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08 July 2020

4: The Charity Commission inquiry report on RNIB and what charity trustees should take away from this

On 25 June 2020 the Charity Commission (the Commission) issued a report into a statutory inquiry at RNIB, providing details and commentary on what it considers to be misconduct and / or mismanagement within the charity.

In light of the findings, the Commission followed this report with a regulatory alert to leaders of around 600 large, complex charities that directly support beneficiaries or provide amenities or facilities to the public, to remind charities of the importance of suitable oversight that takes into account the complexity, scale and nature of their activities, in order to help avoid potential harm to their beneficiaries, finances or reputation. The Commission says that it will follow up with a sample of recipients of the alert later in 2020 ‘to understand what measures are in place to manage identified risks.’

Below we set out some of the headline points from the report, as well as drawing out some key takeaway points for charity trustees.

The RNIB Report

The problems at RNIB began to come to light after the charity submitted two serious incident reports in March 2018, one reporting a safeguarding incident at its Pears Centre (a school and children’s home for children and young persons with highly complex learning and physical needs) and the other notifying the Commission of a Notice of Intention to cancel registration from Ofsted and which outlined a series of incidents and repeated breaches at that centre going back to 2015.

The Commission began an investigation into these safeguarding concerns. However, as things developed the Commission considered it appropriate to widen the scope of its inquiry to include broader governance and decision-making. This then led to the Commission approving the engagement of two consultancy firms alongside the inquiry, one to conduct a safeguarding review, the other an independent governance review which assessed RNIB’s governance against the Charity Governance Code.

The Commission’s inquiry made several findings of misconduct and / or mismanagement in the administration of the 152-year-old charity, following investigation into the following five key areas:

  • the RNIB Pears Centre, which as noted was at the heart of the problems giving rise to the statutory inquiry;
  • safeguarding management across all of RNIB’s establishments;
  • serious / notifiable safeguarding incident reporting;
  • governance and trustee oversight of safeguarding and regulated establishments; and
  • RNIB’s broader governance systems and practices.

The Commission and the independent consultants found ‘systemic shortcomings’ in areas such as safeguarding, reporting and management structures and regulatory compliance. This came following Ofsted’s findings that the Pears Centre had repeatedly failed to ensure staff were appropriately trained and qualified, made persistent errors in administering medication to pupils, neglected to record incidents of physical restraint on children and failed to put in place effective safeguarding procedures. The independent governance review found that RNIB was not fully compliant with the Governance Code and although the Code is not a legal requirement, it represents a recommended standard of good governance practice.

The Commission’s report looks to highlight how things can go wrong when charities become large, with a complex structure, and seek to deliver multiple and highly regulated services for vulnerable beneficiaries. Commenting on the report, the Commission CEO sadly notes the shortcomings in this case were: ‘one of the worst examples we have uncovered of poor governance and oversight having a direct impact on vulnerable people’.

RNIB has embraced the inquiry and governance review openly and honestly and has shown itself to be entirely willing to establish what went wrong and to address it. The Commission’s report acknowledges a number of steps which the charity has taken as part of a two year action plan and the charity has published a progress report. This has included considering the complexity of the charity’s governance structure and its management and skills deficit as well as looking at aspects of the charity’s culture; the charity was considered to be too insular and dismissive of external criticism (including from regulators) and too focused on narrow regulatory compliance.

The RNIB trustees have:

  • completely overhauled their approach to safeguarding, including making sure all staff and trustees complete safeguarding training;
  • strengthened their board of trustees, bringing in specialist expertise in safeguarding and governance; and
  • made key appointments to their leadership team, including appointing a Director of Care, Education and Safeguarding, a director of people and organisational transformation and a company secretary to manage a new Governance Directorate.

The regulatory alert from the Commission

On the same day as the RNIB report was published, the Commission issued a regulatory alert highlighting the importance of transparent and accountable governance.

The alert goes on to raise concerns that incidents like this may undermine public confidence in charities as a whole, rather than only affecting the reputation of RNIB; the RNIB report is the third recent report into major UK household name charities, following reports into Oxfam GB and Save the Children.

The backdrop to this RNIB report is the fact that safeguarding has been a headline priority of the Commission’s for a number of years, with it regularly updating guidance on safeguarding, as well as on serious incident reporting.

The Commission reiterated in this instance that safeguarding should be a priority for all charities, even where a charity faces financial difficulties due to COVID-19, stating: ‘protecting people from harm is not an overhead to be minimised, it is a fundamental and integral part of operating as a charity for the public benefit’.

The regulatory alert and report together highlight what is arguably becoming an ongoing dilemma for big operating charities, especially those involved in highly sensitive services, namely how to have strong management and communications structures which ensure that problems are identified, escalated and addressed quickly, but how this should be managed in practice so to ensure volunteer trustees maintain sufficient oversight.

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

What can all trustees learn?

NCVO has issued helpful guidance in response to the RNIB report. A key point is that it remains important for trustees to review their operations regularly and ensure that their charity has the following:

  • a governance structure in place that is suitable for their charity and sufficiently flexible to adapt as the charity grows and changes. This should be reviewed and discussed regularly so that governance is not an afterthought and the relationship between parent and subsidiary charities should be included in this. This will ensure that there are appropriate structures and reporting which reflect the scale and complexity of activities that a charity carries out;
  • suitably skilled trustees and executives, meaning that there is the necessary expertise to support and execute the strong governance structures. This could be assessed regularly through skills audits, for example;
  • suitable delegation and reporting structures (with appropriate terms of reference) so that the trustees are properly informed of their charity’s activities and that there is suitable oversight of all elements of the charity’s work;
  • a risk register and policies so that key matters are regularly revisited and that when things do go wrong there are clear reporting structures to protect charity beneficiaries; this should include appropriate systems in place for recording, reporting and escalating serious incidents, including for handling complaints;
  • processes for monitoring safeguarding and ensuring safeguarding concerns are consistently investigated and reported where necessary to the appropriate bodies; and
  • proper arrangements with others in a group of charities / subsidiaries, so that relationships are properly documented and agreed meaning there are no gaps or overlaps and that the division of responsibilities and how issues will be dealt with are clear (from matters such as data sharing to regular reporting). This should include ensuring there is also proper oversight and management of any conflicts of interest and / or benefits.

Crucially, governance needs to be kept under constant review. A charity’s front line operations are clearly its priority, in pursuit of its public benefit. However, this should be underpinned with strong strategies and procedures which are put in place to protect its beneficiaries, staff and volunteers. These preferably should be put on the board agenda for review at least once a year and at other trigger points, such as any expansion or new developments such as an increased focus, or alerts from the Commission, on safeguarding.

Should you have any questions about what is said here then our charities team would be pleased to discuss matters with you.

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