these policies – in challenging “the institutions of big government and the mentality that went with them”, and in limiting the role of the state, are evident in his publications at this time, which included the ambitiously-titled Privatising the World (1988), and Britain’s Biggest Enterprise: Ideas for Radical Reform of the NHS (co-written with John Redwood), which was published by the Centre for Policy Studies. Many have seen this work as laying the ideological foundation for the gradual, and increasingly extensive and successful, privatisation of the NHS and other welfare services.
The influence of the CPS on both British politics and the British media has been remarkable. As its own website acknowledges, “the CPS has a proud history of shaping the political debate in British politics” and this success in “shaping” debate and policy is fundamental to its DNA. “Influencing the climate of opinion had always been its core function,” observed the Margaret Thatcher Foundation: “Its calling was to evangelise rather than research, working by whatever means it could to overturn the collectivist political and economic orthodoxies of the day.” To this end, it established a whole programme of what it called “public education” – an extensive network of support throughout the media via the cultivation, promotion, and placement of key figures in journalism, academia, and television – some of whom, as we shall see, played a significant role in the collapse of Kids Company.
Was there perhaps a link between this ideological agenda, centred on the CPS, and the noticeable shift in governmental attitudes towards large charities, and state involvement in them, under David Cameron’s administration (2010-2016)? Core ideas emanating from the think tank certainly seemed to have contributed to his party’s thinking following his election as party leader in 2005. As the Financial Times reported in 2008, Cameron was “seeking to match the intellectual impetus behind the Thatcherite revolution in the most extensive policy overhaul the Tories have undertaken for three decades.” “The unlikely inspiration for the young modernisers driving Conservative thinking”, it duly noted, was “the late Sir Keith Joseph”. The Times also reported that central to this whole “extensive policy overhaul” was Oliver Letwin (‘Tories eye victory in battle of ideas’, 21 May 2008′).
Letwin had already given the prestigious annual Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, organised by the Centre for Policy Studies, in 2002. He would be followed in subsequent years by Michael Gove, Fraser Nelson, and Matthew Hancock – all of whom would play an unusually prominent role in the disruption and indeed destruction of Kids Company. Could there have been a connection between their shared ideological dislike of “big government” and their aversion to large charities such as Kids Company, who were increasingly reliant on government grants to help support the growing numbers of abused, neglected, and distressed children self-referring to the charity?
As Batmanghelidjh observed in her recent book Kids – Child protection in Britain: The Truth, “Conflict arose between the Cabinet Office and Kids Company when I insisted that an independent firm of auditors should count and cost the numbers of children in our care who were the state’s responsibility. We wanted government to step up, rather than use a charity to avoid their statutory duties to protect vulnerable children.”
This issue of the “numbers of children” requiring protection and care was central to the conflict between the charity and the Cabinet. In 2013 Batmanghelidjh had already brought in Iain Duncan Smith’s respected think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), to investigate what she claimed were chronic, and systemic, failings in child care protection in this country, with vast numbers of children being excluded from services that local authorities were required to provide by law, and who were turning up at the doors of Kids Company as a result. What the CSJ found profoundly shocked them:
We have been astounded by the number and nature of legal failings and missed opportunities which were identified by the legal professionals’ review of Kids Company cases.
Our evidence demonstrates a staggering lack of accountability by local authorities with respect to vulnerable children and young people.
We share the sense of disbelief repeatedly expressed by legal professionals, and other witnesses, at the unscrupulous and unlawful practices operated by some local authorities.
We were left incredulous at the lengths to which some local authorities are going, to either completely withhold or restrain services from being provided. We were repeatedly told that this is being driven by financial pressures.
In light of the unscrupulous and illegal practices which have emerged on the part of some local authorities during our research, we are highly concerned for the multitude of vulnerable children and young people who have no Kids Company or equivalent voluntary sector support or specialist legal advice available to them. – ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: A policy report for the Centre for Social Justice, June 2014.
