This statutory inquiry report from the Charity Commission from June 2020 is worth a read. If you are a Trustee of a charity providing care home or children’s homes it is a tour de force of the must do aspects of governance.
The opening of the Commission’s inquiry into RNIB and RNIB Charity, and the urgent need for RNIB to tackle serious performance issues at RNIB Pears Centre in 2018, could be characterised as lifting a lid on a metaphorical can of worms into the charities’ affairs. This would eventually reveal comprehensive failures in governance that placed the safety of young people in its care at risk and allowed harm or distress to be suffered by some.
The findings from the QC led Independent Review, instigated as a result of the crisis at the RNIB Pears Centre and the centre’s subsequent closure, resulted in the Commission extending the inquiry’s scope. Two further pieces of review work into RNIB’s safeguarding management and broader corporate governance ensued in order to address additional regulatory concerns arising from the Independent Review.
As a result of the work of these 3 reviews and the findings from the inquiry’s own investigations, the Commission concluded that there were systemic shortcomings at RNIB between 2015 and 2018, exacerbated by the 2017 charity reorganisation, in respect of:
- RNIB’s capability to manage complex and specialist care needs at RNIB Pears Centre
- the safeguarding governance and management of RNIB’s regulated activity estate of specialist care and educational centres
- RNIB’s broader corporate governance, which did not adequately address the complexity, scale, nature and associated risks of the charity’s activities and disparate group structure
There is evidence to show that some of these failings predated 2015.
These shortcomings were not simply academic or abstract in nature. It is the Commission’s view that some of RNIB’s beneficiaries at its regulated activity establishments were placed at undue risk of harm – in addition some beneficiaries suffered harm or distress and they and their families were badly let down by RNIB. The RNIB Board failed to understand the breadth and scale of the services that it was overseeing. The inquiry is of the view that the seriousness of these shortcomings, particularly at RNIB Pears Centre, was exacerbated by many of the beneficiaries having learning and communication difficulties, and they and their families were consequently heavily reliant on RNIB ensuring they were able to consistently and safely meet the needs of beneficiaries in their care.
Furthermore, these failings have resulted in major financial impacts for RNIB, with significant costs arising from the attempts to unsuccessfully turn round the RNIB Pears Centre and its subsequent closure along with the substantial costs incurred in the charity’s reconstruction. It has resulted in the charity using £5.5 million of its reserves to pay off the residual debt for the failed enterprise at the RNIB Pears Centre.
These failings led to the Commission issuing an Order directing RNIB to prepare an improvement plan for the Commission’s approval, aimed at addressing the Commission’s regulatory concerns. The Action Plan which ensued from this direction involves a 2 year reconstruction process which has also required the support of the Commission’s statutory powers to assist the charity both in refinancing and in strengthening its governance.
At the time of writing of this report, RNIB is advertising for a new Chair. The current Chair is due to leave the board later in 2020.
The Commission recognises that RNIB has helped countless visually impaired beneficiaries and also recognises the commitment of those involved in RNIB, both past and present, to support the visually impaired community. Commitment to a cause alone however is insufficient to safely and effectively deliver a charity’s purpose. The Commission considers elements of the failings identified by the inquiry, and the associated reviews, as constituting misconduct and collectively, as serious mismanagement in the administration of the charity. This also resulted in our view in a breach in RNIB’s duty to take all reasonable steps to protect the charity’s beneficiaries from coming to harm.
Ultimately it is the charity’s trustees who carry the legal responsibility for the management and administration of the charity and these failings. However, the Commission’s decision to issue an Official Warning to RNIB reflects the regulatory view that these failings were as a result of the combined failings of the collective corporate body rather than particular individuals or the trustee body alone.
RNIB has made good progress in completing the Action Plan agreed with the Commission and it is part way through the transfer of care homes, schools and college to new specialist providers. It also completed the disposal of the RNIB Pears Centre site to Warwickshire County Council in December 2019. Some further work remains to enable RNIB to complete its reconstruction and the Commission will continue to carefully monitor its progress in completing this transition.
Charity represent the best of human characteristics – that is why the way charities do their work matters. Unfortunately, RNIB fell far short of these expectations in its corporate stewardship of vital services for children with complex needs.
The Commission urges charities to ensure they learn the lessons from these findings. There are two key considerations from this inquiry which are relevant to other charities, in particular large charities:
- charity trustees must ensure that their corporate governance is fit for purpose to provide robust oversight of their charity’s operations and structure, taking into account the complexity, scale, nature and associated risks of its activities
- keeping people safe is a core consideration for all charity trustees and they must ensure that their charity’s safeguarding arrangements are appropriate and robust. Taking reasonable steps to prevent people, in particular children and adults at risk, from coming to harm is not an optional added extra
Issues for the wider sector
Trustees are collectively responsible for their charity and ultimately accountable for everything done by the charity and those representing the charity. Trustees must actively understand the risks to their charity and make sure those risks are properly managed; the higher the risk, the greater the expectation and the more oversight is needed. In a large and complex charity, it is normal for the executive to have significant decision-making authority – but the trustees must still be willing and able to hold the executive to account.
Protecting people and safeguarding responsibilities should be a governance priority for all charities. As part of fulfilling their trustee duties, trustees must take reasonable steps to protect people who come into contact with their charity from harm. 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.
Effective trustee boards lead by example, setting and owning the charity’s values, setting the standard and modelling behaviours that reflect those values, and requiring anyone representing the charity to reflect its values positively. An effective culture of keeping people safe identifies, deters and tackles behaviours which minimise or ignore harm to people and cover up or downplay failures. Failures to protect people from harm should be identified and lessons learned and there should be full and frank disclosure, including to regulators.