Charity Commission warns of continued underreporting of serious incidents

The Charity Commission has spoken of its ongoing “concerns” regarding a significant and systemic underreporting of alleged serious incidents by charities which may include claims of sex abuse, harassment and harm to children.

The Oxfam and Save the Children abuse scandal which rocked the aid sector this year saw charities submit 2,114 reports of serious safeguarding incidents or issues between February 20 and September 30 2018, but the regulator fears that underreporting may be “especially prevalent” among some groups of charities.

There were 1,580 serious incident reports about safeguarding received in the whole of 2017-18, and 1,203 received in 2016-17.

Organisations involved in overseas aid and famine relief, disability work, religious activities, education and training plus dealing with younger people were the top five charities to submit reports, according to the Charity Commission (CC) which regulates charities in England and Wales who work both at home and abroad.

Only 1.5% of registered charities have submitted any kind of serious incident report since 2014 and 0.9% of charities have reported a safeguarding incident since 2014, prompting the CC to state “it is concerned in particular that there may be certain groups of charities in which underreporting is especially prevalent”.

Sarah Atkinson, CC’s policy, planning and communications director, said: “We welcome the increase in reporting by some charities, especially international aid charities that appear to have improved their reporting since February’s revelations. But we’re not convinced that we’re seeing everything we should be. Working with charities, we need to bring about a culture change on reporting to ensure charities are safe places, better able to make a difference to people’s lives.”

She said the public expects charities to demonstrate the highest standards of ethical behaviour and attitude, adding: “That includes taking action when something has gone badly wrong, or when there’s been a near miss. Making a serious incident report to the commission is not in itself an admission of wrongdoing or failure. Quite the reverse: it demonstrates that a charity is responding properly to incident or concern.”

Oxfam was plunged into crisis in February after it emerged some of its workers in Haiti engaged in “sex parties” with prostitutes in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake. The scandal rippled out to other aid organisations, including Save the Children.

The CC’s analysis of 1,228 safeguarding reports received between February 1 and May 31 2018 saw that 29% were from overseas aid/famine relief organisations, while charities involved in disability, religious activities or education/training work each made up 12%. There were also 11% from charities working with younger people.

The majority of reports were about potential harm to individuals, including but not limited to sexual abuse or harassment.

Cases involving an alleged victim of harm who could be identified included 47.5% who were children and 32% who were adults, the CC said. The alleged victim’s ages could not be worked out from the initial reports in the rest of the cases.

A taskforce from the CC, set up after the Oxfam and Save the Children misconduct scandal, also carried out a “deep dive” of the regulator’s records relating to safeguarding concerns dating back to April 2014. The taskforce reviewed over 5,500 historical records to try and find any possible failures in “full and frank” disclosure by charities. It was also aimed at ensuring that the charities and the CC had taken appropriate follow-up action to deal with the incident reported.

The CC, in publishing the findings of its interim taskforce, said there was one case in which it was not clear from the records if a potentially criminal matter had been reported to the police.

The CC said the taskforce took quick action to ensure the matter had been reported. It added that no cases were found to suggest serious or urgent concerns about how the CC handled the matter at the time or a charity’s response.

Ms Atkinson said: “This deep-dive was an important, but limited exercise designed to interrogate our records and establish whether there are any red flags arising from the way a charity reported an issue to us, or from the way we responded at the time.

“I am reassured by the findings of this work, but would stress that any charity that may not yet have reported a historic serious incident to us, or may have concerns about the information they provided to us in a historic report, to take urgent action to remedy this by getting in touch with us.”

There is now updated guidance on whistleblowing to help both staff and volunteer charity workers. Further training for frontline staff and managers on how to handle whistleblowers is also being provided. A pilot for a whistleblowers helpline service has been earmarked to begin later this year.

The CC said it has also clarified its guidance to charities on reporting serious incidents.

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations which represents charities, said the increased number of reports sent to the CC suggests charities are taking safeguarding issues “ever more seriously” and that most incidents had been handled correctly by the charities involved.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Steve Parsons / PA Wire.