29 July 2019

Oxfam and Safeguarding - Lessons for schools from the Charity Commission inquiry

In June this year the Charity Commission published their report on the inquiry into Oxfam GB.

The inquiry found that the charity failed to heed warnings, including from its own staff, that its culture and response around keeping people safe was inadequate, and made commitments to safeguarding that were not matched by its actions. The inquiry concluded that some of the charity’s failings and shortcomings amounted to mismanagement, and the Commission used its powers to issue Oxfam GB with an Official Warning and Directions under the Charities Act 2011.

What can schools learn from this inquiry and report?  Below we look at how the Commission has developed its approach to safeguarding and charities as well as any recommendations arising out of the inquiry.  Like many things, the devil is in the detail.

How did we get here?

Over the past few years the Commission has significantly developed as a regulator and we have seen a difference in their approach as to how charities, including schools, deal with and respond to issues of safeguarding, in particular, what they term as a ‘serious incident’. This has resulted in an increase in the number of serious incidents being reported to the Commission by all sorts of charities. Independent schools are generally already very aware that where there is a safeguarding issue or concern which may be a whole school issue, this is likely to lead to increased scrutiny and possible inspection from the ISI on behalf of the DfE.

In 2018, the Commission undertook significant steps to review its approach and to ensure there is prompt, full and frank disclosure to the Commission of a serious incident.

In February 2018 the Commission announced a suite of measures to help ensure charities and the Commission itself learned the wider lessons from safeguarding revelations involving Oxfam GB and other charities and also looked to strengthen public trust and confidence in charities.

One of these measures was to establish a safeguarding taskforce with two main purposes.  The first was to ensure the Commission was able to respond robustly and consistently to the increased volume of serious incident reports (SIRs) on safeguarding matters and secondly, to undertake a ‘deep dive’ of the Commission SIR records dating back to April 2014 to identify any gaps in full and frank disclosure by charities and to ensure the Commission had taken appropriate follow-up actions to deal with the incident reported.

This taskforce also analysed the type of incidents reported to the Commission and by whom.

The final report of the Commission safeguarding taskforce was published in October 2018.

The results of this taskforce is interesting reading if you are involved in the charity sector.  In relation to the ‘deep dive’, the taskforce found that there were no serious concerns about the Commission’s or the charity’s handling of matters at the time and that appropriate follow up action was taken.  However, there was evidence that overall, charities were not learning the lessons from incidents in order to prevent similar incidents occurring.  In addition, reports of safeguarding were not always made sufficiently quickly and there was serious concern about continued underreporting of serious incidents.

It is anticipated that there will be further analysis undertaken by the Commission to assess whether, and if so why, there are certain types or characteristics of charities where underreporting may be especially prevalent, in order that the Commission may focus and target those charities with regulatory advice and guidance.

The taskforce reported that there has been a significant increase in safeguarding reports received by the Commission from charities since February 2018. It is felt this is a direct consequence of the public spotlight on charities and charity sector focus on safeguarding practices. During February and March 2018 there was a threefold increase in the number of reports of safeguarding incidents compared to the same period in 2017. There were 532 reports in February – March 2018 compared to 176 in 2017 for the same period. It is likely this is a direct consequence of the focus on charities and public spotlight.

As part of the review in 2018, the Commission undertook detailed analysis of safeguarding reports submitted over a four month period (in 2018) to understand the nature of the report and the type of charity.

The Commission also looked at the classification of charities (as defined in their annual return).

It found that the top five classifications of charities that submitted safeguarding SIRs were:

Overseas aid/famine relief, disability, religious activities, education/training, and younger people. They compared the figures for SIRs for the overall number of charities and made some notable findings. For example, only 6.7% of charities select the classification of overseas aid, yet those charities submitted a third of all safeguarding SIRs. Contrasting with this, over 52% of all registered charities select the classification of education/training but submitted only 11.8% of all safeguarding SIRs between 1st Feb and 31st May.

What might be the reason for this? Some charities (especially those who classify themselves as overseas aid/famine relief) may be ‘catching up’ i.e. reporting more incidents historically or being overzealous. This might be a direct consequence of the Oxfam GB matter and trustees of charities having a heightened awareness of their responsibilities in this regard.  Further analysis of these figures is expected in this regard in time (and may lead to targeted advice and guidance from the Commission).

The taskforce report also found that timing was an issue. Over 65% of SIRs were reported more than two months after the serious incident occurred. The requirement of the previous SIR guidance was to report matters promptly and there was evidence this was not being adhered to.

Outcome of the report

As a result of the taskforce report the Commission was concerned by the low levels of SIRs and have said it will do more to address this. The Commission took swift action to update and amend its serious incident reporting guidance which was published in October 2018 to address a couple of areas to ensure clarity for trustees of charities of what to report and when.

The Commission is still looking at ways of making it easier to report – possibly developing a digital tool for charities to provide the information needed at the outset.

So, what are the changes made?

First, a serious incident now includes an event (actual or alleged) which results in or risks significant harm to ‘staff, volunteers or others who come into contact with your charity through its work’ as well as beneficiaries. The focus is on the duty of trustees to take reasonable steps to protect from harm anyone who comes into contact with the charity.

