The need for enhanced due diligence standards and constant vigilance

The need for enhanced safeguarding standards has never been more urgent. Poor safeguarding standards pose a threat to the well-being of vulnerable and less powerful individuals, to the organisation entrusted with the professional use of public funds and to public trust. The need to safeguard children and adults at risk arises out of power differentials. People with the least societal power are most vulnerable to abuse, while people who hold the most power are most likely to get away with abuse. Poor safeguarding standards are, in effect, an existential threat to humanitarian assistance and international development. A recent scandal highlighted this clearly.

A Times expose (10th February 2018) brought to world-wide attention details of a sex scandal involving some members of a well-known British non-governmental organisation (NGO). The NGO stood accused of having 'covered up' the extent of the scandal, though it denied this. It did admit that its policies - including no clear injunction against its staff using sex workers - were not robust enough. The Charity Commission, the regulatory body for the NGO sector in the UK, announced a statutory enquiry into the NGO's handling of the case - the most serious action it could take. It expressed concerns about the impact on public trust and confidence.

Since 2018, donors, grant holders and downstream partners have been working towards the development of robust safeguarding frameworks and effective due diligence processes to ensure that beneficiary and staff protection is at the heart of all programming. However, despite considerable work done in the international development sector, led by several donor / partner organisations such as BOND, the Charity Commission, Keeping Children Safe, the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) to develop tools, resources and provide training, a report dated 17th October, 2019, by members of the British Parliament accused aid organisations of 'dragging their feet' over combating sexual exploitation and abuse in the sector, despite safeguarding pledges made in 2018. Work to improve protection and support for whistle-blowers has 'stalled' a report by the UK international development committee (IDC)', says, 'and more needs to be done to protect survivors'.

International aid organisations are clearly under pressure to demonstrate in-house compliance with a set of safeguarding standards. As registered charities, responsibility for compliance lies with Trustees, as the Charity Commission makes clear. 'We want to ensure that all charities and Trustees know and understand their safeguarding responsibilities in crystal clear terms. That includes recognising that safeguarding and protecting people from harm goes beyond simply implementing policies and processes. As a fundamental responsibility for Trustees, safeguarding and protecting people must go to the heart of a charity's culture. By building up knowledge across organisations, charities can develop and strengthen organisational cultures that prioritise people's safety'. Contact SDC to see how we can help you with this.

The principles of safeguarding

As DFID says (Enhanced Due Diligence - Safeguarding for External Partners), safeguarding in its broad sense means protecting people and the environment from unintended harm, but in organisational culture, this tends to focus on preventing and responding to harm caused by sexual exploitation, abuse, harassment or bullying, often within a wider context of social exclusion and / or discrimination. The aim is to minimise the likelihood and impact of these actions towards both the people we are trying to help, and people who are working in the sector.

Policies, codes of conduct, training, and systems are important, but in order to be effective they must be the expression of a safeguarding culture, something that is unpacked in more detail below. Culture is key - it can breed respect and accountability or abuse and impunity. Positive leadership is essential. Grant holders are expected to apply the following principles in their work and through their delivery chains.

- Everyone has responsibility for safeguarding.
- Do No Harm is considered the minimum standard of practice to avoid causing inadvertent harm by one's actions.
- Organisations have a safeguarding duty of care to beneficiaries, staff and volunteers, including where down-stream partners are part of delivery. This includes children and vulnerable adults in the community who are not direct beneficiaries but may be vulnerable to abuse.
- Act with respect and integrity, be transparent and accountable.
- All activity is done in the best interests of the child/vulnerable person.
- A child is defined as someone under the age of 18 regardless of the age of majority/consent in country.
- Beneficiaries / people of concern shall be treated equally, irrespective of race, gender, religion / or none, sexual orientation or disability.
- Organisations that work with children and vulnerable adults should apply a safeguarding lens to their promotional communications and fundraising activities.

From 2019 onwards, SDC has supported NGOs by conducting safeguarding reviews and investigations.

