“Verbal ectoplasm”: what happened at Camila Batmanghelidjh and Alan Yentob’s Kids Company hearing?

The former charity’s founder and chair were grilled for three hours by MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee.

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Three hours, five revelations

  • Allegations of sexual misconduct were denied by both. Yentob believes they came from a malicious source. Batmanghelidjh claims they are the real reason for the charity’s closure, rather than its financial problems.
     
  • The missing clients – the charity’s records claimed to have 36,000, but only 1,069 of their files were handed over to local authorities – were explained as being held back due to a “data protection” issue by Yentob, and Batmanghelidjh suggested restrictions on the kind of cases they would accept explains this.
     
  • Although he denied any conflict of interest, Yentob admitted he was in the producer’s box during Batmanghelidjh’s Today programme interview, and also made phonecalls to BBC journalists covering the Kids Company story, at one point asking if it couldn’t wait “til tomorrow” because he hadn’t yet heard the allegations.
     
  • Batmanghelidjh accused (without providing evidence) civil servants of briefing against Kids Company – though she denied that she suspected a link between Cabinet Office sources and the sex abuse allegation against the charity.
     
  • Batmanghelidjh claimed that she put her own flat down as surety money, in exchange for Cabinet Office funding, in the event of Kids Company failing to raise enough external funds.
     

How it happened

“There are more journalists here than in the audience,” one woman observed, entering the select committee room, where the now-bust charity Kids Company is being subjected to an inquiry.

And no wonder. Because seconds later, in walked a duo of such epically proportioned egos for which even the most masterful headline-writer would struggle to make room.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the technicolour tartan, paisley and scarf-clad former founder and chief executive of Kids Company, and the ex-chair of trustees and divisive BBC creative director Alan Yentob, who shuffled in first, his scuffed Nike trainers withering ahead of her hot pink Crocs.

But even the promise of two such personalities was nothing on what they delivered.

They persisted in making as little sense – and as many accusations – as possible in their three hours before the Public Administration select committee’s increasingly frustrated panel of MPs.

As revelations about the charity’s beleaguered funds and other scandals continue to be uncovered, the point of this inquiry is to get to the bottom of Kids Company’s relationship with successive governments. In particular, why the Cabinet Office gave the charity an emergency £3m loan shortly before it closed, in spite of concerns raised about how it was being run.

Not that our antiheroes Batmanghelidjh and Yentrobin were going to help much with this. So fed up was committee member Paul Flynn MP with the former dancing around his questions that he accused her of “a spiel of psychobabble, a torrent of words, verbal ectoplasm”.

Where he got this from – following her simple explanations of children “secreting fright hormones”, how “all scientific research has two sides to the coin”, and that employees’ taxes that weren’t collected or refunded were “conceptualised” – is anyone’s guess.

Committee chair Bernard Jenkin found Batmanghelidjh’s decision to speak just as frustrating as the words she chose. She constantly interrupted Yentob’s answers, “can I please contribute to this question . . . I can be helpful . . . Please!”

“ORDER!” bellowed Jenkin. “I don’t know that shouting is going to get me to behave any better,” Batmanghelidjh replied, never breaking her permanent placid smile.

She insisted that the image of Kids Company giving out sums of money in envelopes to its clients was unfair. “It has turned into the notion that it was handed out willy-nilly,” she said. “It wasn’t. It was accounted for.”

But she was soon contradicted when decrying, “how this myth developed”.

“It’s not a myth though, is it?” interjected Jenkin.

“No, it’s not a myth,” she confirmed. The first of many moments of incredulous laughter from the committee room audience.

She also struggled to answer how and when the safeguarding of children was inspected. “No one wanted those,” she spluttered. “They weren't due for an inspection. Who by? Who do you want?”

Yentob didn’t fare much better. Ever a figure of luvvie-orientated mockery, he looked distinctly like he’d prefer to be back at the Beeb where nothing could hurt him.

Replying to a furious Kate Hoey – MP for Vauxhall and therefore local to Kids Company’s work in Lambeth – on whether charity staff had signed non-disclosure agreements, Yentob admitted two of them had, “just as we do in the BBC when people leave”.

“This isn’t the BBC!” cried the panel. “Are you comparing Kids Company to the BBC?” asked Hoey. “No,” Yentob conceded, dejectedly.

His biggest giveaway was that he was “behind the glass” in the producer’s box during Batmanghelidjh’s recent interview on the BBC’s Today programme. Flynn called this an “abuse” of Yentob’s position as a senior BBC executive, and suggested he was trying to “influence the coverage”.

Yentob denied this, saying he’d only been there to “listen” to her. That's right. He had to be present to listen to a radio interview. He added, “if it was intimidating, I regret it”, and also accepted that he “probably should have stepped down earlier” as the charity’s chair of trustees – a position he’d held since 2003. He had no time, however, for the intriguing “abusive limericks” sent to him by a disillusioned former Kids Company donor.

Batmanghelidjh made no such concessions, accusing everyone – the media, civil servants, lack of government funding – but herself and her right-hand man for Kids Company’s downfall. “I don’t like to make accusations without evidence,” she informed the committee, right after making an accusation without evidence about civil servants briefing against the charity.

The most stunning revelation, however, was wheedled out of the witnesses by the good cop MP Cheryl Gillan, who was trying to establish the relationship between the two. “So you never went out to dinner with Mr Yentob?” “No,” replied Batmanghelidjh. Not in 20 years. “Sorry,” quipped Yentob. But he didn’t look very sorry at all.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.