The guidance was updated only last year, so you might not have had a chance to read it – given recent scrutiny, now is a good time to get on top of the serious incident reporting regime. According to the Charity Commission, too many serious incidents go unreported by charities.
There were 2,182 serious incident reports between 2016-17 – however this is quite low when you consider that there are around 170,000 charities on the Charity Commission register. This would indicate that there is only 1 serious incident per 77 charities every year. This doesn't seem likely. For example, research indicates that fraud alone is costing charities over £2bn a year - and this will be spread across thousands of organisations.
Does your charity have a clear framework for identifying “serious incidents”?
One of the challenges of the serious incident reporting framework is to understand what a serious incident actually is. We know from our engagement with charities that many have struggled at times to know when something is serious enough to report to the Charity Commission. This can be particularly true when working in high risk environments or with vulnerable beneficiaries where incidents occur on a daily basis. The Charity Commission recently published a table of incidents which you should make sure is reflected in your policies. These cover a range of issues such as safeguarding, fraud, extremism, loss of funding streams or suspicious donations. The range of issues that the Charity Commission has changed in its most recent guidance, so make sure that your charity is up to date. If in doubt, the Charity Commission says "it’s best to report it anyway - the Commission can then decide what to advise you and what action, if any, is appropriate.”
Who is responsible for reporting “serious incidents”?
Trustees are always responsible, so it should be made clear to them that they should reserve the right at all times to make decisions on what is and what isn’t a serious incident. A clear flow of information from staff/volunteers to trustees is, therefore, essential. However, on a practical basis, staff are going to be monitoring this information and making recommendations for trustees. Who is ultimately responsible for making decisions? Is it the Chief Executive? Is it the Company Secretary, HR Manager or Finance Director? Is there a clear line of responsibility for reporting serious incidents up to trustees? Is there regular review of incidents and whether the right decisions have been made about reporting incidents to the regulator? This last point is particularly important if you are regularly encountering incidents involving beneficiaries or the loss of financial assets. If you are working overseas, how does this information get transferred back to the Head Office in the UK so that staff/trustees can make appropriate reports?
How are you reporting “serious incidents”?
Once you have decided to report a serious incident, you then need to make sure that you are including the right information. The Charity Commission recommends the following things are included in your report:
- who you are and your connection to the charity
- the authority you have to report on behalf of the charity’s trustees
- who in the trustee body is aware of the incident, for example all or only the Chair
- what happened and when the charity first became aware of it
- action being taken to deal with the incident and prevent future problems
- whether and when it was reported to the police or another regulator/ statutory agency (including official reference numbers)
- media handling lines you may have prepared
As we have seen from recent cases, charities should always urge on the side of giving as much detail as possible.
Although there is no template for reporting serious incidents, it is important to remember what the reporting framework is there to achieve. Serious incidents can highlight concerns around the general mismanagement and conduct of the charity. The Charity Commission needs to be given a picture of the incident, the response and what steps are being taken to prevent it happening again so that it can decide whether there needs to be a further investigation into the charity. Serious incident reporting isn’t about criminal investigations, if you think that an issue requires this you should report it to the police or relevant authority as well as the Charity Commission. This is about making sure that the charity is well governed and is carrying out its duties to the standard required by the law. Bear this in mind when you are reporting incidents to the Charity Commission, and give the detail required to enable them to understand to make this judgement effectively. Once you have your information ready, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Spread the word
If we are going to have confidence in this regime, every charity needs to report serious incidents effectively. Make sure that your trustees understand it, make sure that your staff understand it, make sure that your delivery partners understand it and make sure that you put the right processes in place. Talk to colleagues in the sector about this, because you may find that they are struggling with this issue just as much as you are. If we are able to make this regime work effectively we will increase public trust and confidence in the sector.
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