Charities that don't file serious incident reports 'more risky than those that do'

Michelle Russell, director of investigations at the Charity Commission, tells meeting that she would welcome the responsibility to file such reports being put on a statutory footing

Michelle Russell
Michelle Russell

Charities that do not file serious incident reports to the Charity Commission could be deemed more risky than those that do, according to the regulator’s director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement

Speaking in a debate on serious incident reporting at the law firm BWB’s annual charity tea party yesterday, Michelle Russell said the commission wanted charities to treat serious incident reporting as a responsible way of managing risk, rather than an indication of wrongdoing.

"We are actually more worried about your peers that are not reporting than the ones that are," Russell said. "If you are operating in the same area, you can’t not be exposed to the same risks.

"So we want to change the message to ‘if you do report, you are acting responsibly and we think you’re managing your risk’."

The Charity Commission has previously called for more serious incidents to be reported to it, and suggested in its evidence to the International Development Select Committee’s inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector that serious incident reporting should be placed on a statutory footing.

Russell said she wanted to provide more guidance on the information charities should submit in serious incident reports, and added that the regulator was considering a digital system to guide charities on this subject.

She said that putting the system on a statutory footing would increase the amount of information the commission had about issues affecting charities and allow it to take action to protect others in the sector.

"Without having some of the bulk information in a systematic way, we can’t have a grown-up conversation with the public and the press that says ‘don’t panic, because these things will happen but the charity is on it’," she said.

Russell added that having this information would help the regulator send out alerts about issues such as frauds targeted at charities.

Rosamund McCarthy, a partner at BWB, told delegates that serious incidents were under-reported, with 99.2 per cent of charities not having filed serious incident reports last year.

But she said putting the system on a statutory footing would risk charities reporting too many minor incidents, and there should be a government-backed, independent review of the serious incident reporting scheme.

This review would examine how the system worked, what information the commission wanted, what it needed to do with that information and the resources the regulator needed to manage that information properly.

Elizabeth Chamberlain, head of policy and public services at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said more clarity was needed for trustees on what information to provide the commission with.

"There is a lot of uncertainty around how trustees fulfil their responsibilities here," she said.

"Putting the regime on a statutory basis has an appeal in that it would it would force the guidance to be clearer, and there is a lack of clarity at the moment."

She said charities needed to see serious incident reporting as responsible management of a problem, rather than a sign the charity had failed.

"Serious incidents are inevitably going to happen," Chamberlain said. "It is not a sign that the trustees have done something wrong – them reporting it is a sign that they have identified an issue and they are reporting it to the commission and dealing with it.

"I don’t think that message is getting through to trustees."

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