Camila - Why it all went wrong

Unrepentant Kids Company founder Camila Batmanghelidjh tells Susannah Birkwood of the conspiracy she believes brought the charity down last year

Camila Batmanghelidjh
Camila Batmanghelidjh

Four months after one of the sector's most spectacular falls from grace, Camila Batmanghelidjh has agreed to talk to me about her future and the events leading to the collapse last year of Kids Company, the charity she founded and led for nearly 20 years.

We meet on a rainy afternoon at Lilian Baylis, a school in south London where many clients of Kids Company were pupils. She is here to help organise a Christmas party for 750 children that is being put on by the Oasis Charitable Trust, a Christian charity that runs 47 academy schools; its founder, Steve Chalke, is with her.

She says she would like to help Oasis to develop its fundraising operation, and it will soon be decided what the arrangement will be. Chalke appears unworried that any negative publicity could result from this and explains how much he believes in Batmanghelidjh. "We're really excited she's sharing her lifetime of expertise with us," he says.

You have been at the receiving end of an enormous amount of misinformation

Camila Batmanghelidjh

We leave Chalke and make our way slowly to the interview room. Batmanghelidjh, swathed in her signature multi- coloured turban and gown, says walking is difficult for her because she was born several months prematurely. Two aides help, carrying a dossier of evidence she wants to refer to; she asks one of them - to my embarrassment - to carry my coat.

100 pages of correspondence

So why does she believe Kids Company collapsed? As she answers, she moves frequently from one subject to another, referring repeatedly to the dossier - a folder of about 100 pages of correspondence with government ministers and officials down the years, plus her own explanations, typed up by her PA because her severe dyslexia makes writing hard for her.

Some of the correspondence is with Oliver Letwin (left), the Cabinet Office minister who overruled civil servants' recommendation to withhold a £3m grant to Kids Company days before the charity's collapse, and Tim Loughton, the former children's minister who criticised Batmanghelidjh in parliament in November. Batmanghelidjh says the emails provide incontrovertible proof that there was a political conspiracy to bring Kids Company down.

"I know this is difficult for you and I want you to come at this with an open mind," she says. "You have been at the receiving end of an enormous amount of misinformation - when I'm showing you something completely different, it's quite jarring." She says a group of her supporters, including some police officers, are conducting an investigation to try to prove there was a conspiracy.

It doesn't feel like the media took me up then knocked me down. I never went up with it

Batmanghelidjh believes there were four main reasons for the demise of Kids Company: the fact that it never built up reserves, which she says was because the government assured her it would try to absorb the charity's delivery model into the state; the mismatch between government commissioning structures and the need on the ground; government dislike of the charity's campaigning; and the allegations of sexual abuse at the charity that emerged last July, putting paid to the prospects of future funding.

kids company logo
Batmanghelidjh refuses to accept Kids Company was poorly managed

Does she take any responsibility for what happened? She is adamant, despite evidence that has emerged to the contrary, that Kids Company was not poorly governed and its finances were in order.

However, she does in retrospect think it was a mistake to try to run an organisation that did service delivery as well as advocacy. "It's a big systemic risk to do both," she says. "Advocacy and service delivery don't work - you're pushing a system that doesn't want to be pushed."

Batmanghelidjh believes, in effect, that the government became so irritated by Kids Company lobbying ministers and by its public awareness campaign See the Child, Change the System, which called for an overhaul of children's services, that it ended up shutting down the charity. And she maintains that the sexual abuse allegations were probably fabricated by a disgruntled politician, pointing out that no victims ever came forward.

She says her other mistake was to believe the politicians who, she says, told her the charity's caseload would eventually be taken over by statutory services. Would it not have been more sustainable to work with fewer children? "Of course I should never have taken on all those kids," she admits. "But no one else wanted them." 

tim loughton
Minister Tim Loughton who met Camila in an 'Arabian desert tent'

Asked how it feels to have fallen from favour so dramatically amid the barrage of criticism and mockery from journalists and politicians, she says she has never cared what people think about her. "The only upset I have had is over the children," she says, tears coming to her eyes. "What the media said about me hasn't had an effect.

"It is a strange thing to say, maybe, but because my focus has never been on my image, it doesn't feel like the media took me up then knocked me down. I never went up with it." Nevertheless, she remembers the details of every negative newspaper article written about her, and calls the journalists involved "silly little boys" and "tomboy girls", motivated by their personal ambitions.

He hand-wrote those comments because he knew that way they wouldn't go on file

Camila Batmanghelidjh on Oliver Letwin

What about MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, who said when she gave evidence to them that her answers were "psychobabble" and "verbal ectoplasm", that she had "mesmerised" the Prime Minister and that Kids Company used "voodoo therapy", and Tim Loughton, who told the committee he had been received by her in an "Arabian desert tent"?

She says found the experience absurd. "When you're in a situation where you don't have access to any of your data because the Official Receiver has it, you don't know the questions in advance, you're in a public arena and they're not even letting you talk to answer the questions properly, it all becomes a big performance for them," she says. "It was farcical. It wasn't an inquiry; it was an accusatory thing."

'I would shoot myself if I had threatened ministers'

One of the most damning accusations made by Loughton was that she had threatened to create uncomfortable press coverage for the government if she didn't receive funding. Her rebuttal is dramatic: "I would shoot myself if I had ever threatened ministers about going to the media. I could easily have done this, but I wouldn't have, morally. Ministers made that claim is because that is how they operate themselves."

She says Loughton fell out with her after she tried to go to court to block child protection legislation she believed would have disadvantaged young people. "That made Tim very furious," she says. She brings out a letter she sent to Loughton several years ago threatening legal action, as well as numerous letters from Letwin, which include handwritten messages on the bottom of the page. "He hand-wrote those comments because he knew that way they wouldn't go on file," she says.

When we emerge from the interview room after almost three hours, Batmanghelidjh's entourage gathers round. I'm introduced to a former beneficiary, a woman in her mid-20s, who refers to Batmanghelidjh as "mum". She tells me firmly that I shouldn't believe the negative things I might have heard about her. "They're all lies," she declares.

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