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Trustees’ safeguarding duties

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Understanding the role of trustees

Charities in England and Wales are generally registered with and regulated by the Charity Commission.

The Charity Commission has issued several pieces of non-statutory guidance about safeguarding. The Charity Commission’s main guidance on safeguarding states that a charity’s trustees are ultimately responsible for ensuring there are measures in place to protect the people who come into contact with the charity from harm. This includes beneficiaries, staff and volunteers, and anyone else who comes into contact with the charity through its work. This responsibility is sometimes referred to as a ‘duty of care’.

If trustees don’t follow this guidance, it could result in regulatory consequences for both the trustees and the charity – for example, an investigation or sanctions issued by the Charity Commission. There are also reputational risks to consider in not following the guidance. However, if trustees fail to follow the guidance, they won’t necessarily be financially liable or responsible for negligence under statute or common law.

Trustees’ key safeguarding duties

A trustee’s safeguarding duties depend on what their charity does and who it works with.

All charities should:

  • have appropriate policies and procedures in place to safeguard anyone the charity comes into contact with
  • make sure that trustees, staff, volunteers and beneficiaries are aware of these policies and know how to apply them
  • report any serious safeguarding incidents to the Charity Commission.

There are also additional safeguarding obligations on charities working with children or adults at risk..

The following guidance and legislation set out these duties in more detail.

Duty of charity trustees to ensure safeguarding measures are in place

This guidance explains what the Charity Commission expects charities and their trustees to do to protect people that the charity comes into contact with from abuse or mistreatment.

Reference: Safeguarding and protecting people for charities and trustees

Duty of charity trustees to report serious incidents to the Charity Commission – including serious incidents related to safeguarding and partnership work

This guidance explains when the Charity Commission expects a charity to file a serious incident report, and offers the following definition of a “serious incident”:

'A serious incident is an adverse event, whether actual or alleged, which results in or risks significant:

  • harm to your charity’s beneficiaries, staff, volunteers or others who come into contact with your charity through its work…
  • loss of your charity’s money or assets
  • damage to your charity’s property
  • harm to your charity’s work or reputation'

In this guidance, 'significant' means significant in the context of a particular charity, taking account of its staff, operations, finances and/or reputation.

This is non-statutory guidance, but failure to follow it may result in regulatory consequences, particularly if further abuse or damage has arisen following the initial incident.

Reference: How to report a serious incident in your charity

This guidance explains when the Charity Commission expects a charity to file a report following a serious incident involving one of the charity’s partners (in the UK or internationally).

In this context, partners include:

  • a delivery partner or sub-contractor of the charity
  • a subsidiary trading company of the charity
  • an organisation that receives funding from the charity
  • another charity or organisation that’s linked to your charity – for example, as part of a federated structure.

Reference: Reporting a serious incident in your charity when it involves a partner

When completing their annual return, charities with an income of £25,000 or more are required to declare that they know of no serious incidents that should have been brought to the Charity Commission’s attention. It’s a criminal offence to provide false or misleading information to the Charity Commission, including in the annual return.

Reference: Section 60 of the Charities Act 2011

Duty of charities in relation to fundraising practice in connection with people at risk

Where a charity uses a professional fundraiser, that professional fundraiser is prohibited from raising funds for the charity unless the fundraising agreement between them includes:

  • a voluntary regulatory scheme or fundraising standards that the professional fundraiser must follow
  • details of how the professional fundraiser will protect people at risk and other members of the public from unreasonably intrusive or persistent fundraising, and undue pressure to donate
  • details of how the charity will monitor the agreement.

Reference: Section 59 of the Charities Act 1992, as amended by Section 13 of the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Act 2016

Last reviewed: 15 June 2022

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This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 15 June 2022

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