Their report, titled ‘Enough is Enough’, was damning in its depiction of the true nature of Cameron’s “big society”, and the scale of the “numbers of children” implicated in the failings: “countless numbers of abused, neglected, despairing, and traumatised children and young people”, it observed, “are being spectacularly failed by some statutory services.” Perhaps the Cabinet feared a similar independent investigation into the levels of need of the disturbed children and families who were self referring to Kids Company in ever-increasing numbers at exactly this same time.
Numerous independent organizations investigated and evaluated Kids Company’s work over this period, including the UCL Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit, the London School of Economics (LSE), Kings College London Institute of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge Department of Developmental Psychiatry, the Anna Freud Centre, the Centre for Social Justice, the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust, and the University of East London. All of them were aware of the numbers of children involved in the charity, the complex needs of the often very disturbed children and families who were self-referring, and the efficacy of its programme. This extensive research was shared with government departments but, oddly, barely any mention of it was made in the parliamentary ‘inquiry’.
One person who did know of it was Chris Wormald, the permanent Secretary for the DofE, who attempted to correct the false impression that the inquiry was promoting: “You were saying there was no evaluation evidence”, he told the parliamentary committee. “That is not correct. I have already quoted the evaluation that we did in 2011, and there was also the LSE study, the UCL study, et cetera. There were proper studies writing up this work.” As Batmanghelidjh notes, “the political system’s response was to ‘lose’ reports and documents which demonstrated the charity’s efficacy, so that an impression could be created of Kids Company as an inefficient and failing organisation. This was a strategy to weaken Kids Company’s message – too many maltreated children are being failed by their government” (Kids). Even Tim Loughton, the former children’s minister, admitted to the parliamentary inquiry that “there were clearly quite a lot of papers missing.”
For a link between the CPS’s ideological agenda and the aggressive stories put out in the media to discredit Kids Company to be persuasive or compelling there would really need to be some documentary proof of the CPS’s formal opposition to large charities such as Kids Company, or perhaps some evidence of an agenda to break the link between such charities and state support.
Oddly enough there is: in 2006 the Centre for Policy Studies published a report entitled ‘Charity: The spectre of over-regulation and state dependency’, in which they publicly outlined their criticism of “large charities”, and the role of government as “paymaster” for them – indicative chapter titles include ‘Large charities – a cause for public concern’, and ‘Charity and the State’. The final section of the CPS report ominously concluded that “for those charities involved in providing a public service, the direct financial link between the state and charity should be broken, wherever possible.”
What is particularly significant is that the document repeatedly draws an ideological distinction between “smaller charities”, of which the CPS clearly approves, and “Large charities”, whose link with the state needs to be disrupted, diminished, or – ideally – “broken”. This policy is of course entirely in keeping with the wider neoliberal aims of the CPS, in seeking to remove on the one hand what it calls “the spectre of over-regulation” for smaller charities, while simultaneously aiming to privatise or commercialise the larger ones: “This can be achieved”, it explains, “by encouraging a lighter regulatory approach for smaller charities while imposing the discipline of consumer choice on those large charities which are involved in the delivery of public services”.
It notes approvingly that this would lead to “a creative chaos of voluntary and essentially private activities by individuals and their associations”. The existence and success of large charities such as Kids Company were clearly a glaring obstacle and problem for the advancement of this ideological model of privatised “chaos”, and the CPS’s ideological distinction between large and small charities is important as this would become a defining element of subsequent media reporting, such as that by Harriet Sergeant in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph and Miles Goslett’s columns in Fraser Nelson’s Spectator.
Harriet Sergeant’s contribution to the disruption of Kids Co is particularly interesting in this respect, as her evidence played such a prominent role in both the media reporting and also in supplying evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into Whitehall’s relationship with Kids Company. For Harriet is, perhaps coincidently, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies. In fact she was apparently doing research for the think tank when she was spending time at Kids Company – another coincidence. As the Independent noted in 2015, “the first journalist” to start generating negative pieces about the charity “was Harriet Sergeant, who spent time with Kids Company researching a think-tank report, and in 2012 wrote a book, Among the Hoods.”
