The Charity Commission (the regulator for charities in England and Wales) has this morning published the results of its inquiry into Save the Children UK, which finds that there were failures in the charity’s response to allegations of workplace harassment and misconduct made by staff members against the former CEO.

The Commission first dealt with the charity in 2015 over concerns about the charity’s handling, reporting and response to allegations in 2012 and 2015. The Commission then opened a statutory inquiry into the charity in April 2018 as a result of renewed public scrutiny.

Speaking on the Today Programme this morning, former Save the Children employee Alexia Pepper de Caires, who raised concerns about problems in the charity in 2015, spoke of a "weak HR team" which was not performing its role as a check and balance on the senior executive and trustees. Her experience reflects the Commission’s finding that the charity’s handling of the complaints was so poor in certain respects that it amounted to "mismanagement".

Kevin Watkins, who became CEO in 2016 after the claims were made, said he "deeply" apologised to the women affected. Pepper de Caires called for responsibility to be taken from those who held power in the organisation at the time, as well as greater accountability across the sector.

What is harassment?

In legal terms, harassment is defined as "unwanted conduct which has the purpose or effect of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment." There is also a separate legal definition of sexual harassment which is "unwanted conduct of a sexual nature." They are both subjective tests; the relevant fact is the way that the recipient of the behaviour feels rather than the intention of the person whose conduct is in question.

What did the Charity Commission’s Inquiry find?

The report finds a wide range of failings:

  1. “the charity failed to consistently follow its own processes when staff members made allegations of inappropriate conduct against the charity’s CEO in 2012 and 2015
  2. the decision to deal with those complaints informally, rather than to investigate them fully, ran counter to the charity’s own disciplinary procedures
  3. the whole trustee body was not made aware of important issues as early as it should have been: the trustee body was not informed of allegations made against the charity’s CEO in 2012 and did not receive a copy of the full findings of an external report on corporate culture in 2015."

What are the key points here?

The thrust of the criticism in this report pertains to the lack of internal communication and transparency in the organisational structure of the charity.

The report demonstrates the importance of dealing with complaints in a manner that is consistent with due process and written policies. This is especially true of those organisations such as charities which are held to higher account, whether that is because they enjoy a high profile or are subject to the control of a regulatory body. At a basic level, complaints should be dealt with quickly, fairly and confidentially following an impartial investigation and a private hearing, and there should be clear communication in writing of any decision made or actions taken. Charities must also always consider whether to make a serious incident report to the Charity Commission on receipt of any allegations concerning harassment.

While dealing with complaints informally can often be the best way, organisations should be robust in their approach to escalating grievances and complaints to be full investigations where it is merited. The criticism of the charity’s failure to investigate properly highlights the benefits of a good investigation, which include getting to the bottom of the facts, keeping up staff morale, and being perceived as a fair and transparent organisation.

If you would like any more information on the matters covered about please get in touch with Sonya O'Reilly or a member of our Charities and Social Enterprise Team.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at March 2020.