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Charities and Safeguarding

Recent High-Profile Safeguarding Incidents

This month we consider the important and sensitive issue for charities of safeguarding. There have been a number of fairly recent high-profile failures by charities to ensure adequate safeguarding. In early 2018, the Department for International Development called for assurances from aid charities in the light of the Oxfam scandal relating to its work in Haiti. In response, charities reported over 80 serious safeguarding incidents to the Charity Commission. Overall, in the weeks after the Oxfam scandal broke, more than 500 reports of serious incidents involving safeguarding were received by the Commission.

What is Safeguarding?

“Safeguarding” means taking a range of measures to protect people in a charity, or those it comes into contact with, from abuse, maltreatment or other harm of any kind. (This includes physical, sexual, emotional, discriminatory, institutional or organisational, financial or material abuse, neglect, or impairment of the health or development.) For a full definition of safeguarding, see The Care and Support Statutory Guidance issued under the Care Act 2014.

Charity Trustees’ Legal Duty

All charity trustees have a legal duty (“safeguarding duty”) to take reasonable steps to protect their charity’s beneficiaries, staff, volunteers, and those connected with the activities of the charity from harm. The Charity Commission has stated that safeguarding should be a key governance priority for all charities, regardless of size, type, or income, not just those charities working with children or vulnerable adults.

Adopting a Safeguarding Policy and Other Steps

The Commission has also stated that it is essential for charity trustees to have and implement a safeguarding policy and procedure.  Adopting and implementing a safeguarding policy and procedure assists charity trustees in discharging their safeguarding duty. With this in mind, we maintain a template Safeguarding Policy in our Charity & Non-Profit Group. In any event it is good practice to have such a policy.

Adopting such a policy is one of ten action points which the Commission recommends to ensure good safeguarding governance. The other action points include identifying possible risks, improvement of safety culture, communicating within a charity how to follow up any safeguarding concern, keeping safeguarding training current and relevant, and carrying out risk assessments. The Commission sets out these action points in more detail here, and we urge you to implement them if you are a charity trustee.

Safeguarding also entails other actions, including ensuring that trustees and others recruited to the charity are not disqualified from being appointed to the role in question, and that DBS checks (and enhanced checks) are carried out as appropriate.

More generally, trustees must make sure that their charity’s assets are used only to support or carry out the charity’s purposes. Trustees must not expose the charity’s assets, beneficiaries or reputation to undue risk.

Children and Vulnerable People

Safeguarding is a particularly important and sensitive issue for you as a charity trustee if your charity works with children or vulnerable people. People may use your charity to get to children, vulnerable people, or their records for inappropriate or illegal purposes. You must be alert to this and actively manage the risk that your charity may be deliberately targeted, that its culture may allow poor behaviour to take place, or that people in a position of trust may abuse this. It is also important to carry out checks on any organisation, including an overseas organisation, that has contact with children or adults at risk before your charity gives them funding.

What is Your Risk as a Trustee?

You can be held responsible for any consequences or loss that your charity incurs if you do not discharge your safeguarding duty. When the Charity Commission looks into whether there has been a breach of trust or duty, or other misconduct or mismanagement by trustees, it can take into account whether they followed safeguarding practice.

Prevention, Not Cure

Safeguarding failures can adversely affect a charity’s reputation but there is a built-in conflict of interest for charities in that they are bound to properly report serious incidents to the Charity Commission. However, if they do so and the full nature of the incident only becomes public knowledge because of that reporting, their reputation may be sullied and they can lose grant, donor, and other funding as a result.

Our message, therefore, is that prevention is better than damage limitation: if robust policies and procedures are implemented, the occurrence of such incidents is more likely to be deterred. This should produce, in terms of morality, the most important consequence, i.e. improvement in the behaviour of all connected with the charity. As a by-product, a charity’s reputation is preserved and its funding is not adversely affected.

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