Safeguarding and disability

While it is impossible to establish exact figures for incidence (number of reports in a given time span) or prevalence (percentage of disabled people abused at some time during their lifetime) or for raised levels of risk, it is possible to say that disabled people are exposed higher risks to abuse as compared with non-disabled people and that they require at least the same level of protection and access to redress. For example, an epidemiological study conducted by Sullivan and Knutson in 2000 found that children with disabilities are 3.4 times likely to be maltreated than non-disabled peers.

A consensus exists in the literature that the risks of abuse are exacerbated by: - public hostility or indifference to people who are visibly different; - institutional cultures, regimes and structures in which direct care staff have low skills, status and pay; where there is resistance to change and a closed community; unequal pay, conditions and training opportunities for qualified and unqualified staff; - repeated exposure to multiple carers for those in receipt of personal assistance and intimate care; - ignorance and poor training of staff who work with people who have complex needs and/or challenging behaviours; - lack of regulation or strong accountability to an independent agency/department.

Abuse is defined as: Any act, or failure to act, which results in a significant breach of a vulnerable person's human rights, civil liberties, bodily integrity, dignity or general well-being, whether intended or inadvertent, including sexual relationships or financial transactions to which the person has not or cannot validly consent, or which are deliberately exploitative. Abuse may be perpetrated by any person (including by other people with disabilities) but it is of special concern when it takes place within a relationship of trust characterised by powerful positions based on: - legal, professional or authority status; - unequal physical, economic or social power; - responsibility for the person's day-to-day care; - and/or inequalities of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. This, SDC believes, supports the case for the 7th standard. Abuse may arise out of individual cruelty, inadequate service provision or society's indifference. It requires a proportional response - one which does not cut across valid choices made by individuals with disabilities but one which does recognise vulnerability and exploitation.

SDC has recent experience of reviewing safeguarding standards in disability settings.

Key qualities of a positive safeguarding culture

The following are key features of a positive safeguarding culture in an organisation working with children and adults at risk:

- A positive culture of safeguarding is evident when the organisation conveys a meaningful commitment to the prevention of the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable groups within their staff and service user groups and have policies and procedures in place to respond appropriately despite their best efforts at prevention.
- A positive safeguarding culture goes beyond the tokenistic, superficial articulation of safeguarding driven by compliance requirements and demonstrates commitment through evidence of ownership of safeguarding responsibility across the organisation.
- A positive safeguarding culture include a sound safeguarding framework which is made known to all stakeholders and applied with transparency, accountability and where staff, service users and other stakeholders have trust and confidence in the organisational processes and systems.
- A positive safeguarding culture is also promoted when staff are trained and supported to recognise signs of abuse, reporting procedures operate effectively based on the awareness of focal points who respond swiftly and appropriately to concerns shared with them and where decisions prioritise the needs of alleged victims.
- A positive safeguarding culture is also one characterised by strong leadership which sets the tone for safeguarding through commitment and investment of resources and supports the reporting of concerns about inappropriate and unacceptable behaviours by colleagues and people in the community without fear of negative consequences.
- A positive safeguarding culture prioritises the needs of alleged victims whilst balancing the needs of the organisation. It goes beyond compliance to statutory requirements to an organisational value base that holds safeguarding as the fundamental basis for the service.
- A positive safeguarding culture is evident when those in power do not misuse their positions to abuse and exploit vulnerable people and staff to meet their own needs.

The seven safeguarding standards

SDC proposes building on existing good practice in order to promote commonality across the sector. However, it also believes that the agreed six standards should be supplemented by a 7th, Community Engagement, which we explain below.

Standard 1: Governance and Accountability standards create, foster and ensure safeguarding through requisite controls and oversight. They identify the responsibility of those who are custodians of the organisation's values ensuring people are put first. Corporate governance is the system by which organisations are directed and controlled including its oversight structure and its effective operation. It is intended to increase the accountability of an organisation; it is the way that the organisation polices itself. The organisational Board (be they trustees appointed or elected or shareholders) has ultimate responsibility for safeguarding and should always act in the best interests of the beneficiaries, staff and volunteers. The board should not be unduly influenced by those who may have special interests and should always place the interests of the organisation before any personal interest. It is vital that it is independent in its safeguarding decision making. There should be a designated safeguarding officer at Board level who is engaged with the senior leadership teams or management of the organisation. Engagement should be evidenced by regular reporting directly to the senior leaders and Board either through a standing agenda item in regular meetings or through the risk register update.