Her subsequent articles describing the charity clearly and faithfully repeat the same lines set out a few years before in her own think tank’s report, with its similar ideological distinction between “large charities” (bad) and “smaller charities” (good): “Small, local charities”, Sergeant remarks, “are often the best way of helping troubled young people who have been let down by the state”; “Often people assume a big-name charity is ‘better’, when actually it is a small local charity that is really helping”; “A number of big charities receive as much as 90 per cent of their income from government”; “The government is right to try to use small charities and right to want to make sure their work is effective and taxpayers’ money well spent” (‘How to judge a charity’, The Spectator).
The neoliberal lens of the CPS is equally evident in her dog-whistle allusions to “taxpayers’ money” and her emphasis on “the cash doled out in envelopes”, both suggesting “state dependency”, as the CPS ‘Charity’ report put it. Sergeant’s rather dim view of the state and society is also evident from the titles of her other articles at this time: ‘Prison’s just what a young yob needs’; ‘These rioters are Tony Blair’s children: Nihilism and disorder have been fostered by the state’; ‘The state sector’s big evil: it does not sack’.
Her ideologically-driven views also played a crucial part in BBC Newsnight’s deeply destructive report into Kids Company. This is interesting because the policy editor of BBC Newsnight was Chris Cook – someone who also, coincidently, has very close personal and professional links with the Centre for Policy Studies. In fact, before working for Newsnight he had been the advisor of David Willets MP, a former Director of the CPS, and someone who is currently listed as one of the CPS’s ‘Notable Advisory Council members‘, together with Oliver Letwin and John Redwood. The intimate nature of this relationship between Newsnight’s policy editor and the former Director of research at the CPS is suggested by Cook’s laudatory description of Willets as “the Tories’ foremost intellectual and my former employer”.
As the Financial Times noted, throughout 2015 Chris Cook and Alan White at Buzzfeed “worked together on skilfully placing” a series of articles suggesting “sexual offences, exploitation and child abuse” at the children’s charity. On Buzzfeed’s own website they helpfully list these “joint investigations” between Cook and White – a remarkable six collaborations between BBC Newsnight and BuzzFeed News in the space of just four months. The Independent elaborates on this rather unusual collusion:
The pair teamed up … [and a] Newsnight-Buzzfeed story reported that the Metropolitan Police’s Sexual Offences, Exploitation and Child Abuse unit was probing allegations of criminal activity on the charity’s premises. This was the revelation that broke the back of an organisation that for 19 years had done – by the estimation of even its harshest critics – considerable good work in helping some of Britain’s most vulnerable children (The Independent).
Interestingly, Alan White, the News Editor at Buzzfeed UK and yet another “Royal Television Society Scoop of the Year” Award-winner for his “investigation” into sexual abuse allegations which turned out to be false, had earlier written a glowing review of Harriet Sergeant‘s Among the Hoods, describing it as “a magnificent book”: “How the left will gripe when they see, time and again, examples of how their values have let these children down … And they’ll hate all the examples of how a bloated state has created a series of broken institutions that only exist to provide jobs for others” (NewStatesman).
However, the links between the CPS and the media reporting of Kids Company are even more striking than that, as Harriet Sergeant’s articles – as well as those of another prominent anti-Kids Company journalist, Miles Goslett – appeared in the Spectator magazine, whose editor is Fraser Nelson. Coincidently, Nelson is also attached to a leading think tank. Guess which one. There seems to be something of a pattern emerging, because Fraser Nelson is not only a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Policy Studies but he also gave their Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture in 2010, where he talked about “the burden of big government”, and noted that the contemporary “mistrust in political authority is a good sign for the Tories if their mission is, explicitly, to disempower government.”
Interestingly, Matthew Hancock, the Minister for the Cabinet Office at the time of Kids Company’s closure in 2015, was also invited by the CPS to give their Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture the following year, while Tim Loughton, at the DofE, who gave oral evidence to the House of Commons PACAC – calling the founder of the charity “the poster girl at the Big Society” and arguing “that groups like Kids Company” should not receive government funding – lists his special interest groups as including the CPS. It’s clearly a small world, and perhaps this cosy network helps explain why information flowed so freely behind the scenes at the Cabinet, BBC Newsnight, and the Spectator.