Secondly, the timeframe has been made clearer.  The updated guidance says that SIRs must be made promptly – in relation to either an actual or alleged event. The guidance clarifies that ‘promptly’ means as soon as is reasonably possible after it happens, or immediately after the charity becomes aware of it. It is vital for schools to remember that this reporting should be done at an allegation stage (i.e. not after an investigation) and means that good communication between the leadership team and governors is essential.

Thirdly, the Commission has updated the examples table: deciding what to report.  This is an extremely helpful document in my view (and for charity trustees should be close to hand).    It is not a definitive list but is very helpful and looks across various areas such as data breaches, fundraising, financial loss as well as safeguarding. In relation to safeguarding as a general rule of thumb, a sensible guideline to adopt is if a school is/has consulted an external agency, consider making a report.

Finally, if there is any doubt as to whether a serious incident should be reported then contact us or the Commission for advice.

The Oxfam GB Inquiry

This in-depth report found that Oxfam GB failed to heed warnings, including from its own staff, that its culture and response around keeping people safe was inadequate, and that it made commitments to safeguarding that were not matched by its actions. The charity works with some of the most vulnerable communities on the planet and the overall position of the review was that Oxfam GB should adopt a simple principle of taking a ‘safeguarding first’ approach to all if its activities.

This means:

  1. Working in a way that routinely prioritises safeguarding and ensures that the mitigation of risk is the first aspect considered.
  2. Building and maintaining a competent safeguarding workforce with the skills and capacity to effectively manage the complex challenges they face.
  3. Making sure that leadership, governance and organisational arrangements result in the effective delivery and critical oversight of safeguarding practice.

It can easily be seen how this ‘safeguarding first’ approach could apply equally to schools who must adopt a culture of ‘it could happen here’ approach to safeguarding. This is emphasised by other statutory guidance which applies to schools (Keeping Children Safe in Education) with a clear focus that safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is everyone’s responsibility. Schools need to ensure that their approach is child-centred and should consider at all times, what is in the best interests of the child.

The inquiry concluded that no charity is more important than the people it serves or the mission it pursues.  It found that in relation to Oxfam GB, the governance and culture with regard to safeguarding had repeatedly fallen below standards expected and failed to meet promises made. The trustees who voiced their commitment to improving safeguarding were not matched by the resources implemented. In short, promises that the resources for safeguarding would be increased were not delivered.

The Commission also found that the importance of responsible behaviour and conduct was not embedded within parts of Oxfam GB’s daily activities and its work and people. This led to a workforce which was not confident to challenge poor behaviour.  Nor did the workforce have the confidence in the management and systems to report any concerns. As a result, victims were not put first and those staff who tried to raise concerns, were let down.

Wider lessons

The Commission is clear that trustees are collectively responsible for their charity and ultimately accountable for everything done by the charity, even if certain duties and responsibilities are delegated, whether that be to the executive or to a sub-committee of trustees). The Oxfam GB report shows that charity trustees cannot hide behind the executive and must be willing and able to hold the executive to account.  Protecting people and safeguarding responsibilities should be a governance priority for all charities.

Effective trustee boards lead by example, setting and owning the charity’s values, modelling behaviours that reflect those values. Failures to protect people from harm should be identified and lessons learned, with full and frank disclosure to the regulators and reporting to the LADO, local police or other authorities.

It must be clear how to raise concerns, with a proper process for listening and assessing concerns raised by a whistle-blower. The Commission concluded that charities must never lose sight of why they exist and must demonstrate how their charitable purpose drives everything they do, especially how they respond when things go wrong.

Practical steps

It is more important than ever that trustees of charities are aware of their safeguarding duty and the obligation to consider making a serious incident report (of whatever type).

Each annual return submitted by a charity, whose gross income is greater than £25,000, requires a declaration or certification that all serious incidents for the period relevant to the annual return have been submitted to the Commission. Accordingly, if charity trustees fail to report a serious incident, they will be in breach of their duty not to provide false or misleading information to the Commission, which is a criminal offence.

The duty cannot be delegated to a single trustee and remains the responsibility of all of the trustees.  It is sensible for the management of any such issues, that one trustee (usually the Chair) leads on these matters as the initial point of contact with the School. In matters of safeguarding, the safeguarding link governor may be best placed to do this but please be mindful that it remains a collective responsibility.

Charity trustees and especially those with responsibility for safeguarding may well wish to read the Oxfam GB report and use this to ensure that the practices in their charity reflect the recommendations.

Trustees should be trained on their obligations generally as well as the duty to report a serious incident to the Commission in accordance with the updated guidance. This training should be regularly updated to reflect current guidance and practice.

A review of a school’s child protection policies must take place at least annually, including an update and review of the effectiveness of procedures and their implementation. There should be scrutiny in terms of written reports, minutes of meetings, training records, issues and themes which may have emerged in the school and how these have been handled. Trustees should have a clear understanding of safeguarding in their school and be confident to question how the school records, for example, bullying incidents, and allegations of peer-on-peer abuse to ensure there is a clear picture.

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About the Author
Kristine Scott, Partner, Head of Education Sector
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