Monday, 17 November 2008

Catz Club , Baby P , Tyra Henry and the lessons to learn?

The decision of Futurebuilders to invest in an innovative child care charity , the Catz club , has been exciting comment in " Third Sector " magazine . I even had a call form a Sunday Times journalist about it . There have been problems with this investment , and it has been frustrating for me as the Chair of FBE because neither I nor my CEO were involved in the original decision , but having said that we have to learn the lessons .

We are having a debate on this at the next FBE Board on the 25th November . We need to ensure that when dealing with public money our decisions are transparent . But there is a strong danger that the sensationalist reporting of the case has the effect of making investors or grant makers more risk averse . The yards of coverage in Third sector , who clearly thought ( wrongly ) they had hit on another Watergate , may make people less likely to invest in innovative or bold projects . If you are working at the edge then you have to take risks . That means there will be failures. It was interesting that at last night's acevo Public Services for the 21st century Lecture , Francis Maude MP made the point that the media seem not to be able to differentiate between failures that are culpable and ones that simply represent a project that in the end did not work out. And in discussion with members after the Lecture a number were saying that it is a huge pity Third Sector have added to the risk averse culture , as well as ignoring the fact that the Catz Club have actually been delivering good child care in the clubs they have managed to establish .

The last of our lectures last night was held at the BT Tower. A brilliant venue and a sparkling evening . Francis gave the lecture and the respondents to his lecture were a brilliant bunch: Tom Flood ( Mr Green Volunteering ), Sir Bert Massie ( Mr Compact )and Harriett Baldwin ( Ms Futurbuilders Investment ). The debate was top class , with great contributions from acevo members and friends . but I was particularly impressed with the contribution by Francis Maude . The conservatives have been showing they have listened to the sector . As I said , there were whole chunks of the lecture I could have lifted and used as a speech to my members. The Lecture ,as with the other 3 , have been filmed and will be available as podcasts on the acevo website.

I get home to hear that , at long last , Haringey Council have issued an apology for the errors they made in the case of Baby P. This is long overdue . They have shown inept handling of this case . Whilst I am sure the Director of Children's Services, Ms Shoesmith , is an excellent professional , she made a serious error in both refusing to apologise , and not immediately having an independent inquiry . And the ruling group of Councillore were negligent in not understanding the deep public revulsion this case caused and immediately ordering an inquiry.

This took me back to the days when I too had to handle the media in the fall out of a similar very tragic case of a child murder ; the case of Tyra Henry , a baby battered to death whilst under the care of Lambeth Council . this was back in 1984 and I was the vice Chair of Social Services and in charge of the children's and care side of the work .It fell to me to handle the response from the Council . I was under a lot of internal pressure to not apologise but " stick up " for the social workers . I remember in particular the threats from NALGO ( now Unison ) not to criticise staff. I had read the case files and believed we had a case to answer . And felt the tragic death of an innocent child deserved an apology from the Council in whose hands that baby was entrusted . So we did apologise . And we established an independent Enquiry , the report of which was one of those that helped develop policy in this area.

But again it is important not to let the media seduce you from doing what is right . It would not be correct for all children in care to be taken away from their families. There is very clear evidence that children in the care system away fro the care of parents or foster-adoptive parents fare badly and show up disproportionately in prisons ,as drug abusers , mental health problems etc . I used to see this from the other side as a Youth Court Magistrate in South London for 20 years up to 2000 when I took on the acevo job. The endless sad procession of kids from care homes who ended up in trouble with the law . Not bad people . But they had lost out and been poorly done by at the hands of the State .

These are difficult decisions . To leave a baby or child with parents or parent , or to remove them . but once a mistake is identified lessons must be learnt and apologies given . The public sector is sometimes so bad at understanding this.


Stephen Cook, editor, Third Sector said...

Normally we just sit back and enjoy Stephen's elegant ruminations, but this time he deserves a response.
Stephen is suggesting that Third Sector's protest about the secrecy over the unrepaid Futurebuilders loan to Catz Club is tantamount to saying Futurebuilders should be more risk averse. The two things are entirely separate. We have specifically said that Futurebuilders should take risks and that a certain amount of loan default is, in a way, an indication that it is doing what it is meant to do. But the lack of transparency over writing off more than half a million pounds of taxpayers' money, while not exactly Watergate, was, in the world of the voluntary sector, a scandal. Stephen says Catz Club does good work: so why won't they come out and talk about it, and - more to the point - explain the sorry state of their finances?

Anonymous said...

Love the fact that stephen constantly infers that this issue is the previous regimes fault. It wasn't them that doctored historical press releases was it?

I hope that the new products you have launched are as a roaring success as you hope and that they don't fall flat. I look forward to see all these tender fund grants

Stephen Bubb said...

No Stephen , you can't get away with that . The so called "lack of transparency" was becuase there was a legally binding confidentiality agreement on this. I didnt agree it . But it is a fact . You may not think this is right . I do not think it is right when dealing with public money , as both Jonathan and I have said .
However if a legal agreement has been entered into then that is a position that cannot be cavalierly ignored as you appear to suggest . In fact we took sperate legal advice about whether , because it was public money and because it was in answer to an MP we could not disclose . The firm legal advice was that we could not . So what are you suggesting ? We ignore that advice and publish? Get sued? Bring the Fund into a legal wrangle that involves significant cost and so means we have less money to invest ?
All very well for Third Sector to advocate willfully tearing up a legally binding agreement ( becasue that is the effect of your jibes on transparency)but we took the view that is irresp[onsible.
And to the suggest that this a scandal is simply wrong. As for the Catz Club you should ask them .
My point ,which is Im afraid still valid ,is that by taking the line you have will make funders more wary of the risky decisions. No good you saying that is not what you are advocating but if you write in the paper 11 stories and talk about a scandal when there is not one , how do you think funders will react; perceptions are important . You have failed to distinguish between culpable errors or mistakes, and decisions which were risky and did not , in the end turn out right . When you talk of scandal you imply culpability . There is no evidence for this. And so if funders think that every time a risky decision leads to a write off they will be denounced in the media then they will not make risky decisions. That is my point. You have not answered it.

Anonymous said...

Yet today we hear that Futurebuilders have confirmed that the written-off figure is actually £840,000 (rather than the £570,000 previously quoted).
Firstly, why would Futurebuilders allow Catz Club to quote the wrong figure back in October without correcting it? This couldn't be excused by 'confidentiality'?
Secondly Stephen, how can you claim that, despite all this, we should all still hold Catz Club up as an examplar organisation "delivering good child care" - surely in your world of Third Sector organisations delivering such services, such organisations need to be professionally run and this one doesn't seem to be - why can't you just confirm that this was a bad investment in a poorly-run organisation, which happens, and leave it that, rather than constantly try to sugar-coat the issue?