It is also perhaps significant that Dominic Cummings, who was not responsible for the charity’s brief in government and who had never even visited the charity, was prolific in discrediting it publicly. For Cummings was also keen to discredit David Cameron’s position (as part of the Cameron/Gove rift), and his wife was Deputy Editor at – no surprises – Fraser Nelson’s The Spectator. It is also notable that Cummings worked closely with Miles Goslett, the reporter who propagated the bulk of the false reporting on Kids Company in partnership with Harriet Sergeant.
Was it all a coincidence that some of the most aggressive reporting of Kids Company at this time came from journalists and politicians so intimately involved with the Centre for Policy Studies? It’s certainly striking that the media narrative of Kids Company, the larger it grew, followed so faithfully the terms and recommendations set out in the CPS’s 2006 Charity report – with its disparaging of “large charities” and its need to find a way to “break” the link between charity and social responsibility.
This trajectory is also apparent in Oliver Letwin’s complex and rather conflicted attitude towards the charity, which seemed to grow increasingly complex and conflicted the more the charity moved from being a “small, local charity” to being a “big-name charity”, requiring increasing state support. That the charity was now campaigning for a wholesale redesign of child protection welfare systems in this country, which the CSJ had starkly revealed were now “in crisis” and “not fit for purpose”, was probably, as Batmanghelidjh noted in her book, “the final straw”.
It’s clear that Kids Co weren’t the only “large charity” in the CPS’s sights – Children in Need, Mencap, and Action for Children were all explicitly in their line of fire – but perhaps, given the high visibility of Kids Co, and the desire amongst a number of Tory politicians to discredit Cameron’s whole “Big Society” agenda (seen as far too much of a compromise to the idea of “Big Government”), a neoliberal lesson could be learned – providing of course that the British media were flexible enough and didn’t ask too many awkward questions about who was feeding them this information, or undertake any genuine investigative reporting into their sources.
Indeed they actually gave Press Awards to these people: Newsnight won an award from the Royal Television Society, for ‘Scoop of the Year: The Closure of Kids Company’, while Paul Flynn MP, whose visceral dislike of Cameron’s “Big Society” project is everywhere evident on his website, described Harriet Sergeant’s bizarre concoction of misinformation and unchecked supposition as “British journalism at its bravest and best”.
Kids Company passed 19 years of continuous financial assessments and independent audits. Since 2003 they were audited quarterly, both clinically and financially, every grant they received being dependent on a successful audit. The National Audit office could not find one letter of complaint against the charity from any government department in nearly two decades, and in their evidence to parliament the Charity Commission publicly stated “that it had had no reason to investigate Kids Company before 2014, and received ‘remarkably few complaints about Kids Company before this summer’.”
Somewhat perversely, the parliamentary committee reframed this ostensible lack of complaint and evidence of successful management as proof of mismanagement: “It is remarkable”, they mused, “that so few people thought it appropriate to complain to the Charity Commission about Kids Company” (House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report, February 2016). It is at least curious how all of the independent auditors, assessors, government departments, and professional consultancy firms consistently approved the financial management of Kids Company and the only people who didn’t approve were those who had strong ideological links to a think tank whose stated aim was to break “the direct financial link between the state and charity”.
Supported by CPS board member Fraser Nelson at the Spectator, CPS ‘Notable Advisory Council’ member Oliver Letwin at the Cabinet Office, and the former advisor to a CPS director at BBC Newsnight, the popular story of Kids Company and its unnecessary “state dependency” was spun with an efficiency that only matched its recklessness. But perhaps in a post-truth click-bait age, critical thinking and genuine investigative reporting are not particularly high up on the journalistic agenda, and the link between the state and charity was duly broken.
Rod Tweedy was Editor of Karnac Books, Senior Editorial Assistant with Routledge, and a former Trustee of the William Blake Society. He is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor, and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and the editor of The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness (Routledge, 2017) and The Divided Therapist: Hemispheric Difference and Contemporary Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2021).