Given the known increase in serious incidents reported to the Commission recently, it initially may seem strange that the Commission should continue to be concerned about under-reporting of serious incidents. We know from Commission figures that 2,114 serious incident reports relating to safeguarding incidents or issues have been received between 20 February and 30 September 2018, compared to only 1,580 such reports about safeguarding received during the entirety of 2017-18.
However, while the Commission’s new statement of strategic intent for the next five years is positively phrased as “to ensure charity can thrive and inspire trust so that people can improve lives and strengthen society”, the first two of the accompanying five strategic objectives – holding charities to account and dealing with wrongdoing and harm – give a very strong indication of where the Commission’s focus will remain for the foreseeable future.
And, when the contents of the final report from the Commission taskforce on safeguarding are taken into account, the Commission’s ongoing concern about underreporting of serious incidents seems more understandable.
According to its records, fewer than one per cent of registered charities submitted a report of a serious safeguarding incident since 2014. Further, only 1.5 per cent of charities reported any kind of serious incident at all in that time.
The Commission’s conclusion drawn from this, that it seems unlikely that 99 per cent of registered charities had no serious safeguarding incidents in the period of four years, does not seem unreasonable – although the exact extent of any under-reporting is unknown.
So, the Commission has taken steps to update its serious incident reporting guidance, by making “swift clarifications to address one or two areas where charities have indicated it might not be clear enough”, and to update its language better to reflect that used since the publication of the Commission’s 2017 safeguarding strategy.
Trustees should note that this updated guidance contains a considerable amount of detail as to what kind of incident requires reporting, as well as a useful link to the quick reference “Examples table: deciding what to report”.
The Commission has also announced it is now seeking to take further steps to encourage the reporting of serious incidents and has committed to:
- Carry out further analysis on the patterns of reporting types or groups of charities where under-reporting may be especially prevalent.
- Develop a new digital tool for reporting serious incidents, so as to make it easier for charities to provide the information the Commission needs at the outset.
- Create and make checklists available within the next few weeks which will accompany the Commission’s existing guidance so as to better inform trustees about the key information required for any RSI.
- Further review the Commission’s guidance on reporting serious incidents to ensure it is as clear and user friendly as possible.
- Work with the sector and government departments to raise awareness of the importance and benefits of reporting serious incidents, and target under-reporting.
The new “Whistleblowing” guidance
Apart from reiterating the requirement on charity trustees to report serious incidents, and in a timely fashion, the Commission is also now seeking better to support employees and volunteers of charities who want to report a serious incident, by providing further training to Commission staff and publishing updated “whistleblowing” guidance to such employees and volunteers, as promised at the start of October.
The Commission’s guidance states that a report should be made to the Commission when an issue has arisen that could seriously harm:
- The people a charity helps
- The charity’s staff or volunteers
- Services the charity provides
- The charity’s assets
- The charity’s reputation
It then goes on to give the following as examples of serious harm:
- If someone’s health or safety is in danger, for example if a charity does not use its safeguarding policy
- A criminal offence, for example theft, fraud or financial mismanagement
- If a charity uses its activities as a platform for extremist views or materials
- Loss of charity funds, for example when a charity loses more than 20 per cent of its income or more than £25,000
- If the charity does not meet its legal obligations, for example if someone uses a charity for significant personal advantage
The guidance also provides links to useful information for charity employees who are uncertain whether or not they may benefit from the legal protections offered to whistleblowers.
The Commission will accept anonymous reports, but the guidance highlights some of the possible problems resulting from an anonymous report both for the whistleblower and the Commission.
The guidance also confirms the details that a whistleblower should provide to the Commission, using its dedicated whistleblowing email address, and encourages the whistleblower to obtain independent legal advice if uncertain as to whether certain information can by law be shared with the Commission.
Charity trustees should note that one of the pieces of information the Commission would like whistleblowers to provide is in answer to the question “Have you followed your charity’s complaints procedure or raised it with the charity’s trustees? What was the response?”
This will raise a question for some charities – in addition to a serious incident policy for the trustees to follow, does the charity have an appropriate complaints procedure or whistleblowing policy for employees and volunteers, to allow reports to be dealt with by the charity? And is that procedure or policy correctly followed by the trustee board and charity management to deal with any matter reported?
In the absence of such a policy or procedure, or indeed an awareness of such a policy or procedure within the charity, some employees and volunteers might feel their only recourse if they encounter a serious incident in their charity is to make a report to the Commission.
Trustees without an appropriate complaints procedure or whistleblowing policy in place for their charity should take steps to remedy this situation, and make sure information about the procedure and/or policy is provided to employees and volunteers as part of their inductions.
Of course, if a complaints procedure or whistleblowing policy is in place, it must then also be followed. So, even if a charity has a complaints procedure or whistleblowing policy in place already, both the procedure or policy and its correct use should be reviewed regularly.