Charity Commission Safeguarding Summit: What you need to know

You may have seen the Charity Commission’s announcement that yesterday (Tuesday 6 March) it held a summit with domestic charities to discuss the safeguarding challenges they face in their work, and how these can be addressed.

The summit was hosted jointly with the Office for Civil Society and brought together other regulators and agencies, as well as a number of charities whose core business is safeguarding.

NCVO was also in attendance, so I thought it would be helpful to share with you a first-hand account of the discussion.

The aim of the summit was to establish a shared understanding of the safeguarding challenges facing charities working in the UK, and then identify key areas of action to strengthen the capacity, capability and culture around safeguarding.

Key messages

The summit opened with a speech by the new chair of the Charity Commission, Baroness Stowell. This reflected much of what had been said the day before at the summit hosted by the Department for International Development for international aid charities.

Indeed, although Baroness Stowell’s speech at the previous summit was aimed at international aid charities, many of the key messages apply to all charities, regardless of their size and where they operate.

  • Safeguarding is a matter that goes to the heart of being a charity: it’s about treating people with respect, protecting the vulnerable, and doing the right thing.
  • So the safeguarding issues that have emerged are relevant to all charities, domestic as well as international.
  • The answer to the problems that have been uncovered is not just writing more rules and having procedures, it’s about changing attitudes and behaviours.
  • The focus must be on restoring public trust, by demonstrating action to address what has gone wrong.
  • This involves charities improving their reporting: the Commission’s expectation is that both incidents and allegations are reported, not just in relation to the charity’s activities but also if using suppliers. Charities should also avoid the tendency of looking at individual instances on their own, they should think instead about trends and where possible identify red flags. And reporting of serious incidents needs to be timely, done with full and frank disclosure.
  • But there was also a recognition that the Charity Commission itself needs to improve: for example in the past it has failed to report back to people who have made a report about the action it has taken and what has been achieved as a result, so this needs to change.
  • The Commission also needs to make clear its understanding that organisations reporting high numbers of incidents are not necessarily those that are high risk, on the contrary it may be that low numbers of reports need to be looked at.

The Minister for Civil Society Tracey Crouch MP also spoke, drawing a lot from her experience in dealing with similar crises in the sports sector. Again, she reiterated that safeguarding is a responsibility for all organisations: it’s non-negotiable, it’s not a ‘nice to have’, and should not be seen as another regulatory burden.

Key issues

A number of charities around the table, including NCVO, were asked to give their perspectives on what the key safeguarding challenges are. What emerged was a considerable level of consensus on:

  • The importance of having effective vetting and procedures, but equally important is the need to have the leadership and build the organisational culture that will enable and encourage reporting.
  • The need for everyone to understand and accept that better reporting and more transparency will lead to higher numbers of cases, but that higher numbers are not necessarily indicative of bad practice. A number of organisations have already expressed an understandable fear that reporting could have damaging short term implications, such as loss of funding, reputational damage, decline in public trust.
  • The challenge of communicating that stronger safeguarding requires investment and therefore means higher administrative costs.
  • The need for everyone to rethink their understanding and definition of ‘vulnerable people’: the key point is about ‘people in vulnerable circumstances’.
  • The importance of organisations being able to track, monitor and identify low level concerns to identify patterns of behaviours
  • The need to address a number of specific issues that for some time charities working in safeguarding on a daily basis have been grappling with, such as:
  1. A variable knowledge across the sector of what is safeguarding best practice
  2. An unclear definition of ‘regulated activity’ and in turn misunderstanding about when enhanced DBS checks can be carried out
  3. Lack of clarity about what counts as a ‘serious incident’ leading to inconsistent reporting practice

Actions agreed

Despite, or perhaps rather because of, these challenges, everyone around the table was absolutely committed to strengthening safeguarding culture and practices both within their individual organisations and throughout the sector. We may not achieve zero abuse, but there will be zero tolerance.

To lead a response, we identified four key areas of action:

  • Leadership, culture, values
  • Law, regulation and the statutory framework
  • Capacity and capability in charities around safeguarding
  • Responsibilities and reporting, accountability and transparency

NCVO will be leading the work around strengthening the sector’s capacity and capability around safeguarding. This will build on all the resources and advice that we are already providing.

In addition, NCVO is going to explore two further issues that emerged during the summit:

  • The possibility of developing a system of portability of references across the sector, similar to the idea suggested by Save the Children of introducing mandatory humanitarian passports. This is likely to be a hugely complex issue, with legal implications in terms of employment law, data protection and human rights. But we need to at least identify what the problematic issues are before we can move forward.
  • The idea of a code of conduct or code of ethics for organisations, particularly those whose staff and volunteers are dealing with people in vulnerable circumstances. Similarly to the Code of Good Governance, this would set out a number of principles to which any organisation can pledge its commitment, sending a strong message to the public, our supporters and beneficiaries, that treating people with respect in any situation is a priority for all charities.

In taking all this work forward we will be reaching out to our members and the wider sector to ensure we are listening to your concerns and taking account of your needs. This, and yesterday’s summit, is just the start of a conversation that everyone should be involved in.

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Elizabeth Chamberlain Elizabeth is head of policy and public services at NCVO. She has been part of the policy team since 2008, as the expert on charity law and regulation. Her policy interests also include charity campaigning, the sector’s independence, transparency, and accountability.

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