Serious incident reports hit a record 600 in August, says regulator's investigations director

Michelle Russell tells the Charity Law Association's annual conference that 633 reports were received by the Charity Commission in August, even though numbers fell in June and July

Michelle Russell
Michelle Russell

The number of serious incident reports received by the Charity Commission "rocketed" to a record high of more than 600 in August, the regulator’s director of investigations, monitoring and enforcement has revealed.

Speaking at the Charity Law Association’s annual conference yesterday, Michelle Russell said that 633 reports from charities were received by the commission in August, despite the number of reports having fallen in June and July.

She said the commission was examining why complaints had "just completely rocketed" in August, with the total number of reports in the past six months also having increased significantly.

There have been 2,400 serious incident reports since the beginning of the current financial year, Russell said, compared with 2,800 for the entire 2017/18 financial year.

But despite the increase, which has come after the high-profile safeguarding failures at Oxfam and Save the Children that emerged in the media in February and March, only 1.5 per cent of charities were reporting incidents to the regulator, Russell said.

"It begs the question ‘what about the rest of the sector?’" she told delegates. She said the commission had examined more than 5,000 safeguarding reports from the past four years, the majority of which came from bulk reports from 40 charities.

Russell said that many charities were still struggling with internal lines of accountability, including the question of which incidents needed to be flagged to trustees and the executive team, and which could be dealt with at a lower level of the organisation.

"There seems to be a gap in terms of the governance in some charities about how that works, because sometimes they were concentrating on what needs to be reported to the commission," she said.

Also speaking at the CLA conference, Steve Reeves, director of child safeguarding at Save the Children UK, said the focus for charities should be on minimising the number of cases and reducing the impact they had on victims.

Reeves also warned that charities needed to better understand the risks that existed in their programmes and rely on information from beneficiaries and staff working in those programmes when drafting safeguarding policies.

"It is really important when you are looking at risks and identifying these things that you ask where this information has been gathered from," he said.

"Is this someone sitting in an office telling us that these are the risks, or is this someone who has actually been on the ground, looked at the situation in which we are operating and spoken to beneficiaries?"

Charities should also access specialist advice to address some risks, he said.

Reeves told delegates that, in many safeguarding incidents, a number of different teams within the charity should be involved alongside the safeguarding team, including the HR, legal and media functions.

Adele Eastman, a solicitor specialising in safeguarding at the law firm Farrer & Co, told the conference that there were three types of child abuser: preferential offenders, who manipulated systems to commit crimes; opportunistic offenders; and situational offenders, people who would not normally offend but found themselves on "a slippery slope" towards committing crime because of personal circumstances.

She said many organisations did not consider situational offenders enough, and these cases reinforced "the importance of HR functions liaising closely with safeguarding functions to ensure that hopefully you are catching potential slippery slope situations and minimising the risk for that to happen".

She also warned that charities should maintain high standards and values to prevent predators exploiting "cultural slippage" to commit offences.

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