The obligation on charities to report serious incidents to the Charity Commission is not new but the approach to reporting in the safeguarding arena has developed quite significantly following the events at Oxfam and elsewhere, which came to light earlier this year.

An expanding definition

While the Charity Commission's guidance on safeguarding duties for charity trustees specifically refers to the definitions of 'safeguarding' set out by the Department of Health and Social Care in relation to children (Working Together to Safeguard Children) and adults (Care and Support Statutory Guidance), it has become increasingly clear in recent months that the Commission is taking a much broader approach to the concept of safeguarding. At the time of writing, the Commission's definition includes safeguarding beneficiaries from abuse, and protecting staff, volunteers and other people who are "connected with the activities of the charity" from harm.

At a recent meeting, the Commission said that it wanted charities to report any issue concerning a breach (or potential breach) of a duty of care such as bullying or harassment of staff or volunteers. This both confuses the boundaries of what is and is not a safeguarding issue and means charities would be required to report a whole range of issues that would previously have been dealt with as internal HR matters.

Risks associated with serious incident reports

Many charities are under the impression that serious incident reports made to the Charity Commission will be treated as confidential. This is not the case.

The Charity Commission sees itself as a regulator bent on improving the sector's reputation and pushing hard for more transparency. It accepts no duty to protect the confidentiality of the information that is provided in a serious incident report and, if it opens a file, may well make statements to the press identifying the charity and the nature of the incident without any prior consultation or warning. Furthermore, where the Commission considers an incident to be more serious and opens a regulatory inquiry, it will almost always publicise that fact by putting details on its website.

In its strategy for dealing with safeguarding issues in charities, the Charity Commission encourages charities to say whether information provided to the Commission is particularly sensitive or confidential and to explain why so that it can take steps to ensure the information is appropriately protected. Although the Commission does not guarantee that this will exempt information from disclosure, we strongly recommend that any charity reporting safeguarding concerns should indicate to the Commission very clearly any concerns about the details of the incident being made public and/or being disclosed to the press.

Is the moral of the story to report everything?

Trustees must be familiar with the Charity Commission's guidance on serious incidents and must always report any adverse event (whether alleged or actual) which results in or risks significant harm to a charity's work, beneficiaries or reputation. But charities should not feel pressured to report every concern or complaint before taking the time to properly consider the gravity of the matter – to do so risks playing fast and loose with the charity's reputation.

You can hear more about both safeguarding and serious incident reporting at our upcoming seminars: "Battening down the hatches - understanding risk management and serious incident reporting" on Wednesday 7 November, and "An A-Z of safeguarding - what does it mean and is your charity compliant?" on Wednesday 28 November, both at our new venue in Holborn.