This is the website of Harriet Sergeant – journalist, author and Research Fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies, an independent Think Tank.
Literary Agent: Annabel Merullo at Peters Fraser & Dunlop
Tel: +44 (0)207 344 1000
‘Waste of Space’ my new documentary for BBC Radio 4.
I investigate if empty commercial buildings can house the homeless.
Video clip of me staying the night in a squat:
Listen to ‘Waste of Space’:
Review of ‘Waste of Space’ by Gillian Reynolds in the Telegraph
A Waste of Space began unexpectedly. Newspaper columnist Harriet Sergeant, whose voice has the ring of expensive glass, was settling down for a night in a squat, gingerly, in the company of homeless strangers. Half an hour later, with brisk efficiency, she had taken us through the scandal of house prices so high only the children of the very rich can afford them, the alarming number of people left homeless while huge new office blocks stand empty, the apparent inability of local authorities to bridge the gap. She had also met some entrepreneurial individuals with possible solutions, exploring why they can work, noting the difficulties. Then she woke up, safe and inspired. Producer Andrew McGibbon has found us a new radio star.
Ten years ago I visited Kids Company. I quickly saw that there was a huge gulf between what its charismatic leader, Camila Batmanghelidjh told us she was achieving and what was actually going on. I described my visit in my report, ‘Handle with Care – an investigation into the care system,’ (Centre For Policy Studies 2006) and in my book on my friendship with a south London gang, ‘Among the Hoods – my years with a teenage gang’ (Faber 2012). Ten years on, with the collapse of Kids Company, my observations have been proved correct.
Daily Telegraph – Kids Company: Did good PR mask deeper failings?
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee investigated Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company. Here is what the Chairman, Bernard Jenkin MP (Con), Paul Flynn MP (Lab) had to say about my work when taking evidence from William Shawcross, Chairman of the Charity Commission:
Here is the written evidence I submitted to the Committee.
The collapse of Kids Company raises issues about charities generally
Financial Times – Charity trustees should know when things are going wrong
They share the same legal obligations as company directors, writes Harriet Sergeant
Whose job is it to regulate the angels? When Kids Company, which helped deprived inner-city children, imploded last year, one of a slew of recent scandals in the charity sector, it became clear that none of the regulatory bodies — the government, the Charity Commission or even the trustees – were up to the job.
England and Wales have more than 165,000 registered charities with a total annual income of some £69bn. Charity membership is way above that of political parties. Frank Field, the Labour MP, last year declared at the commission’s annual meeting that “the independence and growth of charities” is “crucial for a free society”. So public trust in our charities is vital and that means effective supervision.
Why has supervising become such an issue? Part of the problem is that the third sector has changed beyond recognition. Small charities continue to live up to public expectations — attracting volunteers and performing good works on a shoestring. The bigger the charity, the more the confusion about what exactly a charity is.
A number of big charities receive as much as 90 per cent of their income from government. They have become, in effect, extensions of the state. Others have set up trading arms — shops, cafés, training and consulting services.
The commercial services arm of Age UK, for example, boasts 1.1m customers eager for products and services promising to “enhance later life”.
At the same time as the charity has been lobbying government over winter fuel payments, it has been selling energy plans on behalf of Eon, for which it received £6.3m in the last financial year. Age UK enjoys commercial success because its customers trust a charity.
Are these charities state or commercially funded or some new hybrid? “This is a murky area,” agreed a Whitehall spokesman. So murky that the commission has opened a review to establish “What is a charity — and what is not.”
Where is the sector’s regulator in all this? Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee which investigated the collapse of Kids Company, is clear: “It is the role of trustees, not the regulator, to ensure that a charity is well run.” The commission, he said, must have “the resources and powers” to deliver on its statutory duty.
Last week, Mr Jenkin called for the commission to have more of both. “It should not fall to a select committee of the house,” he argued, “to produce reports on the activities of individual charities.” William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, wants charities to pay for self regulation as happens in other sectors. “It is our determination,” said Mr Shawcross, “to confront any threats to charities or the public’s confidence in them.”
Both Mr Jenkin and Mr Shawcross emphasise that supervision of any charity is primarily the job of its trustees, who share the same legal obligations as company directors. How many, however, take those obligations as seriously?
The trustees of Kids Company dispute the report’s findings but what did they do to assure themselves the charity was sound? If just one of them, for example, had made an unannounced visit to Kids Company, as I did ten years ago, they would have noticed a fundamental problem – no kids. If they had returned on a Friday, they would have seen young people receiving envelopes of cash. It is not hard to establish if things are wrong in a charity but too many trustees do not make the effort.
Nothing would concentrate their minds more than knowing they could be held to account. And that might just happen. The former staff of Kids Company are suing the trustees for the loss of their jobs and earnings. If they are successful that could do more for the supervision of our charities than any amount of government legislation.
Latest Book: Among the Hoods
‘For many people the riots were their first glimpse of our underclass. They were shocked by what they saw. I was not, due to my unlikely friendship with a gang who I had first met outside a chicken takeaway on Knight’s Hill, South London, three years before …’
About Harriet Sergeant
I am a journalist, author and Research Fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies, an independent Think Tank. I have written three books. The first was on South Africa under apartheid, where I lived for a year in the 1980s. I then wrote a history of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s and a memoir of Japan, where I lived for seven years. All three books are based on research and interviews. [more here]
Recently, I have written five reports for the Centre for Policy Studies. These have been on Immigration, Management in the NHS, Health Tourism, Children in the Care System and Education – why black Caribbean and white working class boys are failing in school and the workplace. I have also written a report for Civitas on the public and the police. The report focused on the public perception of the police and the effect of targets and government initiatives on the force. Again, these reports are a combination of research and interviews.
I do my own research and spend about ten months on each report. This has meant interviewing a wide range of people from illegal immigrants, social workers, gang members, foster parents, young people in care, prostitutes, ex members of Special Branch, police sergeants and constables, hospital porters, NHS chief executives, former armed robbers, teachers, drug dealers and many, many more.
Nor is it just interviews – I spend time in the place that I write about. I have shadowed staff in hospitals, hung around schools, children’s homes and police stations. I talk to the people who use these services – patients, victims of crime, illegal immigrants, children in the care system and parents and children in inner city schools. I have also befriended a South London gang, the subject of my latest book, Among the Hoods.
My reports have been serialized in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph and received extensive press coverage. Five have received front-page headlines in the Daily Mail. I write Comments for the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times and review for the Spectator. I am a regular contributor to TV and radio and have appeared on The Moral Maze, the World Tonight, the Today programme, Question Time, Any Questions, the Big Question, News 24 and Sky News amongst others.
I read English at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.
Follow Harriet Sergeant on Twitter: @HarrietSergeant.
Email me at email@example.com.