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Synod approves introduction of clergy risk assessements

24 February 2017

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

THE Safeguarding (Clergy Risk Assessment) Regulations 2016 were approved on Tuesday afternoon.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, said that risk assessments should be valued as a tool in safeguarding practice; they were widely recognised, and their use was increasing.

“Risk assessment is an analysis of all material considerations of future conduct of person being assessed,” he said. “It is not a finding of fact or guilt; rather, a professional assessment of future risk posed by an individual.”

The legislation was born from a report by the Chichester Commissaries in 2012 and led to its approval by Synod in 2014. “To reduce the risk of the new power being used inappropriately”, the President of Tribunals could overturn a bishop’s decision to carry out a risk assessment, Bishop Hancock said.

The cleric in question was to be informed by the bishop, who would be able to pass this information on to third parties with the consent of the cleric. A challenge to the risk assessment could be made at an early stage, and questions could be put to the assessor by the cleric. There would also be an opportunity to challenge the final written assessment, and to challenge the outcome of this assessment. There would be time limits imposed on the assessed clerics to prevent delays, however. Allowing appeals against the bishop’s decision would not be practical, he said.

Carl Fender (Lincoln) said that he wanted to encourage confidence in the system, and ensure that, when there were assessments, they were robust. “Referral under Regulation 4 needs to be determined by the bishop,” he said. “It is a crucial stage for a request for an assessment, and how that is drafted could determine the
assessment. Sloppy drafting that doesn’t have legal representation can lead to
a bias when it is received.”

If allegations were denied by the individual subject to the assessment, grappling with allegations in the context of safeguarding would be a difficult task, he said. “Is there enough experience to make that challenge? In relation to assessors, what will the professional experience be? What will the selection process be? It is important to know their credentials, and trust that there will be a high standard of work.”

Martin Sewell (Rochester) said that he was one of the few people who had previously had the responsibility of drafting safeguarding regulations. The legislation “looked OK”, he said, and the C of E safeguarding team and registrars had “much
experience”. But the team could be compared to a Rugby Union team playing Rugby League: the two required different sets of skills, and that was where mistakes were made.

“We have been promised a package but it is incomplete, he said. “You
need people who know what they are doing. The quality control is not there, and
we cannot judge how this will work, since these assessors are only going to get
three days’ training.”

The legislation was “steeped in problems” he concluded. The C of E had 42 dioceses and 80 safeguarding officers: “How are we going to get a consistent standard?”

Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham) echoed these criticisms. “Who will guard the safeguarding assessors themselves?” she asked. She expressed concerns over paragraph 44. What was going to be regarded as a reasonable requirement? What rights would the assessee have as to the qualification, or gender, of the assessor? The Bishop had outlined checks and balances later in the process, she said, but how about the ones earlier on? “Clerics should have the right to question their assessment without being penalised.”

An adjournment was sought to enable further discussion before a resumed debate in July. Paul Hutchinson (York) argued that the concerns were too great for the Synod to pass the legislation without the draft proposals in hand.

The Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson, resisting the point of order, said that it was too early in the debate. While the Church was facing a number of safeguarding situations, a consistency of approach and cost-effectiveness were needed that the Church had “sadly failed to achieve” in the past.

The Revd Paul Benfield (Blackburn) supported adjournment since no draft
guidance had been produced and there were many unanswered questions. Who would represent the clerics being assessed, since there was no legal aid for the
clergy? “If we don’t adjourn now, there is a likelihood that the debate will be
voted against,” he warned. “We are not against safeguarding: we just want to
get it right.”

David Lamming (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) also supported the motion for adjournment. “It is unwise to receive proposals that issue guidance without seeing this guidance,” he said. “Without that guidance in place this legislation cannot be put in place. It is sensible that those proposals are properly drafted between now and July.”

Clive Scowen (London) said that, while the concerns should be taken seriously, “I don’t think we can wait to July. Something needs to be put in place.” He trusted that
the proposals had been drafted by the Synod’s legal advisers, and agreed that
they should be reviewed. “If we fail to put anything in place, that is as dangerous as not putting anything forward. What we have is not wholly incompetent and it is better than nothing, which is what we will be left with otherwise.”

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) said that he was the only person who had experienced a risk assessment. “The process was very good, and the assessor was very fair,” he said. “This package is an important step forward and should be passed.”

The adjournment motion was lost, and debate resumed on the main motion.

Bishop Watson said that he was “very positive” about the regulations, and looked
forward to seeing the guidance. But the language of “vulnerable adults|” should
be changed to “adults with vulnerabilities”, he suggested.

Canon Jenny Tomlinson (Chelmsford) asked how long these risk assessments would last. What happened when the assessed cleric moved diocese? And should the cleric being assessed be told with whom the Bishop was sharing this information?

Margaret Sheather (Gloucester) welcomed the regulations but echoed concerns that had already been raised. She also queried how it would be ensured that the process of risk assessment did not become “unreasonably extended”.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said that it was “impossible” to overestimate how important it was to get safeguarding right. He thought that it would be possible to find ways outside the synodical process to address the concerns raised. Furthermore, just as great Rugby League players had over the years switched codes to Rugby Union, so, too, could the Church’s safeguarding team learn the new skills required.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that the timescale, just 14 days allowed between each stage, was appropriately urgent. “This is another leg of improving our system,” he said. “Let’s give it a resounding ‘Yes’ so the Bishops can draw up the regulations in light of what they have heard.”

Andrew Gray (Norwich) said that he belonged to the “old-fashioned school of thought” which believed that, if you were going to do something, you had to do it properly. These guidelines needed much more thought and revision, he argued. Why agree to put something through now which would need to be changed in the future? “My chief concern is that there is no right of appeal,” he said. Bungled police investigations into allegations of VIP child-abuse rings had proved how wrong these things could go. An appeals process was required for “basic justice”.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, remarked that many of the risk assessments he had received had been “a bit shoddy” and lacked consistency. Also, every risk assessment concluded that there was a degree of risk, even if low, and even if considering people where there was literally no evidence of any wrongdoing. “We need to look at this further to ensure that justice is done to all parties, including the accused.”

Penelope Allen (Lichfield) said that allowing just 14 days for each stage was not enough time to gather submissions or written evidence if necessary. What would happen if a key person happened to be on holiday or uncontactable for those two weeks, she asked.

Bishop Hancock, responding to the debate, said that members could carry the motion with confidence, as the guidelines had been written, addressed many of the concerns raised, and would be published within a few days.

The regulations were approved: Bishops 25-1, with one recorded abstention; Clergy 93-22 with six recorded abstentions; Laity 103-26, with five recorded abstentions.

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