Specific whistleblowing rules and regulations should be introduced for charities to ensure that staff are empowered to raise concerns about misconduct without fear of repercussions, according to a whistleblowing protection organisation.
Protect said more work is needed in the third sector to prevent the victimisation of whistleblowers and to train staff to effectively act on concerns raised about those who fall short of the expected standards.
It made its call in response to the outcome of a Charity Commission inquiry into safeguarding failings at a school run by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), which the commission called “one of the worst examples of poor governance and oversight having a direct impact on vulnerable people”.
The inquiry looked at multiple failings at the RNIB’s Pears Centre for Specialist Learning residential school near Coventry. Education regulator Ofsted found the school had repeatedly failed to ensure staff were appropriately trained and qualified; made errors in administering medication to children; failed to record incidents of physical restraint; and failed to put in place effective safeguarding procedures.
One child was left with severe injuries to her feet after she was left in ill-fitting boots for three months, while another child was given medication that made their epilepsy worse as a result of their parents not being invited to a medical appointment.
The inquiry found evidence of “dysfunction in leadership and governance over many years” and problems in its oversight of safeguarding issues. Five staff have been referred to the disclosure and barring service.
The commission has issued a formal warning to the RNIB requiring it to make changes, and has written to other large charities asking them to be “mindful of the issue”. However, Protect does not think this warning goes far enough to address the problem.
The findings come after inquiries into safeguarding failures in Oxfam and into Save the Children’s poor handling of allegations of workplace harassment.
Protect chief executive Liz Gardiner said: “We welcome the Charity Commission’s reminder to charities to ensure they have effective whistleblowing or speak up arrangements, and the emphasis on anti-retaliation measures towards whistleblowers. However, asking charities to be ‘mindful of the issue’ may not be enough to really drive forward change.
“The time has come to introduce whistleblowing rules in this sector. Rules which can be enforced by the regulator will help guide charities on the standards expected of them in this area and hold those falling short to account.
“As we saw in our research into charity sector whistleblowing, Time To Transform, there is more work needed in the third sector to prevent the victimisation of whistleblowers, and train staff in how to effectively act on concerns raised.”
In a statement, the RNIB said: “When the issues emerged it became clear that we had seriously let down children at the Centre and their families. We had also let down the staff, volunteers, supporters and blind and partially sighted people who make up the RNIB community. We are truly sorry to every one of them. They rightly expected better of RNIB.
“This has been a humbling and sobering experience for RNIB. We fully accept the Charity Commission’s recommendations and the inquiry report acknowledges that we are making good progress in implementing them.”
The charity said it had made significant changes to its practices, including introducing safeguarding training and adding people with specialise safeguarding and governance expertise to its board.