There has been ongoing scrutiny of charities which have failed to protect children from sexual abuse by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse and confirmation by the new Chair, Alexis Jay, of ongoing scrutiny by them until at least 2020.
There have been allegations of widespread historic abuse in football and youth sport generally, as well as recent allegations against John Smyth QC in relation to a charity running holiday clubs.
Charity trustees should also be aware that safeguarding issues are a key agenda item for the Charity Commission as a regulator.
As a result, many trustees will be considering safeguarding and its implications for their charity and, where necessary, reviewing their safeguarding policies and procedures.
The first consideration for a charity's trustees is whether safeguarding is relevant to their charity. This will depend on whether the charity (including its trustees, staff and volunteers) has contact with children or vulnerable adults.
This will involve considering the following issues:
This may not always be a straightforward assessment. Some charities may carry out work which is not focussed on children or vulnerable adults but which does mean that, eg their staff come into contact with them. By way of example, the staff of a charity providing accommodation and other services to the adult parents of children in hospital may have no contact with the children in hospital, but may have contact with other children staying in the accommodation provided by the charity.
Charities that do have contact with children or vulnerable adults will need to ensure that they have appropriate policies and procedures in place. In addition they should ensure that trustees, staff, volunteers and any other relevant individuals (eg agency workers) are aware of their responsibilities and work actively to promote the welfare of children and vulnerable adults.
It should be clear to everyone involved with the charity what action they need to take in response to any safeguarding concerns (however minor) if they occur. It is very important that a clear culture of listening to safeguarding concerns is implemented.
We suggest that:
The safeguarding policy may also need to align with any whistleblowing policy the charity has in place.
In addition to looking at the policies and procedures that are in place now, some charities may face allegations that predate their existing arrangements. Many charities are facing historic allegations which, in some cases, date back some decades.
We recommend that charities have clear systems for dealing with allegations of this type as well as those for dealing with current concerns. In most cases, it will be appropriate to base those processes on the current procedures with the aim of supporting those involved and managing any ongoing risk.
Trustees are advised to consider a range of issues, not least how to respond to the complainant. They should clearly record the allegations and brief the trustees and senior managers (while maintaining appropriate confidentiality and data protection obligations), ensure appropriate regulatory reports are made, ascertain whether there is insurance cover available for any claims and/or advice on the issue and prepare reactive or proactive statements for stakeholders and the press.
Charities are also likely to find it helpful to review the report of the roundtable Safe keeping: the implications of historic child sexual abuse allegations convened by Charity Finance, which looked at best practice in this context, including ensuring current governance arrangements are fit for purpose, safer recruitment practices are in place, appropriate training is provided and ongoing monitoring is high on the agenda.
As mentioned above, safeguarding is likely to continue to be a key concern for the Charity Commission. The Commission's latest annual report confirms that more than half of the 'serious incident reports' it receives relate to safeguarding issues. We have already seen evidence of the Commission becoming more proactive, eg by approaching charities whose annual returns state that they work with children or vulnerable adults, but do not confirm that a safeguarding policy is in place.
The Commission does recognise that the content and detail of a safeguarding policy will depend on a charity's activities and the level of risk associated with those activities:
"The risks will be higher the more central the activities involving vulnerable beneficiaries are to the charity’s core purposes and services, or the more frequently these activities take place. In such cases, the policy will need to be more detailed and the trustees will need to do more to fulfil their legal duties" (from the Commission's strategy for "dealing with safeguarding vulnerable groups including children issues in charities").
However, the Commission is clear that policies and procedures should be in place and trustees should ensure that individual trustees, staff etc. know how to apply them.
Most charity trustees will be familiar with their general obligation to report serious incidents to the Charity Commission, but we recommend that they keep the Commission's guidance (which is due to be updated) firmly in mind in this context.
The Commission expects reports to be made to them immediately where there are suspicions or allegations of abuse or mistreatment of vulnerable beneficiaries, as well as where reports are made to external agencies.
The fragmented nature of current safeguarding requirements (which largely depend on the nature of a charity's activities and involve a consequent lack of clarity about minimum requirements) creates particular difficulty for charities. In addition, we suspect that this will be an area that sees further change in the near future.
We recommend that trustees who are unclear about their duties and responsibilities in this area should take appropriate professional advice.
This article was originally published in Charity Finance.