Wally Harbert: The lessons of Kids Company are clear

It makes no sense, writes our columnist, to cut local services then arbitrarily scatter millions of pounds to voluntary organisations

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

The Kids Company debacle of last year highlighted the issues surrounding relationships between local service providers and national charities. Kids Company did not operate only in London, but also in Bristol, a city where I worked for 17 years as director of social services for the County of Avon. During that time a large number of children’s homes were replaced by neighbourhood-based services, some of which were run jointly with voluntary organisations.

Substantial funds for local services came from outside the area by way of specific government grants and initiatives from national charities. Whatever its origin, outside funding was always precarious and created problems for long-term planning. Our services were at the mercy of decision-makers in faraway places. When someone in London sneezed, services in Bristol caught a cold. Although most national charities provided high-quality services, some believed they alone had all the answers and were an alarming waste of space, requiring damage-limitation exercises.

Inevitably, national charities have overhead costs over and above those of local organisations. We have not been told how much was spent by Kids Company on chauffeur-driven journeys from London to establish and run services in Bristol. It is doubtful that any local authority would approve such expenditure for staff.

Sometimes, national charities arrived to set up a new service only to lose their funding three years later. I then received poison-pen letters for my callousness in allowing sensitive services to wither. This bears out academic research that has described some large charities as paternalistic and predatory, seizing opportunities to work in disadvantaged neighbourhoods but retreating when funds run out, creating distrust and weakening community structures. Communities are better served by a modest service that is accountable locally than one that is well-funded but dependent on the caprice of strangers who owe no allegiance locally.

All social care services must be collaborative. The management of projects that include staff from both local and national agencies is complex – there is no room for prima donnas. Local representatives of national organisations must work within a framework that is agreed locally and have substantial delegated authority. Rivalries are always present when staff from more than one agency work together. That can be positive as well as negative, but must be recognised and managed.

Considerable tension was created among councillors, staff and trades unions when a charity arrived with funding to run a service similar to one that had been axed a year before in government-enforced budget cuts. This was not the best atmosphere in which to launch a service. It was clear to everyone that service users were pawns in a game in which the rules, if they existed, bore no relation to local needs.

It made no more sense then than it does now for the government to devolve responsibility for children’s services to local authorities, restrict spending so that vital services are cut, then arbitrarily scatter millions of pounds among voluntary organisations. If there had been greater involvement by local people and organisations in the management of its services, Kids Company in Bristol might have survived the traumatic events that engulfed its London headquarters. Have lessons been learned?

Wally Harbert was director of social services for the County of Avon between 1973 and 1990

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