Eyewitness: Kids Company chiefs get a grilling from MPs

Andy Hillier sees Camila Batmanghelidjh and Alan Yentob come under fire from members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee

Camila Batmanghelidjh at the hearing
Camila Batmanghelidjh at the hearing

"We're not here to conduct a show trial, but to learn some lessons," said Bernard Jenkin, chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee at the start of its hearing on the collapse of the charity Kids Company. His words largely went unheeded, however, and at times the session was pure political pantomime.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the flamboyantly dressed founder and former chief executive of the charity, was cast as the defiant dame, ignoring Jenkin's pleas for order and provoking select committee member Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, to describe her answers as "verbal ectoplasm" and "psychobabble".

Batmanghelidjh was joined for the three-hour grilling by Alan Yentob, the charity's former chair and creative director at the BBC. They did their best to paint a picture of a well-loved, well-run organisation that fell victim to "malicious civil servants" and a media witch-hunt. The committee was not convinced.

All manner of the charity's activities came under scrutiny, from the suitability of the pair for their respective roles, to the charity's claims of success, its lack of financial planning and the cosy relations it enjoyed with government.

Batmanghelidjh conceded that media reports of cash being handed out in brown envelopes to young people were true, having suggested initially that this was a myth. But the sums involved were usually small and it was very rare for individuals to receive hundreds of pounds a week, she told the committee.

Much of the committee's questioning was based on recent media investigations of Kids Company, prompting Batmanghelidjh to tell members not to believe everything they read in the press. Veteran Labour MP Flynn replied that they rarely did.

Yentob, dressed in a smart jacket, tie and Nike trainers, strenuously denied that the charity's work had no real value, arguing that many respected institutions had endorsed its therapeutic approach. Reports of stabbings and suicide attempts after the closure of Kids Company in August, he said, illustrated what happened as "a consequence of the absence of a place for these children to go". Jenkin responded that the committee had been advised that the recent violence was because "kids no longer had the money to pay their drug pushers". This was a "terrible allegation to make", said Yentob.

With hindsight, Yentob said, he should not have remained as chair for 12 years, but had stayed because he believed he still had the skills to help. Throughout his time at Kids Company, he had challenged Batmanghelidjh "more than you would imagine", although her frequent interruptions of him suggested he might not have been the dominant one in this chair/chief executive relationship.

She described her relationship with Yentob and the board of trustees as one of "cordial professionalism" - Yentob joked, in a rare light-hearted moment, that he'd never taken her out for a meal, something for which he belatedly apologised.

Amid the many questions about her management, Batmanghelidjh said the charity "had all the right people in the right places", and "in 19 years, every audit was clean". At one point, she asked the committee to justify on what basis it kept describing Kids Company as a failing charity, to which Jenkin replied, to raucous laughter, "because it has gone bust".

Batmanghelidjh and Yentob argued that it folded not because of mismanagement, but ultimately because of unfounded sexual abuse allegations made against staff that meant major donors backed away. The media and the sources that Yentob alleged had wanted to damage Kids Company had got their way.

In the end, amid the claims and counter-claims, it was hard to separate fact from fiction. Batmanghelidjh left the room smiling, but the strength of her reputation, and that of the charity she founded, had come under extreme pressure.


Patrick Kidd, The Times: "Told to give concise answers by Bernard Jenkin, the chairman, she produced more waffle than a Belgian baker."

Donald Macintyre, The Independent: "She was eloquent about how little discussion there had been of the vulnerable children Kids Company had helped. But it was not a great day for her, or Yentob."

Quentin Letts, Daily Mail: "She arrived at parliament wrapped in textiles of 100 colours: yellows, pinks, scarlets, greens, indigos and more tartan than they use in the carpets at Balmoral."

Michael Deacon, The Daily Telegraph: "Yesterday's meeting of the select committee has a reasonable claim to being the single weirdest event in recent parliamentary history. This was three solid hours of bewildering excuses, recriminations and non sequiturs."

Martin Bright, The Guardian online: "Batmanghelidjh is the classic scapegoat. Her original observation was profound - that traditional state structures were failing young people on the margins of society."

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