Briefing: Charity Commission inquiry into RNIB

15 July, 2020

The Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) is one of the UK’s leading sight loss charities and the largest community of blind and partially sighted people.

In March 2018 the Charity Commission opened a statutory inquiry into the organisation after the charity reported serious incidents relating to safeguarding and Ofsted announced its intention to cancel the registration of the RNIB Pears Centre – a residential school and home for children with highly complex needs.

The inquiry found that the organisation had put children in its care at undue risk of harm and that some had actually suffered harm or distress and that the children and their families had been badly let down by RNIB.

There were a range of complex issues at RNIB; however, at the heart of the problems were systemic failings in the organisation’s governance.

So severe were these issues that the Charity Commission issued a regulatory alert to hundreds of large service delivery charities warning about the risks of weak governance.

 

Inquiry

The class inquiry was launched after two serious incident reports were submitted to the Commission by the subsidiary charity in charge of the Pears Centre.

  • An RSI dated 2 March 2018 relating to a safeguarding incident which took place on 20 February 2018 at the RNIB Pears Centre
  • An RSI dated 16 March 2018 in which the Commission was informed that Ofsted had issued a notice of intention to cancel the registration of the RNIB Pears Centre children’s home facility

Ofsted’s 9 March 2018 letter to RNIB outlined a series of incidents and repeated regulatory breaches relating to, among other things, medication errors and deficient safeguarding practices dating back to 2015.

However, this initial inquiry was expanded after the scale and severity of the issues at RNIB became apparent. The inquiry went on to identify serious systemic issues at all levels of the organisation, including those relating to:

  • Safeguarding
  • Financial management
  • Incident reporting
  • Trustee oversight
  • Governance systems and practices

 

 

Issues relating to the Pears Centre

The independent inquiry found that the centre:

  • Operated with too much independence from the main charity
  • Was resistant to criticism
  • Provided poor staff training
  • Made frequent errors relating to medication

The report lists a number of examples where the failures listed above led directly to children at the centre suffering harm.

 

General issues at RNIB

  • The charity had a complex structure consisting of a number of different subsidiaries.
  • The charity did not have a centralised system to manage data relating to care settings
  • All of its regulated establishments operated with a high degree of autonomy
  • During a 2017 reorganisation unqualified staff were appointed to key roles, which served to exacerbate the existing issues
  • The broader corporate governance was not adequate to address the complexity scale, nature and associated risks of the charity’s activities and disparate structure
  • Trust had broken down between some of the executives and trustees
  • The leadership culture meant that strategy was too slow to be implemented

 

What were the results of these problems?

  • Children in the organisation’s care were put at risk at harm
  • Some children in the organisation’s care suffered harm or distress
  • The Pears Centre was closed down
  • The organisation’s chief executive, along with a number of trustees stood down shortly after the inquiry began.
  • The notice to cancel the Pears Centre registration triggered default action on the organisation’s debts, making around £21 million immediately due and payable

 

What recommendations did the Charity Commission make?

  • Simplify the charity’s governance
  • Make it easier to recruit trustees on the basis of their skills

 

What action did RNIB take?

  • Recruited new trustees with appropriate skills, including a safeguarding lead
  • Made changes to its committee structure
  • Created a governance transformation and implementation group
  • Submitted an action plan for a twoyear reconstruction programme
  • Transferred all of its regulated care services to other providers

 

What lessons can be learned in terms of governance?

 

Regularly review your governance structure

This is especially the case for those which have rapidly expanded, taken on more services or set up multiple entities.

These structures should be kept as simple and effective as possible, with good reporting processes in place.

Documentation such as terms of reference should also be assessed frequently to ensure that a charity’s activity aligns with them and vice versa.

Regular reviews should also be made on whether the charity’s activities are effective and if not, what action should be taken – i.e. subcontracting services, forming collaborations or signing joint working agreements with other capable providers.

Trustees need to be fully accountable and have good oversight of trading arms and different services to ensure good alignment with the charity’s strategy.

 

Populate boards with skilled and experienced members

Trustees should have good expertise and clearly defined roles. Charities should regularly audit their board to ensure that they have skills and experience that are relevant to their activities and recruit new trustees where there are gaps.

A balance should be struck between elected and appointed trustees – while the former group will offer a good connection to the cause and accountability, appointed trustees can be used to fill specific gaps in expertise.

 

Take board responsibilities seriously

Boards should play an active role in scrutinising a charity’s activities to ensure that its strategy and values are being realised.

They should ensure they are properly informed at all times and not delegate responsibility for decision making to sub-committees. Subcommittees can do research and make recommendations to the full board, but accountability still lies with all trustees.

The board should also have regular and effective communication with an organisation’s executives on its purpose, values, work and achievements.

 

Implement suitable processes

Governance is only as good as the underlying systems. Full systems should be in place for:

  • Incidents; including recording, reporting and, where relevant, escalating
  • Monitoring and safeguarding; including investigating and reporting
  • Complaints – these should be handled in a timely and transparent way
  • Documentation of organisational structures, including responsibilities and how issues will be dealt with
  • Risk management processes should also be in place and reviewed regularly by the board
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