Serious mismanagement at RNIB exposed vulnerable people to risk, regulator finds

Its shortcomings are 'one of the worst examples we have uncovered of poor governance and oversight having a direct impact on vulnerable people', says the chief executive of the Charity Commission

The Charity Commission has concluded that serious mismanagement at the RNIB exposed vulnerable children and beneficiaries in the sight-loss charity’s care to harm and undue risk.

The case has been described as “one of the worst examples we have uncovered of poor governance and oversight having a direct impact on vulnerable people”, by Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the commission.

The charity said the findings were the lowest point in its 152-year history and apologised for its shortcomings.

The regulator opened a statutory inquiry into the charity and its subsidiary, the RNIB Charity, in 2018 after serious concerns were raised about the services provided at its Pears Centre children’s home in Coventry.

Sally Harvey, the charity’s chief executive at the time, resigned when the inquiry was announced and, shortly after, the RNIB Pears Centre for Specialist Learning was closed.

The inquiry report, published by the commission today, says “systemic weaknesses” at the RNIB allowed serious safeguarding breaches to occur and violated its duty to take all reasonable steps to protect the charity’s beneficiaries from coming to harm.

Pointing to the charity’s “ineffective and dysfunctional” leadership at the time for allowing these failures to take root, the watchdog says that shortcomings identified in regulatory inspections dating back to at least 2015 were not addressed at an early enough stage.

It adds that “no single person had direct qualifying experience” in the chain of command overseeing the regulated establishments catering for people with complex needs.

The independent review found that the balance of skills on the charity’s board hindered its effectiveness, there was a culture that was too dismissive of external criticism from Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and parents, safeguarding staff training was poor and local leadership was shown to have failed at every level.

“As a result, poor practices became entrenched and standards of delivery declined,” the commission concludes.

The commission says that the charity, which remains under the commission’s statutory supervision, has made “significant progress” to improve its governance systems and practices, but it had been issued with an action plan and would be monitored to ensure those recommendations were enacted.

Recommendations include better maintenance of training records and reducing its minimum proportion of elected trustees from 50 per cent to 25 per cent to allow flexibility in populating its board with appropriately qualified trustees.

Stephenson said: “A catalogue of serious failings were allowed to occur because the charity’s governance was simply too weak for the trustees in charge of the charity to do the job that beneficiaries needed them to do.

“No child should ever be put at risk of harm, and this case is all the more troubling because it happened in the care of a charity.”

She added that charity trustees should “ensure systems of governance and management help rather than hinder their charity from delivering on its purpose and meeting the needs of those it is set up to help”.

Matt Stringer, chief executive of the RNIB, said the failings identified in the report “represent the low point in our 152-year history”.

He added: “It is clear that we seriously let down the children and their families, staff, volunteers, supporters, and blind and partially sighted people who make up the RNIB community. We are sorry to every one of them.

“We fully accept the Charity Commission’s recommendations and the inquiry report acknowledges that we are making good progress in implementing them.

“We have made significant changes to the RNIB and are continuing to embed improvements to ensure that these failings can never happen again.

“We are committed to emerging from this as a better, more determined and more effective organisation.”

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