Safeguarding: not just an issue for international aid charities

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Oxfam has seen the loss of 7,000 donors following the recent reporting in the mainstream press about the activities of certain of its employees in Haiti, and the charity sector as a whole has come under greater scrutiny for its approach to safeguarding, with more charities appearing in subsequent media reports regarding safeguarding.

Oxfam has seen the loss of 7,000 donors following the recent reporting in the mainstream press about the activities of certain of its employees in Haiti, and the charity sector as a whole has come under greater scrutiny for its approach to safeguarding, with more charities appearing in subsequent media reports regarding safeguarding.

It is therefore easy to see why, given the possible damage to confidence in the sector if something should go wrong in this area, safeguarding is one of the three areas of risk that the Commission prioritises in its work (alongside fraud and financial abuse and mismanagement and the extremist and terrorist abuse of charities).

What is the Commission’s approach to safeguarding?

A new safeguarding strategy was published by the Charity Commission late last year which made it clear that all charities, and not just those working with children or adults at risk, must consider safeguarding a “key governance priority”.

What’s more, it said that trustees should aim to provide a safe environment not only for beneficiaries, but also employees, volunteers and anyone else who comes into contact with their charity.

The strategy aimed to:

  • Emphasise trustee awareness and prevention 
  • Explain the Commission’s supervisory and monitoring role 
  • Describe how the Commission works with other agencies
  • Set out when and how the Commission will intervene

It set out the Commission’s approach to safeguarding issues, and explained how charity trustees’ duties apply to safeguarding. What trustees must do to comply with their duties in this area, of course, will vary depending on the activities of the charity, but Annex 1 of the strategy sets out the basic principles that apply in some detail, and is well worth a read.

The strategy also emphasises that charity trustees always retain responsibility for safeguarding, and that prevention is primarily the responsibility of the charity trustees, even if they delegate some safeguarding tasks to others within the charity.

When considering their duties in this area, trustees should remember that safeguarding encompasses more than just physical abuse, including: 

  • Neglect 
  • Emotional abuse 
  • Exploitation 
  • Radicalisation
  • The consequences of misuse of personal data

Trustees should also be aware that in some circumstances, to comply with their duties, they will have to carry out appropriate due diligence on other organisations. In particular, the strategy highlights that where a charity works with a partner organisation overseas, that works with children or adults at risk, the strategy states that the trustees of the charity must ensure that the partner organisation has appropriate safeguarding policies and procedures.

When and how should charity trustees make serious incident reports to the Commission?

The Commission’s new safeguarding strategy makes clear that trustees are expected to make serious incident reports to the Commission, in good time, where:

  • Beneficiaries have been, or are alleged to have been, abused or mistreated while under the care of the charity, or by someone connected with the charity (for example, a trustee, an employee or a volunteer). 
  • There has been an actual or alleged incident where someone has been abused or mistreated and this is connected with the activities of the charity. 
  • There has been a breach of procedures or policies at the charity, and this has put beneficiaries at risk - this might include a failure to carry out checks which would have identified that a person is disqualified under safeguarding legislation from working with children or adults.

When reporting a serious incident regarding safeguarding to the Commission, charity trustees must seek to ensure that all relevant information is provided to the Commission. The Commission has recently stated that when Oxfam made its serious incident report in 2011:

“The report to us stated there had been no allegations, or evidence, of any abuse of beneficiaries. It also made no mention of any potential sexual crimes involving minors. Our approach to this matter would have been different had the full details that have been reported [in the press] been disclosed to us at the time…

It is important that charities engage with the regulator frankly and openly. We must fully understand the allegations that have been made to ensure that we have confidence in the charity’s approach to safeguarding now and in the future.”

One of the main reasons for a new statutory inquiry by the Commission into Oxfam on 12 February 2018 is to establish the facts about what the charity knew about events in Haiti in 2011, and how it responded at the time and since.

This demonstrates that the Commission will not hesitate to take action where it thinks a charity did not provide all the relevant information in the first place.

What will come next?

Charity trustees need to recognise from this recent press coverage that, as became apparent in relation to fundraising practices back in 2015, the general public holds the charity sector to very high ethical standards. If charities are not seen to be meeting those high standards, public confidence in the sector will likely be affected.

In such circumstances, the Commission will take action to protect and restore that confidence – hence the further reminder to charities, issued by the Commission on 5 February 2018, of the prioritisation of safeguarding as a governance issue ,the opening of the new statutory inquiry by the Commission into Oxfam, and, most recently, the announcement by the Commission of a “suite of steps” on safeguarding, which will include a summit on safeguarding for charities working in the UK.

Charities should expect safeguarding to continue to be an area on which to focus. All charity trustees should make sure that they not only have adequate measures in place to assess safeguarding risk and appropriate policies and procedures in place to deal with safeguarding issues, but also that: 

  • They seek to ingrain a culture within the charity that prioritises safeguarding, to allow those who are affected to feel safe coming forward and reporting incidents, and to know that such reports will be dealt with properly and with sensitivity. 
  • There is clarity within the charity as to how any allegations and incidents reported will be handled, including reporting to the appropriate authorities, including the Commission. 
  • Any reporting to the appropriate authorities takes place in a timely fashion, with all relevant information provided.

Many charities will already have safeguarding policies and procedures in place as a result of working with vulnerable beneficiaries, and so are well placed to take the further steps necessary. Others will have more work to do, putting those policies and procedures in place as well.

However, taking no action should not be considered an option. Make sure your charity’s preparedness to deal with safeguarding issues is discussed at the next board meeting.

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