Does your charity have an effective safeguarding culture?

The recent inquiry report into the Birmingham Diocesan Trust (“BDT”) has once again highlighted issues relating to safeguarding and good governance. The Charity Commission launched an investigation in December 2018, after the trustees were unable to reassure it that they were managing risks to the charity’s beneficiaries promptly or robustly enough.

BDT was selected as the focus of a case study by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in May 2016. As part of the preparations for the inquiry hearing in November 2018, BDT commissioned several reviews of its safeguarding procedures, including an audit by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE). The reviews highlighted serious concerns in relation to BDT’s safeguarding policies, procedures and governance. The trustees appointed a Head of Safeguarding Transformation in November 2018 but when the Commission made further enquiries, whilst BDT had taken some action, the trustees were unable to provide the Commission with sufficient assurance that all live risks were being managed effectively.

As always with these reports, the themes that are revealed are consistent with past inquiry reports into safeguarding. The key learning points for other religious organisation (and more widely) are:

  • The Commission’s regulatory role focusses on the conduct of trustees and the steps that they take to protect beneficiaries and others who come into contact with their charity. Trustees’ duties include taking reasonable steps to protect those people from harm, including those for whom a charity may have a specific duty of care. The Commission’s role is to hold charities to account for the steps that they take.
  • One of the key priorities, aside from putting in place the required policies and procedures is to promote an effective and open culture of safeguarding within your charity. Effective trustee boards lead by example, setting and owning the charity’s values. Trustees should set the standard and model the behaviours that reflect those values. These values should filter down to every level and every role within the charity and it should be clear that if someone does not live up to those standards they will be dealt with formally and quickly.
  • Everyone should have the confidence to prioritise safeguarding at all levels, to feel that they are able to step forward to report incidents and concerns, and that they will be listened to and supported, with concerns raised being dealt with sensitively.
  • Failure to protect people from harm should be identified and lessons learned and there should be full and frank disclosure to the Commission and any other regulators. Too often, the reputation of a charity seems to have been put before dealing sensitively and decisively with allegations of abuse and effectively supporting victims.
  • The inquiry found the lack of safeguarding skills and experience on the trustee board meant that the governance oversight had not been sufficiently robust. Charities working closely with vulnerable groups should consider the make-up of their board and the expertise in relation to safeguarding, to ensure that senior managers and employees can be effectively held to account.
  • Trustees must be familiar with the serious incident reporting regime and should make a report if a serious safeguarding risk materialises. Trustees must also report to the police and local authority.
  • Charities should put in place complaints and whistleblowing policies to encourage issues to be raised in a timely manner.
  • Dealing with these types of incidents will actually protect the longer term reputation of the charity. Reporting incidents and ensuring that lessons are learned and acted upon can give confidence to beneficiaries, donors, stakeholders and the wider public. The Commission certainly sees charities that have made serious incident reports - which can show how they are dealing with an incident and how they will learn from that incident - as lower risk than those charities who work closely with vulnerable groups but have never made a report.

Finally, here is a quote from the report which reiterates the focus of the Commission’s strategy for the coming years: “Charities must never lose sight of why they exist and must demonstrate how their charitable purpose drives everything they do, and most especially how they respond when things go wrong”.

The law and practice referred to in this article has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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