Standard 2: Whistleblowing: Whistleblowing allows concerns to be raised and resolved at the appropriate level. This area is concerned with having a clear process that is widely understood and accessible to all staff, for dealing with concerns and a handling framework with identified owners of each step. The policy (which may not be referred to as whistleblowing but might be a complaints and/or concerns policy) should be explicit that there can be no reprisals for the whistle blower. There should also be a clear process to follow if the complaint / concern is being raised against an individual in the organisation who manages internal complaints or concerns. If the organisation does not have these policies and processes in place it will not be compliant with the enhanced standards and will not pass the DDA.

Standard 3: Safeguarding: Safeguarding shapes the organisation's approach, practice and culture to ensuring a comprehensively safe environment for all people that the organisation engages with. Organisations that do not have an overarching/combined safeguarding policy will be expected to agree with the Fund a timeline for putting one in place. If the organisation works with children or vulnerable adults or young people, they must have a child protection policy and/or a vulnerable adult's policy. If they do not have those policies, then they cannot pass the due diligence assessment.

If they do not work with children and/or vulnerable adults and do not have an overarching safeguarding policy then they must have bullying, sexual exploitation and harassment and abuse policies. These may be 'stand-alone' policies or part of the organisation's overall HR Manual. If they are UK based and are compliant with the new Charity Governance Code - then that should cover some areas. If the organisation does not have these policies, it will not pass the DDA.

Standard 4: Safe Recruitment / Human Resources focuses on recruitment and vetting processes to support recruitment of the right people and on-going training and awareness for all staff and volunteers. Organisations should have an awareness of the level of safeguarding risk in each role. If the organisation uses interviews that are competency based, and if a job role is to work with children and or vulnerable adults, then the interview should address the requisite competencies needed. For all other roles that do not work directly with children, young people and vulnerable adults then there should be mandatory safeguarding and whistleblowing training as part of the induction. For all staff, there should be regular refresher training on safeguarding and whistleblowing. All organisations should be gender and disability informed and inclusive. Disabled Persons' Organisations (DPOs) are expected to employ persons with a disability as Trustees and employees. DPOs are further expected to represent an understanding of the double disadvantage of gender and disability in their policies and practices.

Standard 5: A Code of Conduct sets out the principles, values, standards, or rules of behaviour that guide the decisions, procedures and systems of an organization in a way that (a) contributes to the welfare of its key stakeholders, and (b) respects the rights of all constituents affected by its operations.

Standard 6: Risk Management: This area considers the risk management framework of the partner which sets out the approach to risk, the risk appetite to guide risk identification and the assessment of safeguarding risks and promotes the use of risk registers for each programme. Risk management at the project level will include a risk register with clear mitigating actions and identifiable owners. Risks should be reviewed regularly. If the organisation is working with vulnerable people, safeguarding should be a separate risk category on the organisation's register or framework. There should also be clarity for escalation of safeguarding risks. The expectations of risk management for downstream partners should be made explicit in the risk policy or approach.

Standard 7: Community engagement: Community engagement is a community-centred orientation based in dialogue. Community engagement enables a more contextualized understanding of community members' / beneficiaries' perceptions of the topics and contexts, and facilitates stronger relationships among and between community members. The outcome of community engagement is increased social capital and stronger relational and representative networks. While community organizing involves the process of building a grassroots movement involving communities, community engagement primarily deals with the practice of empowering communities to move toward change, both internal and in regards to its relationship with external duty bearers. To achieve this, the Grant Holder will develop a Community Engagement Strategy that a. specifies proposed community feedback mechanisms and b. community accountability mechanisms, c. how co-ownership of the project will be enabled and promoted, d. how community representation is expressed and strengthened in the relationship between it and the implementing agency and e. how systems will be strengthened for the purpose of sustained community empowerment.

The key elements of a Community Engagement strategy are shown below.

To discuss how we can help you develop a safeguarding culture in your organisation, or review your existing systems, or advise or lead a safeguarding investigation, please contact Geoff Cordell at 

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