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Safeguarding improvements risk being hurt by ‘weaknesses’ in sector, warns regulator

16 Jun 2023 News

The Charity Commission has said that “positive improvements” made to safeguarding policies are at risk of being “undermined” due to “continued weaknesses” in the charity sector.

It made the statement during a webinar on safeguarding in an international context in which the Commission’s engagement team set out expectations for charities working overseas. 

Sarah Lockett, charities engagement officer, said that there has been “progress in terms of safeguarding internationally since 2018 and that tangible differences and improvements have been made in the last few years to safeguarding”.

However, she added that “positive improvements are at risk of being undermined by some continued weaknesses within safeguarding in the sector”.

Lockett also said that safeguarding should be a “governance priority for all charities” and that without an organisational culture that supports safeguarding, any procedures can be “useless”. 

Improvements still needed

Lockett said: “In terms of safeguarding internationally, we recognise that progress has been made since 2018 and that tangible differences and improvement have been made in the last few years.

“You’ve made improvements in really challenging circumstances that were completely exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and you’ve continued to provide really remarkable, life-saving work under really difficult circumstances […]. It’s fantastic and you shouldn’t ever underestimate the work that you do because it’s totally necessary.

“But we also recognise that these positive improvements are at risk of being undermined by some continued weaknesses within safeguarding in the sector.” 

Lockett cited the Commission’s casework and the findings of a report by the International Development Committee in 2021 into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector.

“That solidified and really hit home that further work is required to deliver that real transformative change that we need,” she added. 

Lockett said that the issue of safeguarding incidents is not confined to international charities, adding: “Understandably, the public often have higher expectations of charities because they’re handing over their hard-earned cash, they want to see that it’s going to the right people and that it’s being used properly and that the people that are receiving the aid are being kept safe, but also the people who are administering the support are being kept safe.

“We’ve seen that safeguarding incidents that hit the headlines can have a profound impact on public trust and confidence and on the sector as a whole.”

Organisation culture crucial to safeguarding 

One of the Commission’s “safeguarding expectations”, Lockett said, is that trustees must set “an organisational culture that priorities safeguarding”.

“We’re expecting trustees to be promoting an open, positive culture, making sure that everybody involved feels able to report concerns and confident that they will be heard and responded to.

“[You] can have an absolutely beautiful safeguarding policy, fantastic procedures, you could have all these glitzy glamorous forms and paperwork but if you don’t have an organisational culture that supports safeguarding, they can end up being useless.

“Obviously, defining your culture isn’t straightforward. You don’t just wake up one day and say: ‘This is what we’re going to be about and everyone needs to get on board’. It takes work, but it’s also so important that you build those foundations, that you have an ethos in your charity that everyone adheres to.” 

Lockett said that areas that can help contribute to creating such culture include leadership from the top, diversity and inclusion, a clear code of conduct, comms and training, speaking up and transparency and accountability. 

Safeguarding should be ‘governance priority’

Lockett said “underreporting around safeguarding incidents unfortunately persists in international aid charities”, which can be due to reporting barriers such as fears that aid might be withdrawn if a complaint was to be made.

She added that charities’ safeguarding policies and procedures must “reflect the risks” they face and that organisations should review them as much as they see fit. 

“Having a policy in itself isn’t enough. You need to ensure that these policies are alive, that they’re constantly changing, that they’re being reviewed and that they reflect the risks that arise from your charitable work. Too many times, we see people just submitting a template – when they want to register as a charity, they’ll just submit safeguarding templates and think: ‘This will do’. No, it needs to reflect your work.”

She gave the examples of charities working in Ukraine that may have had to update their safeguarding policies and procedures to manage risks in light of the war and those whose policies have changed because of Covid-19. 

Lockett concluded: “You work in an incredibly challenging environment, but also where the need is greatest. Your work is absolutely fantastic, it has to continue but it must never continue at the expense of people’s safety. So remember, safeguarding should be a governance priority for all charities, it’s a fundamental part of operating as a charity for the public benefit.”

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