Charity Commission criticised over its communication with vulnerable whistleblower

20 May 2024 News

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Civil Society Media

The Charity Commission failed to properly handle serious safeguarding concerns relating to alleged sexual exploitation at a charity, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) has found.

Lara Hall, who previously waived her right to anonymity but is referred to as Miss A by the ombudsman, complained that the Commission failed to appropriately respond to her allegations of sexual exploitation by a trustee at a UK charity.

Civil Society understands that this relates to the British Pakistani Christian Association, now called British Asian Christian Association (BACA), which the Commission began investigating in 2019.

Hall said the regulator failed to ensure Hall’s welfare, “specifically given her vulnerabilities arising from the fact she was a victim of sexual exploitation, sexual abuse” and was experiencing retaliatory actions from the charity because she was a whistleblower.

PHSO upheld her complaint and said failings by the Commission caused Hall “a significant and serious exacerbation of her vulnerabilities and emotional ill health”.

The ombudsman recommended that the Commission apologises to Hall, provides financial compensation and takes action to stop the same failures being repeated. 

This includes reviewing its handling of her case and its risk assessment guidance, and obtaining an independent review of its communication with complainants. 

Hall said she felt “institutionally betrayed” by the Commission and welcomed the PHSO report.

A Commission spokesperson said: “We accept that there are important lessons for us to learn from this case, including in the way in which we communicate with those who raise concerns about charities. 

“We accept the PHSO’s recommendations on the Miss A complaint, and have apologised to Miss A for the shortcomings in the way we communicated with her.

“We are now working to implement the ombudsman’s recommendations in this case.”


In July 2019 a charitable safeguarding organisation raised concerns with the Commission on behalf of Hall, about the actions of a trustee of BACA, of which Hall was a beneficiary and volunteer. 

The complaint was that the former chair had allegedly entered into an inappropriate relationship with her, one which she described as abusive and had reported to the police. 

It also concerned financial irregularities, in particular payments to the former chair and his family and travel expenses. 

The Commission opened a regulatory compliance case into BACA.

In September 2020 the trustees advised the Commission of their intention to wind the charity up, asking for six months to do so.

The Commission decided it did not have sufficient evidence to disqualify any of the trustees or the former chair, and issued an official warning.

By April 2021, the charity had also not complied with some requirements of the Commission’s action plan issued in April 2020, nor its official warning.

In May (and again in June) 2021, the charity informed the Commission it no longer intended to wind up.

On 22 May 2022, the Commission closed its case.

Hall subsequently complained about the Commission’s handling of its communications with her and the regulatory outcome of its investigation into the charity. 

During the complaint process, the Commission acknowledged it should have warned Hall there was no certainty the charity would wind up, though it did not acknowledge any other errors or failings in its actions.

Report findings 

PHSO’s report states Hall could have been considered an adult at risk at the time the former chair had a relationship with her and when a safeguarding charity approached the Commission on her behalf. 

“This is because of her lived experience of human trafficking and sexual abuse, her mental health problems,” it states.

The report states the Commission told Hall it considered the former chair’s connectedness to the charity was a continued risk and the charity would be winding up. 

It states that the Commission told Hall the engagement it had with the charity brought about the decision to close and that once the charity was wound up none of the individuals involved in the events concerning Hall could do the same things again in the name of charity.

PHSO said the Commission made significant attempts to correspond with Hall by email and conference call. 

“We have seen they recognised she was vulnerable, engaged with advocacy groups supporting Miss A and provided her with a single point of contact.”

The Commission told PHSO of its difficulty communicating with Hall and explained that “some things were said in the moment to try and alleviate her obvious distress”. 

“This is understandable. We also appreciate these comments were made in the context of a long correspondence and often lengthy calls,” the report states.

Though some commitments may have been made with “the best of intentions” to alleviate Hall’s distress at that time, “they did not help to set clear expectations” and Hall spent more than a year believing the charity would be wound up.

PHSO said the communication with Hall was “not good enough” and “the Commission failed to keep to its early commitments and inferred commitments or explain why it could not keep to those”.

“The Commission’s communication did not follow basic principles of good communication. It did not adhere to the principle of giving feedback in the whistleblowing guidance. That was maladministration,” reads the report.

It says the regulator failed to give Hall clear information throughout the handling of her complaint and did not explain why it decided not to proceed with a course of action it had previously assured her it was going to take.

‘I feel institutionally betrayed by the Commission’

The report states Hall “had poor mental health and was a victim survivor before she even volunteered for the charity”. 

After her involvement with the charity, she told said her situation was worse and she was at her most vulnerable when she contacted the Commission.

Hall told PHSO that her mental ill health was compounded by the fact she felt ignored and dismissed through the Commission’s complaint process because it failed to engage with her or demonstrate it understood the seriousness of her complaint.

“I feel institutionally betrayed by the Commission,” she said.

“It made repeated commitments to me to deregister the charity and said it would do all it could to disable the trustee from acting in the name of charity in future, but the Commission dramatically changed regulatory course.

“This left me feeling incredibly vulnerable and confused.

“I feel so thankful and humbled to the PHSO for its diligent and thorough investigation into my complaint.

“I’m disappointed at the lack of contrition from the Commission.

“It has not set right its failings, and I have fears for the ongoing risks in my personal case, but also how that leads into a wider institutional cultural problem.

“If the Commission doesn’t comply, parliament must intervene to hold it to account and ensure that we have a watchdog that is accountable and answerable.

“Vulnerable people should feel safe reporting their concerns and they should feel their complaints are validly listened to.”

BACA has not yet responded to a comment request from Civil Society.

PHSO has also investigated another complaint about how the Commission handled safeguarding concerns, with its report set to be published once discussions with the regulator have concluded.

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