According to a survey by haysmacintyre published last week, charities are increasingly aware of the importance of safeguarding. The survey shows that the number of charities that regard safeguarding as one of their principle risks has trebled in the last year – from 9% to 28%. Given the difficulties that some prominent charities have got themselves into, that is good news.
In our experience at Verita, however, safeguarding seems to be something of a blind spot for many people. A number of times when asked about safeguarding, people respond with comments like, “oh, yes… we have a policy on that” or “we have a safeguarding lead”. Their focus isn’t on their own individual responsibility – something that every individual should be aware of.
I have been trying to understand why that is.
I think that there is a clue in a safeguarding policy that we came across recently. Under the heading ‘What is safeguarding’, it says:
“Safeguarding is a broadly preventative and precautionary organisational approach to planning and procedures required to protect children, young people, and adults at risk from any actual or potential harm resulting from their contact with any part of the organisation.”
Whatever these words are supposed to mean, I think that they send out a clear subliminal message to most people who read them – don’t worry about safeguarding, they say, it isn’t your problem. The policy describes safeguarding as an “organisational approach” – as if it was something that the organisation as an entity needs to address, rather than something that each individual needs to think about.
This prompted me to have a look at a few other policies.
Looking on the NSPCC website, its section on safeguarding begins:
“All organisations that work with or come into contact with children should have safeguarding policies and procedures to ensure that every child, regardless of their age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, or sexual orientation, has a right to equal protection from harm.”
The NSPCC’s then goes on to give guidance on writing safeguarding policies. It begins like this:
“Children have the right to be protected from harm. If your organisation or group works with children or young people you must have a clear set of guidelines about how you will:
- keep children safe
- respond to child protection concerns.
A safeguarding or child protection policy statement makes it clear what your organisation or group will do to keep children safe.
The guidance continues:
It should set out:
- your organisation’s commitment to protecting all children
- the more detailed policies and procedures your organisation will put in place to keep children safe and respond to child protection concerns.”
Is this really the right emphasis?
Safeguarding is described in terms of organisational responsibilities. Clearly this is guidance for ‘writing safeguarding policies and procedures’ so it naturally has an organisational focus, but shouldn’t it begin by emphasising that safeguarding is a responsibility of everyone?
Secondly, this guidance qualifies the responsibility, “if your organisation or group works with children…”. This surely implies that if your organisation doesn’t work with children, you don’t need to think about safeguarding. But sure if you happen across information about someone who may be vulnerable, it is your responsibility to act – whatever the particular area of work you are in. If, for example, someone is working for a company doing gardening works in a public park and they see something that worries them, they should do something about it – whether or not the company “works with children”.
The policy of Voluntary Service Overseas begins:
“Safeguarding is the responsibility that an organisation has to ensure that their employees and volunteers, partners, vendors, operations and programmes do no harm to children, young people or vulnerable adults (together referred to as ‘vulnerable people’ under this policy); that they do not expose them to the risk of discrimination, neglect, harm and abuse; and that any concerns the organisation has about the safety of vulnerable people within the communities in which they work, are dealt with and reported to the appropriate authorities. It is also the responsibility that the organisation has for protecting its employees and volunteers when they are vulnerable, for example, when ill or at risk of harm or abuse.”
Again, safeguarding is described entirely in terms of organisational responsibility.
Contrast this with Age UK’s safeguarding policy. This begins with a set of “guiding principles”. The first of those principles is:
“Everyone’s responsibility – Everyone at Age UK has a responsibility to keep children and adults who need care and support safe from abuse and neglect.”
This is surely where every safeguarding policy should begin.
During investigations at Verita, we have seen a number of cases where people have come across information relevant to safeguarding that is tangential to their job – and done nothing about it, presumably because they thought it wasn’t their responsibility.
I think that another factor is that while safeguarding sounds important (it is), it also sounds complicated (not so much).
Clearly safeguarding is complicated in the sense that a local authority has a difficult decision to make if they are reason to believe that a child might be being abused by a member of their family. But the safeguarding issues you and I face day to day aren’t complicated. We just need to do something if we have reason to think that there is a problem.
The reaction of some people seems to be – this sounds complicated, we have a safeguarding lead, and we have a policy, best leave it to them.
That is wrong. Dangerous for the individuals involved and for the organisation. The message must always be – safeguarding is the responsibility of each and every member of society. If any of us see anything that gives us grounds to believe that a child or vulnerable adult is at risk, we should take action.
There needs to be a change in the way we all think about safeguarding. It is the responsibility of all of us.
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